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Stone Upon Stone by Wieslaw Mysliwski

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STONE UPON STONE

By: Wieslaw Mysliwski, translated from Polish by Bill Johnston.

Publisher: Archipelago Books, 534 pages, $20.

Review: This newly translated sprawling Polish novel balances word upon word to tell the story of one man coming to terms with what it means to live.

A reflection of a complete life

  • Article by: MICHELE FILGATE
  • Special to the Star Tribune
  • January 2, 2011 - 6:25 PM

Writers and readers are connected by their appreciation of words. One powerful sentence can alter a person's worldview; it can transform an inner landscape and plow hidden places in the imagination.

Polish novelist Wieslaw Mysliwski is fixated on words in "Stone Upon Stone." The story is told from the point of view of a man named Szymek Pietruszka. In long, streaming paragraphs, Szymek recounts a life that is full of some sorrow and some happiness. He talks about everything a life can contain: lovers, drinking, war, death, accidents, experience. The result at times is a dizzying array of memories and stories that are meant to convey all the prisms of one life lived.

"The whole world is one big language. If you really listened carefully to it, you might even be able to hear what they were saying a century back, maybe even thousands of years ago. Because words don't know death. They're like see-through birds, once they've spoken they circle over us forever, it's just that we don't hear them."

Set during and after World War II, "Stone Upon Stone" is as much about the land as it is about the humans who inhabit it. Szymek lives in a village where many farmers live a modest and hard-earned life.

"A person lives from the earth, and they should give their eternity back to the earth. The earth deserves something from people too."

There's a deep connection between the narrator and where he comes from, and where he will return when he dies. It's fitting, then, that the book opens and closes with Szymek talking about having a tomb built. Mysliwski validates the cycle of life, and how living is just as important as dying.

Szymek is neither a good nor a bad man. He beats his invalid brother during a moment of frustration and anger, hits the woman he most loves when she reveals a secret to him, escapes being executed when captured as a soldier during the Resistance by throwing a fellow soldier on top of him. He's certainly not infallible.

The life he leads is told in a blast of sentences. Sometimes a character's dialogue goes on and on without paragraph breaks for several pages. This abundance of verbal explosion can get tiring at times, but can also be exhilarating.

"When it comes down to it, what are you given other than words? ... And how many of those unsaid words stay in each person and die with him, and not with him, and they aren't any use to him either in his suffering, or in his memory? So why do we make each other be silent, on top of everything else?"

Michele Filgate is a writer and independent bookseller who lives in New Hampshire.

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