“There’ll be no plot,” Andrzej Stasiuk writes in Dukla, “with its promise of a beginning and hope of an end. A plot is the remission of sins, the mother of fools, but it melts away in the rising light of day. Darkness or blindness give things meaning, when the mind has to seek out a way in the shadows, providing its own light.”
Dalkey Archive, 2011
Translated by Bill Johnston
“There’ll be no plot,” Andrzej Stasiuk writes in Dukla, “with its promise of a beginning and hope of an end. A plot is the remission of sins, the mother of fools, but it melts away in the rising light of day. Darkness or blindness give things meaning, when the mind has to seek out a way in the shadows, providing its own light.” Rigorous and striving in his efforts to communicate a personal and complex vision, Stasiuk’s doesn’t dither with plots in the traditional sense. Read slowly and taken intimately, however, Dukla teaches one how to see. With delicate and precise prose, Stasiuk’s narrator seeks a “resurrection” of his experiences, experiences that at once seem universal but all take place on a small stage—in a small town, in a creek bed, in a roadside ditch. With a narrator drawn to light and with just about every paragraph brimming with glowing descriptions of things high and low, I often thought of Allen Ginsburg’s “Footnote to Howl” while reading Dukla and wondered if its narrator knew it—“Holy… everything is holy.”
One of Poland most acclaimed writers and winner of the NIKE, Poland’s most prestigious literary prize, Andrzej Stasiuk is best known for his travel essays, but he has also written fiction, literary criticism, and journalism. After Stasiuk was dismissed from secondary school, he got involved with a pacifist movement and then spent time in the Polish military, from which he deserted. For leaving his military post, Stasiuk spent one and a half years in prison, where he wrote his first book The Walls of Hebron (1992), a collection of short stories. Dukla was published in Poland in 1997, and Dalkey Archive Press published Bill Johnson’s translation of it in 2011.
Dukla is broken into three sections. The first is a ten-page, predawn travelogue across central Poland; second is the title novella; and the third is a collection of eighteen sketches related predominately to nature. Because of its genre-defying mixture and lingering, lyrical prose which edges often into poetry, Dukla reminds me of William Vollmann’s The Atlas or Péter Nádas’s Fire & Knowledge. The title novella, Dukla, is one part modern travel piece to Dukla, a small Polish resort town on the Hel Peninsula of the Carpathians, describing its sights and its people. The other parts are cobbled philosophical and metaphysical insights regarding the workings of the mind, time and space; and the narrator’s memoir of childhood experiences in Dukla. The narrator seems particularly driven to revisit his past—as it relates to a first love he had in Dukla—and to visit the tomb of Maria Amalia, an eighteenth-century ruler of Poland, perhaps because it’s Dukla’s centerpiece of culture.
As in the quotation I open with, Dukla’s makes no effort at standard narrative structure. Stasiuk reconfirms multiple times that “there won’t be any plot.” For Stasiuk common plot is for the middle mind, terror given a name, it “offers protection from madness.” His writing seeks perception without artificiality, which in turn creates the delight in reading Dukla. He as thrown off the artifices that protects from madness, and in achingly sincere and hyper-lucid prose Stasiuk’s lays bare his thoughts and perceptions. The guiding structure in Dukla rests with his metaphysical ideas, repeated insights, and a desire to write, notably about light:
I always wanted to write a book about light. I never could find anything else more reminiscent of eternity. I never was able to imagine things that don’t exist. That always seemed a waste of time to me, just like the stubborn search for the Unknown, when only ever ends up looking like an assemblage of old, familiar things in slightly souped-up form. Events and objects either come to an end, or perish, or collapse under their own weight, and if I observe them and describe them it’s only because they refract the brightness, shape it, and give it a form that we’re capable of comprehending.
The narrator never explicitly says that Dukla is the book he “always wanted to write,” but given the attentiveness to light and darkness throughout the book, one can guess that writing about light is what he’s doing.
The tension in Dukla is between the narrator’s imagination and reality. Reality is very messy for the narrator, which leads him to want to write about light, as he says elsewhere in the book:
For a long time now it’s seemed to me that the only thing worth describing is light, its variations and its eternal nature. Actions interest me to a much lesser degree. I don’t remember them very well. They arrange themselves in random sequences that break off without reason and begin without cause, only to snap unexpectedly once again. The mind is skilled at patching up, tacking, putting things in order, but I’m not the smartest guy in the world and I don’t trust the mind, just like a country bumpkin doesn’t trust city folks, because for them everything always arranges itself in neat, deft, illusory series of deductions and proofs. So, light.
He derides the imagination saying that “the imagination is incapable of inventing anything,” it’s “powerless,” and “doesn’t actually exist.” Yet there is an unresolved contradiction in the book. As the narrator lets slip early on: “Light can’t be described, all that can be done is to keep imagining it afresh.” This tension between Stasiuk perceived reality and imagination textures the book, distorting the text into a fata morgana of the narrator’s devotion to the image—that is, of what he actually sees—and the spiritual imagining of what he experiences. An example of this is best captured in the novella’s most memorable scene, a moment when “the imagined mingled with the real.” The narrator remembers when he was a child visiting Dukla in the summertime and falling in love with a very tan girl. At a party he watches her dance and then begins to “feel” himself entering her:
I felt myself entering into her body, not in the banal, sexual sense, but literally slipping into her taut brown skin; my hands filled her arms all the say to the fingertips, which I wiggled as if putting on gloves, and my face moved in the warmth of her smooth insides and became her face, and eventually my tongue became the inside of her tongue, and the same happened with everything else, with the red kingdom of tendons and muscles and white strips of fat, and in the end she was entirely pulled over me, and I was wearing her to the furthest recesses of fingernails and hair.
Another important instant such as this occurs toward the end of the novella, in which the narrator imagines a resurrection of Maria Amalia from her tomb only to have this vision vanish as another woman (a real person, not a phantom) enters the church. These magical, imagined(?) events are then put into juxtaposition with the clear observations of reality, sights which seem remarkable in their fidelity, as in his observation of this family:
In the dark shelter that resembled a ruined arcade there was a family sitting and waiting for their bus. No one was talking. The children copied the stoical gravity of their parents. The only thing moving were the little girl’s legs, which swung rhythmically above the ground in their white stockings and shiny red shoes with golden buckles. In the emptiness of the Sunday afternoon, in the stillness of the bus station, this motion brought to mind the helpless pendulum of a toy clock unable to cope with the burden of time. The girl had slipped her hands under her thighs and was sitting on the. The glistening red weights of her feet were rocking in an absolute vacuum. Nothing was added or taken away by the swinging. It was pure movement in an ideal, purified space. Her mother was staring emptily ahead. A yellow frill bubbled under her dark blue top. The father was leaning forward, his arms resting on his spread knees, and he too was peering into the depths of the day, toward the meeting point of all human gazes that have encountered no resistance on their path. The woman straightened her hands where they lay in her lap and said, “Sit still.” The girl froze immediately. Now all of them were gazing into the navel of the afternoon emptiness, and it was all I could do to tear myself from that motionless slumber.
Dukla’s meditative quality lends itself to quoting large chunks, and I want to share another favorite image from the book. Here the narrator, now a 36-year-old man, has found the shower he watched the tan girl bathe in twenty years before when he was a child:
I went into the last stall and closed the plastic shower curtain behind me. Just like before, the sun was shining through the narrow horizontal window. The cracked tiles gleamed like semitransparent gold. It looked as though something lay behind them, that another world began there. The place smelled of wet wall and of the sadness of somewhere where so many strangers had stood naked….Greasy water had pooled in the drain, with a white flake of soap and a clump of hair.
One of the gifts of Dukla is that it contains multitudes—often times you start to wonder what it is you’re actually reading—and this review could have been easily crafted to highlight its philosophical aspects or its lyricism or the narrator’s obsession with time—“the present is weakest of all, it spoils and disintegrates faster than anything.” But Stasiuk’s precise use of images and sensory details, his eye for “clumps” of hair in the drain, these specific and well-defined observations for the things in the world, and how he makes them glow with their “own light,” is what seems strongest in the collection. Read slowly, his prose gives measured respect to space and genuine witness. He allocates as much attention to the image of the tanned girl—who “among the famer’s daughters [of Dukla] this barefoot vagabond looked like the child of kings”—as to the detritus in the public bathroom—“dust, cobwebs, scraps of newspaper, broken glass, disintegrating red oddments of iron, rubble, and dried shit.” Isn’t what we value almost as interesting as what we throw away? Stasuik thinks so. Holy. Everything is holy.
As with the novella, the eighteen sketches that conclude the book overflow with a preponderance of captivating images. These sketches, however, take a clear-eyed view of nature both its allure and—most often—its moments of cruelty. Stasiuk always makes note of the kind of light and the time of day or year that illuminates these “landscapes [that] breath death.” In the “Rite of Spring,” Stasiuk narrates the epic struggle of spawning frogs—a sign spring has arrived. In “Crayfish,” Stasiuk and his friend save crayfish from a drying creek-bed under a sky that had “burned itself a mirror.” Moving them is in vain because later the second stream eventually dries up, too. And in my favorite of these short pieces, “Green Lacewings,” Stasiuk describes “gold-bugs,” which “in the evening, when we lit candles, these scarcely visible [bugs] would flutter from dark corners, from crevices in the wooden walls, and speed toward the flames, till in a final flare even their outline was lost.” Taken together these short pieces written in radiant prose tally a zero sum, silhouetting the pointlessness to life, that even we (humans) cannot escape nature. A dusky point of view to be sure, but somehow Stasiuk conveys beauty, whether it’s in the pale hue of an upturn frog’s belly—its choked-up guts “unraveling” from its mouth; or the “luciferous shimmer” of frost. (And now I hear Wordsworth’s admonition about “getting and spending.”)
Dukla is a communion. Throughout the book there is a theme of the narrator trying to enter things, or become part of something, whether it’s ingesting sand or entering the flesh of another person or stumbling into an area where wolves killed a doe. Over and over we read that the narrator is trying to reconcile and become one with his world through words. As the narrator says while walking though Dukla, “I decided to describe everything.” The resort town of Dukla and the ditch where the frogs are spawning and the early morning drive through Poland is everything, and “everything suggests that the soul is a fiction of the mind, which is trying to use it to equal the visible world.” The word dukla in Polish means an exploratory mineshaft, and Stasiuk has gone deep into his own thoughts and memories, and tried to communicate what is real in light and dark. It is a wondrous and mysterious vision, and represents one author’s serious effort to enter his world—hallowed, real and imagined.
Jason DeYoung lives in Atlanta, Georgia. His work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Corium, The Los Angles Review, The Fiddleback, and New Orleans Review. His story “The Funeral Bill” will appear in the 2012 edition of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Best American Mystery Stories. He is an assistant fiction editor for upstreet.