Following on from The Foundation Pit, here's a tale about the end of Soviet collectivisation: Polish writer Andrzej Stasiuk's Tales of Galicia (1995; English translation 2003), a nicely put-together little volume from Prague-based Twisted Spoon Press. (Twisted Spoon is a nifty small press specialising in translations, particularly from Eastern European languages, and I picked up the book in a Prague bookshop, while visiting my fellow Alexandrian Jo there some years ago.)
Tales of Galicia is a collection of short stories, all set in and around the same fictional village, in the same period (1989). Each tale is recounted by the same anonymous, first-person narrator, who assumes the detached tone and method of an ethnographer, but who cannot quite resist a certain emotional involvement in the exchanges he recounts. (Or a certain wordiness - for the most part the prose is fine, but several descriptive and analytical passages go on a few sentences too long.)
There are a number of shared themes: social fragmentation, looming change, boundaries and their transgression. But as you make your way through the stories, connections begin to emerge. This is slow at first - a glance of a character met in a previous tale, return visits to the village pub - and then more obvious - family members are met, personal histories are explored from other angles - and gradually pieces of a larger story can be seen.
It's never all tied together (and is all the better for it), and this larger story certainly never resolves into a linear plot; but it makes for a neat and reasonably effective sort of meta demonstration of how people's lives, even the lives of those who barely know each other, are entwined within the broader current of life in the village. This blurring of the lines between short form and novel is matched by a breaking down of the boundaries between observer-narrator and subjects: he goes from being the unobtrusive, unseen interlocutor listening to an old man recount how the area has changed over the generations (in 'Blacksmith Kruk'), to getting drunk with one of the villagers ('Lewandowski'), and ultimately in the final story to sharing a character's reflections as she lies alone on her death bed ('The End').
That said, the narrator undoubtedly begins with an agenda, or at least with an expectation about what he will find in a village emerging from collectivisation: people stripped of their identity and community by would-be altruistic values ("to each according to their needs" etc.), values that collapse when exposed to the real world. It is a reading of the situation that he pushes early on:
Certainly, those values are beautiful, but too abstract and inadequate to withstand the actual conditions of life. The system's logical and mechanical, as well as abstract, structure shattered to pieces because Jozek and his brothers and sisters lived in it - a legion of all those who had been disinherited and liberated from the harsh dictates of morality, religion and memory. Surrendering themselves to instinct, listening intently to nature's murmured temptations, they became a mass that the most ingenious structure could not contain. (--'Jozek')
But over the course of the book we, and the narrator, are presented with a number of challenges - if never a complete refutation - to the notion that the villagers are "a mass", without "morality, religion or memory". It could hardly be described as wildly optimistic, but nonetheless there are signs of hope, signs that humanity has not been wholly obliterated by the horrors of collectivisation.
Certainly, people's lives are grim (although not noticeably grimmer, I have to say, than the accounts of Russian peasant life in some of Anton Chekhov's stories, like 'Peasants' (1897) and 'In the Ravine' (1900), which at times reach wrist-slitting levels of despair'; but then, Chekhov was a much more powerful writer). Still, Stasiuk's descriptions repeatedly emphasise the monotonous, cold decay of the village and its surrounding landscape, in a way that melds pathetic fallacy with an explanation of the way of life that has developed there:
A few buildings like heavy barges, lichen-covered and dilapidated, taken on a journey to nowhere, motionless on a giant white wave. Sheds for wood, shelters for hay. Clothes on lines buffeting against each other, smacking like pieces of frozen meat. The wind from over the mountain pass laden with clouds of snow. That is how Jozek's world looked. (--'Jozek')
Even where the events of the stories are not explicitly linked, life on this iron-hard, unforgiving land entails many a shared - indeed, in some senses collective - experience for its inhabitants, and for the most part these experiences are difficult and draining. In places, reading about the experiences induces a similar feeling in the reader; much like the narrator, it was not until the final few stories (in particular those centring on 'Grandma' and her family) that I found myself really engaging with the characters.
Everything revolves around hard physical labour (predominantly agriculture and mining), unremitting cold, drink, and the ending of things. Alcohol is an escape primarily for the village's men, a framework to their lives as fundamental as the church ("It was a safe and familiar legacy, the limit of their patrimony, their christening, their Sunday mass and their graveyard", is how it is described in 'Janek'). Women who drink are questionable, difficult, and ultimately pitiable figures ("She started to hang around the pub even though, you know, around here that's not a place where women just stop by", we're told of the title character in 'Maryska'). The pub is a space for men, although women "sometimes showed up on payday to get their hands on the earnings" ('Janek'), because of course women are killjoys who have the strange idea that families can't be fed on their patriarch's vodka fumes alone.
Initially, at least, this is not a world that has much space at all for women's experiences. But around halfway through the book, female characters begin to appear, and even to speak. We begin to see that men and women share the hardships of labour and borderline survival, if not the vodka:
But raising grain was by this time art for art's sake, and probably just force of habit, since he had to do something else besides haymaking and potato farming. And thus, abundance will always assume the shape of lesser or greater poverty. (--'Wlodek')
Afterwards, Grandma wrapped herself up in an old quilt, huddled in a corner of the wooden shed, and fell into a shallow doze. The night's luminosity was airy - nothing like the day's massive brightness that her body had to make an effort to get through, bent over, creaking and animated only by the hope of eternal rest in darkness. If it was September, hoarfrost would cover the ground before dawn. (--'Maryska')
There is little comfort here. Death, too, haunts everyone. Literally, in fact, for while we see a number of characters die (including Jozek, in the very first story, and Grandma at the end), some of them return later in the book to interact with the living. Another boundary transgressed. (The village, I should note, is itself located on a borderland.)
I can't help but wonder, indeed, whether part of the fear of death doesn't stem from a fear that it won't be the end - that dying will be no escape:
The men would wake up and sober up in the same place, the place where they would resume their labours. Because life was round, it moved in a circle, and if someone did manage to tear himself away from it, then someone else would immediately appear to take his place. (--'Janek')
Is this a place, then, lost to morality, religion, and memory? One story ('Place'), discusses the removal, by anonymous external forces, of a local church (it is apparently taken brick by brick to a museum); hard to deny the symbolism of that, although the narration of its loss is intercut with an account of its founding and memories of its role in the community. Several characters are indeed morally repulsive, Grandma's abusive son-in-law, for example ("he worked, he drank, he fought, he slept", he locked his mother-in-law in the attic while she lay dying... the final story really does pack an emotional punch). Yet towards the book's end we meet a man who comes back from the dead, no less, to report the truth of a crime he witnessed and thus free an innocent man, which seems above and beyond the call of neighbourly duty ('Confession').
In terms of memory, the monotony of daily life clearly takes its toll:
Then there came a morning, maybe Monday, maybe Thursday. It was hard to tell, because as usual, yesterday's day had fled from memory, and today's trembling hands weren't any different than they had been the week before. (--'Janek')
But the narrator finds no shortage of people to tell him what life used to be like in the village, even if largely so they can contrast it with the uncertain present ("everything is changing so much now you wouldn't recognise it a week later", 'Blacksmith Kruk' notes). Indeed, the further into the stories we go, the more we encounter not "a mass" but a host of distinct individuals, from the violent Kosciejny (described in a fantastic thumbnail sketch: "The two fiery substances in his body - blood and alcohol - made him resistant to seasons and to weather") to the irrepressible Lewandowski, who meets a woman "who was as essential and accidental as he was, and he married her and started to build a house". Each is shaped by his or her own, various memories; Grandma, in the final story, provides the most vibrant, vivid imagery in the book as she sees and remembers the village in a light new to us:
The Soviet era has left deep scars on the village, and the changes it is undergoing look set to leave more; Stasiuk is clear-eyed on this, without belabouring the point. But some changes, at least, have produced outcomes both rich and strange, as in the transformation of a "penitentiary fiefdom" (former prison camp):
Grandma was lying on her back on the white, bony bed, which had likely wandered its way there from some hospital. Through her half-open lips she breathed in the past, which blossomed out in her head like tissue-paper flowers in a magician's hand, exploded like fireworks at a village fair and lasted for just as short a time. She saw the sky, tinted deep blue with the sweltering heat and the reddened crest of the grassy hill. (--'The End')
That time was long gone. The prisoners married the jailers' daughters, and even though barbed wire was still hanging here and there, the windows didn't have bars on them any more. The doors were knocked out between the cells, and a mixed breed of the guarders and the guarded was maturing in the two-room apartments. (--'The Pub')