BOOK REVIEW: An aging caretaker of a summer resort tells a visiting stranger the story of his life.
Two-time recipient of the prestigious Nike Prize, Poland’s top literary award, Wiesław Mysliwski is slowly and deservedly garnering a wider readership in the Anglophone world. “Stone Upon Stone,” published in English in 2010 by Archipelago and seamlessly translated by Bill Johnston, won Mysliwski plaudits on both sides of the Atlantic. Capitalizing on that success, the same publisher and translator have brought us a second Mysliwski novel. Those charmed by the first have cause to rejoice. Newcomers to Mysliwski should prepare themselves for a unique voice, intriguing characters and page after page of wily but thoughtful prose.
As with “Stone Upon Stone,” “A Treatise on Shelling Beans” (Archipelago Books, 450 pages, $22) is a first-person account of a colorful life, its brighter hues blending with more somber shades. The narrator is a caretaker of cabins at a summer resort, a man who has seen and survived war and is happy to reflect on his experiences. A mysterious visitor arrives and our narrator immediately opens up, holding forth on the quirks and rum doings of the vacationers before moving on to the key figures and dramas of his own past. As he talks, he shells beans, the activity fueling him, minting recollections, having the power to “open any memory right to the bottom.”
Such a bizarre premise complements the novel’s kooky title, but it works wonderfully, chiefly because our loquacious host is both riveting and endearing company. We hear of a sunlit rural childhood — his apprenticeship as an electrician, his attempts to master the saxophone, his riotous stories concerning a musical uncle and soldier grandfather — which was eventually overcast with the advent of war. Amusing anecdotes are tempered with tragicomic interludes (hiding from the Nazis under a pile of potatoes); bittersweet sentiments (“True love is a wound”) are offset by absurd dreams. The motley cast includes men who beat their wives and drown their dogs but also vodka-marinated policemen and teachers, a welder called The Priest, an enigma called Mr. Robert, two brothers who fight on opposite sides in a civil war, and broken, battle-scarred souls who have lost their faith in God, philosophy and love.
Mysliwski’s novel is thus a patchwork of tales and a hodgepodge of characters. His narrator plies us with meandering yarns full of chance encounters and veers from one tangent to the next. Much is unearthed and divulged: Not only is he shelling beans, he is spilling them. Every chapter is packed with incident and so brims with life. But Mysliwski is also capable of great subtlety. Every now and then, this rambling and abundant “treatise” is studded not with brazen facts, but with half-explained truths, prompting us to extrapolate what may have happened. During the war, the resort used to be a village; near to the resort are woods full of graves.
At one point the narrator explains that being caretaker means being privy to the overspill of vacationers’ messy lives. “You can’t get away from hearing things. You can’t get away from seeing things. However much you want to. It goes into your ears and your eyes of its own volition.” Our garrulous narrator with his messy life is equally hard to resist. The best approach is simply to succumb to his extraordinary storytelling.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. Born in Edinburgh, he lives in Berlin.