When I am confined to bed with a malady that makes my head feel like an overgrown cabbage, why not read the novel about Poland that has been waiting on my TBR list for at least a year? It’s a book that won several minor awards, including the Hemingway Foundation/PEN prize in 2010.
A Long, Long Time Ago & Essentially True exceeded my expectations; I don’t remember what I read on someone’s blog that got me interested, but when the book arrived and I saw the fanciful flowery cover with notes using the words “whimsical” and “romance” on the same page, I’m afraid I unconsciously relegated it to a genre of Light Reading.
But a story of Poland from the 1930’s to about 1990 is painfully full of war, tyrants, secret police, lies and alcoholism. Wives and mothers can’t even mention their men who went missing years ago; their grandchildren grapple with the generational ripples of all the wounds and deaths and separations both social and physical. I had to look up the word whimsical just now to make sure of my understanding, and no, the author Brigid Pasulka never gave the impression that she was trying to be “playful, erratic or fantastical” with her subject.
The opening chapter that tells about an upright young man named Pigeon might make you think it’s all light and charming, and perhaps to some reviewers the idea of such a hero with old-fashioned morals seems like a fairy tale. He is a shining example of the classic Pole who has Golden Hands that can make or fix anything. And he loves Anielica, a sweet girl who will soon suffer much with and for him, including the long postponement of their wedding — but that turns out to be the least of their sorrows.
The novel alternates chapters about teenagers growing up during the war years with those about their granddaughter in the late 20th century. Her life, also, is nearly wrecked by many of the same old misfortunes as well as some newer ones, like drug-dealing boyfriends. Funny moments and comic aspects pepper her story, as they did her grandparents’. Being able to appreciate the comedy is one way to deal with the heartache; that doesn’t make the story a piece of humor.
The book was just serious enough and just long enough to keep me turning the pages and to distract me from my painful head, and I did not predict the ending that lifted me out of the general bleakness that was trying to smother the characters all the way through. The Polish people had several years of trying to survive and even fight against the Nazis, and then could barely catch their breath before the Soviets took over and they had to quickly shift gears and learn how to cope with a slightly different oppression, the effects of which stretched long into the future.
Through it all the protagonists in this story, the grandparents and the parents and grandchildren, fight to stay together and to protect one another. Bribes and lies and dreadful compromises at times appear to be daily necessities, but the characters’ love and perseverance keep them from the despair that lurks around the corners of their houses like a traitorous neighbor. The moral quandaries that they experience are neither explored in depth nor treated flippantly.
The author, I read on the cover, spent a year in Poland learning the language and the culture of her ancestors. She uses often untranslated Polish words lavishly throughout the story, and they aren’t always easily deciphered versions of English words, so I was frequently left wondering what I was missing, not having a Polish dictionary handy. Nor did I want to look up the many references to obscure events in Polish history which the characters mentioned. But those are my only complaints.
In the middle of meditating on the history and people of Poland (and after rising from my sickbed) I read this poem that Maria posted last week, by a Pole who would have grown up during the Soviet era. The images the writer conjures up, of a field mouse, a tree, “A grass blade trampled by a stampede of incomprehensible events,” lined up very well with the impression I got from this debut novel, of a brave people surviving by means of the virtues of their humanity, which is the grace of God.