This charming, nostalgic book is by a very young writer, poet and painter who comes from a fairly typical Polish “upper class” family; its roots are in the landowning aristocracy, and it has many international connections. Part of the family is from the former eastern borderlands of the pre-war Polish Republic, and part from central Poland. From one generation to the next the landowners become the intelligentsia: writers, artists and engineers or senior officials. It happens in dramatic circumstances; in the background we see a revolution, two wars, the rise and fall of the communist regime, and the extinction of the landowner culture. Dehnel tells us the history of his own family and the whole of Polish society, but makes his grandmother the main narrator – a woman with a wonderful, intriguing personality and enormous character. The story she tells has not been reconstructed chronologically in its logical sequence. It consists of numerous short tales and anecdotes that the grandmother has told her grandson, so the task of piecing it all together is left not just to him, as her audience, but also to the reader, who becomes more and more deeply involved in this typically Polish epic. At the same time the grandmother is gradually declining, falling ill and becoming senile, so in the end it is her grandson who tells her stories he has heard from her in the past. This slowly deteriorating narrative finally comes down to a single plane, where the events of several decades are played out simultaneously. This is an unusual historical record, as well as a tribute to Lala – Helena Bieniecka, the main heroine of events, and the person who turns them into a vivid story in the form of a dialogue with her nearest relatives that matures and grows old with her.
- Jerzy Jarzębski
Whereas in the evenings, over buttermilk – beaten to make it lumpy, of course – oh, how I adored those sour chunks of softened porcelain – over baked apples sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon, or a sandwich spread with purple plum jam, Granny used to show me Europe.
“Aaah, at Lisów there were different plums,” Granny’s narrative suddenly cuts in on me imperceptibly, having merely ducked to one side for a moment, “better for jam, bigger and juicier, except they didn’t come away from the stone as easily; in summer there was a field kitchen roaring away in the garden, with a hearth made of bricks where Grandma Wanda, surrounded by the servants, would perform her incredible alchemy, commanding whole regiments of copper cauldrons and frying pans – as you know, it doesn’t stick to copper so badly – and then the latest generation of jams, jellies and preserves would be carried down to the cellar, carefully indexed and labelled like the one hundred and forty four thousand redeemed…”
Europe – so what exactly was Europe? As I saw it in the evenings – drunk on garden air, weary from feeding the ducks and swans in the park, delighted with the damned falling into the fiery abyss in Memling’s altarpiece, bitter towards the whole world because soon I’d have to go to bed, though the world stood wide open before me, laying ream upon ream of sparkling mysteries on the counter?
It was a portmanteau Europe, a jewellery casket Europe made by skilled craftsmen for a capricious child, a Europe inlaid with mahogany and rosewood, a Europe full of complicated machines and automata that I didn’t have to bother with, though it was nice to watch their fancy tricks; a Europe peopled by gentlemen in frock coats and ladies in corsets and dresses with bustles, a Europe of violins and grand pianos, a Europe where every object was decorated, and unnecessary things were not denied the right to exist – so it was revealed to me in its as yet unscathed form, just as it might have been seen by my great-great-grandfather the motorist, who solemnly believed in acid radicals, luminescence and steam power: glazed and gilded, full of crystal and palaces, festively illuminated by gas lamps, rising skywards from raw bricks and steel, which would only be revealed under the layers of stucco putti and gilt roses by both great wars.
Naturally, there was book-keeping too, for how else could an inventory be kept of all the screens and pictures, porcelain and paintings, houses and flats that once existed but no longer do? With people it is so much easier – they died, and went to heaven or hell. Aunties, great-grandmamas, great-great-grandmamas, Mr Korytko and Mrs Korytkowa, all the Jews who were shot and Gołda, on whom a box of eggs once fell. But what about things?
Where have all the black-feather fans that the Lisów children trailed about the fields flown to now? And Misha Sicarda’s Amati violin – can the Amati really have burned up, never to return? Did the apple tree that was split by a Russian shell ever blossom again somewhere else, and did its apples fall into some unknown grass? Surely there must have been a paradise, well, at least a purgatory for objects, where almost all of Lisów ended up, along with all the putti and crystal of my Europe, to wait patiently for a second coming in the near future.
This was not a coherent concept, or one of those brilliant ideas that children think out in detail like a mediaeval compendium – I myself have created whole countries, with their own wide-ranging, sophisticated cartography, kingdoms rules by mythical dynasties, distinct races of dragons and angels – but a sort of subliminal belief that I hid from myself in the recesses of my mind.
I’m sorry, but I can’t remember what caused me to understand the full desperation of transience, and to realise that the Europe I believed in, even if it did once exist, would never come back again. I know it might be nice for the reader to hear how I broke a Venetian vase made of blue glass, and that was the moment when… or I found a dead dove in the park, and I swear, those little feet – what a desperate feeling – and that was the moment when… but no. No.
It was a moment of painful, garish enlightenment – the only way one can really discover important things. Perhaps my brother and I were fighting with maple sticks, perhaps I was drawing the raspberry-and-turquoise wings of a heralding archangel, or perhaps I was investigating the life of a centipede under an overturned stone. It doesn’t matter – the gods simply opened the heavens, sent down a ray of light and showed me – as they do everyone – that things pass. I realised that there is no purgatory for objects, no one waits for lost letters, no one reads burned books, rubble doesn’t turn back into houses, or shards into cups from my great-great-grandmother’s Sunday best tea service. Lost things don’t go on living – they just lie in the ground or fly into the air, with no burial vaults. I didn’t try to parry the blow, the angel set firm on the paper, and the centipedes scattered. And I, as I well remember, walked across the garden, taking long strides and shouting out loud, very loud indeed: “Give me back my Europe!”
Afterwards I had a fever, I went all stiff and clenched my teeth, and a faith healer laid his hands on me and shook me, removing each degree of temperature from me in turn, like small insects from quicksilver.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones