Long, Long Ago and Essentially True, by Brigid Pasulka
Fact: I love Krakow. I think it is an entirely underrated city. I went there for the first time in the winter of 2008 with my best friend, and to be honest, I’m not sure why I liked it so much. For one thing, it was winter, and Poland is really fucking cold, and also my wallet got stolen on the train ride there. For another, we went to the salt mines on the recommendation of my brother, who perhaps raised my expectations unreasonably high. Let me put this as charitably as I can: the salt mines are maybe not as exciting as my brother said they would be. It is mostly comprised of tiny gnomes made of salt, and one big statue of the pope (also made of salt, for obvious reasons). We also went to Auschwitz, which was…depressing. That’s not to be flippant, but it can’t be denied that proximity to a former concentration camp is not exactly a recommendation of a city.
But I digress – the point is, despite the boring salt mines and the concentration camps, I loved Krakow. It was so fantastically small, and the people so wonderfully solid that I wanted to take every one of them out for dinner and force them to explain their lives in minutest detail. My best friend never fails to tell the story of the cab driver who took us out to the salt mines, and how after she left the car for ten minutes she came back to find us rapidly conversing, despite the fact that I knew only ten words in Polish, all of which I had taught myself on the train twenty-four hours before. This happened not because I am particularly awesome, but because Polish people in general, and this cab driver in particular, are awesome. To give you a better idea of why this is unequivocally true, on our second day there, we ran across a group of four older Polish gentlemen singing a heavily accented version “Let it Be” on the side of the cobblestone street. Awesome.
I loved the food, I loved the beer, I even loved the truly terrible wine. So when I stumbled across this book about Krakow, you can bet I picked it up. The book is comprised of two stories running parallel, both of which center around Krakow to some extent. The first is the story of The Pigeon, a young boy from the village who sets his sights on Anielica (literally, “the Angel”), and builds a house for her family to win her heart. Their love is rudely interrupted by the invasion of Germany, and they are eventually forced to move to Krakow. The second is the story of Anielica and the Pigeon’s (whose real name is Czeslaw) granddaughter, Beata, who has just moved to Krakow from the village to live with her aunt Irena and cousin Magda after the death of her grandmother.
The book is described as a fairy tale for grownups, which I feel bound to tell you is a little misleading. The Polish are by and large a pessimistic people, and so this book is only a fairy tale insofar as fairy tales comprise the rape of Polish women by German soldiers. Which, actually, considering the pretty damn dark origins of fairy tales (they don’t call them the Grimm’s Brothers for nothing), may not be too far off the mark. There are traces of magic throughout the book, but most of them have to do with the beginnings of Czeslaw and Anielica, and they don’t always ring exactly true. Anielica ‘s name seems a bit too literal at first, and she only seems to become a real person about halfway through the book, in a very sad way. The paradox of Czeslaw’s attempts to protect her innocence and happiness, and her own intimate knowledge of despair and the bargains one makes for love and family is one of the saddest aspects of the book. Beata’s life is more subtle in its sadness – she cuts a solitary figure, and as such her gradual bonding with her aunt and cousin are a joy to read. Less joyful are her timid starts and stops in the area of romance, but those seem beside the point. The beating heart of the book is the geography of family, and it is this that makes so affecting, and then disappointing. The end goes off the rails a bit – I believe this is Pasulka’s first book, and she seemed to feel it necessary to fit in as more melancholic tragedy than the book can really hold up. The structure here isn’t quite strong enough to withstand the seemingly arbitrary tragedies Pasulka loads it down with, and so the end, which I believe was supposed to be bittersweet and mildly magical, instead seems a little cheap.
It’s still worth a read, though, if only because it does such a wonderful job describing Krakow and the Polish people in general. Poland has a long memory, and to visit is to be struck by the fact that for some countries and people, recovery is still just a word and not a reality. Hope in the face of history is a pretty goddamn impressive trait, and one which Pasulka seems to grasp this innately. I wish she’d had a slightly better editor that would have gently pointed out to her that the collective memory of tragedy is enough to lend gravity to a story, without feeling the need to create more of your own.