By Gwendolyn Dawson
Stone Upon Stone is the first-person narration of the fictional life of Szymek Pietruszka, a Polish farmer living during and after World War II. At various points in Szymek’s life, this proud bachelor worked as a barber, a fighter in the resistance against the German occupation of Poland, and a government administrator. With charming honesty and rambunctious humor, Szymek covers all the details of his life from the banal (the proper technique for mowing a field), to the lurid (his womanizing and knife-fighting) and the universal (his deep love of family and the land).
As Poland rushes towards modernization, Szymek attempts to establish a sense of purpose and stability in his life. In particular, he seeks permanence in the form of an elaborate family tomb, despite the fact that nobody else in his family seems interested in the project. The building of the tomb provides an overall framework for Szymek’s story; it is the physical embodiment of his metaphysical struggles. Although Szymek’s lengthy monologues are occasionally tedious, his (often unintentional) humor keeps the story lively and entertaining. Only Szymek, for example, could turn dangerous food shortages into something funny:
No one bothered setting snares anymore, there was no point when they had rifles, handguns, automatic pistols. And how many hares could there be left after that long of a war? When you saw one hopping by somewhere it was like seeing a miracle. Look, a hare, a hare! And it didn’t even look much like a hare, it’d have its ears shot away or a missing leg and it’d be peg-legging it along more like an old man than a hare.
Szymek’s no-nonsense attitude often leads to distasteful actions (like the time he sold his dog to a dogcatcher to get money to go to a dance) but also provides a hopeful contrast to the often bleak postwar conditions:
I was always more interested in living than in dying. Living and living, as long as I could, as much as I could. Even if there was no reason to. Though does it matter all that much whether there’s a reason or no? Maybe it actually makes no difference, and we’re just wasting our time worrying about it…People don’t need to know everything. Horses don’t know things and they go on living. And bees, for instance, if they knew it was humans they were collecting honey for, they wouldn’t do it. How are people any better than horses or bees?
This 500+ page novel will reward the patient reader with a remarkably detailed understanding of postwar life in rural Poland and, by extension, the human condition in general.
Stone Upon Stone is published in the United States by Archipelago Books in a translation by Bill Johnston.
Gwendolyn Dawson is the founder of Literary License.