08 April 2010

A Long, Long Time Ago & Essentially True (Brigid Pasulka)

I've never had a burning desire to go to Poland. The only person I can remember talking about Poland during my childhood is Basil Fawlty. We might have skated over it briefly during history classes but due to the soporific powers of my teachers I really have no idea what was going on during those times. Cue Alan Bennett and his play The History Boys, where one of the teachers talks to the boys about Auschwitz and how bizarre it is that it is now a tourist destination.
"What has always concerned me is where do they eat their sandwiches? Drink their coke? Do they take pictures of each other there? Are they smiling? Do they hold hands? Nothing is appropriate."
Thus, shrouded in swathes of depressing history and with Bennett's stamp of disapproval, Poland has not been high on my To-See list. After reading this book, it may not have creeped much higher up that list, but my entire perspective on the country has changed.

Pasulka's novel is divided into two time frames- the first is a small village in Poland during the German invasion of WW2. The second is set two generations later in Krakow. Before I delve further into the story I'd like to take umbrage with the Guardian's review. The 'miraculous links' which Catherine Taylor describes as the ties between the first period and the second are that it is the same family, two generations on. ASTOUNDING. I was positively BOWLED OVER by the literary capoeira Pasulka had to perform to provide us with such a plausible connection.

Tsk. Rusbridger- hire me. I will read the books.

We are first introduced to Half-Village, which is the scene for the extremely slow-burning love affair between the local beauty Anielica and a young man named The Pigeon. Their love is interrupted by a series of increasingly dire obstacles as Germany invades Poland and then Poland is forced to become part of the Eastern Bloc under the Soviet Union. The horror and gargantuan size of these events is offset by Pasulka's characters, who maintain their idiosyncrasies along with their strength throughout.

Fifty years on, their granddaughter Baba Yaga is living in Krakow with her cousins. This is the part of the story where stirrings of recognition began to occur in my brain. What made me feel twisted and guilty inside was that they were all insults and bigoted generalisations that I have heard made about the Polish since I moved to England. (We don't talk about the Poles much in Australia.) Issues with prostitution, drinking and drugs, roped together with a die-hard pessimism are all touched upon. Baba Yaga, as a relatively low-key character, acts mostly as an observer rather than an instigator. Yet her situation is no better than most and you would think that she would be dying to escape the country. Yet she has a moment of triumph towards the end of the book that perfectly summed up for me the steely strength the spirit of this novel is built upon.
"You think you can have any Polish girl you want? You think you can take advantage of us because you have pounds and we have zlote? Learn history. We Poles have fought against the oppressor again and again. For centuries. And now that we have our freedom, we are not going to be turned into prostitutes by a bunch of pickle-faced skurwysyns..."
The book is fanciful but ultimately overly depressing. I still don't want to go to Krakow or visit Auschwitz or go to a small Polish village where they may ask me to slaughter a pig. But A Long, Long Time Ago & Essentially True has made me think of Poland as a country of strength and passion, rather than a 'broken' country as we would call it in England. A country where people stay because it is their home and they cannot imagine living anywhere else. A country that may not have always been loyal to itself at the highest levels but has had persistent and enduring patriots propping it up from the bottom for centuries.

As a people they share a camaraderie that automatically excludes those who do not have the residue of hundreds of years of Polish history running through their veins. Ultimately, it is not the story which makes this book so remarkable, nor the characters. It is that I felt I was holding something that was actually a bit of Poland in my hands. Reading this novel, I was being allowed a glimpse into a country that I can never fully understand.

And BONUS- I now have a new curse- 'Cholera'. It is perfect for everything. I have already used it three times today.

Rating: 8/10.
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