Stone Upon Stone

“STREAM-OF-CONSCIOUSNESS” narration is the oft-used phrase, but it would be more apt to call Stone Upon Stone’s first-person narration “sea-of-consciousness.” Protagonist Szymek Pietruszka’s horizon-wide, memory-laced delivery seems at the mercy of not just one but many currents, complete with austere distances, undertows, and sudden drop-offs. Rendered impeccably from Myśliwski’s Polish by translator Bill Johnston, Szymek’s voice is a plot in itself, reminiscent of such recent late-in-life yarn spinners as John Ames in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead and Donald in Jim Harrison’s Returning to Earth. Myśliwski’s ranging prose hits many registers and powers the story with both discursiveness and striking precision. That Stone Upon Stone reads like the grand novel it is, not a novel in translation, is a testament to Johnston’s work and Myśliwski’s singular vision.

Myśliwski’s is a seamless epic, one that moves with rare speed as it limpidly traces Szymek’s recounting of his youth in pre–World War II Poland, the Nazis’ invasion, the multiple odd jobs he’s held, numerous lovers he’s taken, his farming of his native land, and his endurance of physical and family tragedies — in other words, a brimful life.

Polish poet Czesław Miłosz said somewhere that the poem that praises beauty must swallow all of death, and Stone Upon Stone does just that: illuminating the balance of beauty and brutality that defines our existence. And while this might suggest a melodramatic gravity, Szymek’s philosophical idiom produces instead an effect that is altogether fresh and surprising. Even from the warrens of debt — where Szymek “borrowed from Maciołek and repaid Kubik,” hoping to acquire enough money to build an acceptable family tomb — and even amid the stark stories of German brutality and family heartbreak, Szymek’s affability and irreverence abound.

With an incomparable fluidity, Szymek moves from the humorous to the gut-wrenching to the poetic:

One time the Germans hung someone from the village on a high cross. . . . When you looked up at him from below he seemed to be laughing at it all. But when they took him down and he was lying at our feet you could see his face was twisted and his tongue was poking out. You could imagine he’d choked on some word that had gotten stuck in his throat.

Wartime brutality and pastoral beauty hold hands often in Szymek’s world. Such a combination recalls other contemporary novels (Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient comes to mind), but it is Szymek’s matter-of-fact way of processing the ills that he has experienced that makes this narrator’s outlook wholly original. As a farming son of a farmer, Szymek’s movements are deeply connected with the land’s. At some deep psychological and spiritual level, the earth’s constancy — its ability to regenerate despite all humans do to stifle such growth — works as a kind of balm on Szymek, and serves as an imago mundi, an image of the world as something that endures, despite all. In a language entirely his own, Szymek Pietruszka occasionally philosophizes about this connection: “Sometimes I think to myself, what does the land actually care about me? What does it know about me? Does it even know I exist? . . . On top of that, does it know how much [we’ve] quarreled over it?”

In the same way that the word quixotic is derived from Cervantes’s Quixote, perhaps someday we will say “Pietruszkian,” or something of that ilk, to describe a plain-spoken earthy philosophy of uncommon depth. Poet William Carlos Williams’s frequently quoted “No ideas / but in things” is a maxim to which Szymek adheres, his voice growing out of the details and intense conversation with the physical.

Sometimes, as near the close of his meditation, Szymek’s ideas grow quite large, even transcendent. “Trees talk. . . . Rivers talk, corn.” Stone Upon Stone so immerses us in this world that we can sense, almost hear, the cadences Szymek speaks of. And when he says, “The whole world is one big language,” we believe it. We cup our ears to listen.