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from the November 2007 issue

Andrzej Stasiuk’s “Nine”

Reviewed by Robert Buckeye


It is the blasted landscape the films of Bela Tarr, Fred Kelemen and Ilya Khrzhanovsky conditioned us to see. A vista the surrealist landscapes of Jan Saudek opened up. The grim, abandoned backwater of an Eastern Europe writhing under runaway capitalism. We have entered Tarkovsky's Zone. Raskolnikov stalks the streets of St. Petersburg. The bicycle chain swings in the street. An eye is gouged out.

It is a world the ex-pat American novelists who came in the Nineties to colonize the post-Communist new found land did not see.

It is the world Solidarity gave Poland. At the time of the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, Poland's poor were 15% of the population. After Solidarity's application of the Chicago School's unfettered capitalism, Poland's poor had risen to 59% by 2003. Its 20% unemployment is highest in the EU. (In 2000, Solidarity received less than 1% of the vote in elections.)

It is the world of Nine (published in 1999), not only a world Andrzej Stasiuk knows but also one where he stays. He was expelled from high school, escaped from the army and did time in a Communist-era prison, even if these details do not necessarily explain why he writes as he does. At the same time, we cannot discount them.

Pawel wakes in his Warsaw apartment to discover it has been trashed by loan sharks to whom he owes money and whose message, he knows, includes an unspoken final notice if he does not pay up. He must leave his apartment not only to escape them but also to raise money, somehow, although he has no idea how he might. Thus begins his odyssey through the streets of Warsaw, which includes the odysseys of eight others who make up the title of the novel.

Stasiuk names a devastated Warsaw street by street as if he does not want to write about life in Warsaw as much as he wants to, actually, write Warsaw. "The brickwork [on buildings] had the color of congealed blood. Like a wound seeping through a bandage." Market values have destroyed neighborhoods. "Now a row of billboards separated the road from the boundless gray grass that had taken over the vegetable gardens." In this world, there is nothing to guide one, since "the time when sons repeated the gestures of their fathers was gone."

Somehow one, nevertheless, has to live. "You can't take five thousand mornings," Pawel thinks. "There has to be a way out, some poison, something." Bolek has become a drug dealer, part of the market economy. The Iron Man, his boyhood neighborhood friend now his gofer who understands that to survive one must do what one can. ("Beirut, Bolek," he says, "this place is Beirut.") Syl, Bolek's kept teenage mistress. The blond man in a purple track suit, his enforcer ("He knew what he wanted and wasn't afraid to take it"). Luska, their snitch and sometime prostitute. Jacek, a drug addict. Beata, his girlfriend, a vegetarian. Zosia, who works for Pawel and loves him.

Syl feels that a new pair of boots will change her life or at least make it possible for her to get through days, "in those thousand mysteries of style that could change your life, let you be born over and over again after the tedium of early morning, the sorrow of midday, the hopelessness of night." Bolek believes sex with his Russian mistress, Irina, will blot out his days. Pawel falls back on memory, "to escape the present, to catch his breath and stay in the past, where there is never danger." (There is, however, no nostalgia for the past or for Communism whose promise was not realized.)

"Life took whatever shape it wanted," the blond man thinks, "and there was no point in thinking about that. People did one thing or another for different reasons. Dreams were dreams, and you couldn't back out of one." Over the space of several days, the Nine follow dreams or let them go, survive as they can in a world where they can see no survival. Bolek ends his relationship with Syl so that he might seek one with his Russian mistress, Irina. As a parting gift, he gives Iron Man money to buy her a pair of boots. Beata has been beaten by the blond man to tell him where Jacek is. Luska tells her, "He'd have done the same to me," if she did not co-operate. Pawel and Jacek cling to a roof during a torrential downpour having momentarily escaped the blond man, who is looking for both of them. The blond man does what the blond man does.

And Zosia?

The blond man had come to Pawel's shop to ask where he was and raped Zosia before he left. ("In his free hand was a billy club. She felt it on her cheek, a delicate touch, like a caress almost.") Afterwards she can't sleep and must leave lights on -- "Things are too clear in the dark." Finally she leaves her apartment, perhaps in search of Pawel, perhaps not, wearing white, which she explains to her cat, Pankrasy*, "so no one would the day white is invisible." Bolek who is rushing to see Irina does not see her in time and hits her with his car, killing her, throwing the basket in which Zosia had put her cat free. Later, a priest sees her cat, which cannot move its hind legs but nevertheless tries to crawl, and picks it up gingerly to take it with him into church.

Stasiuk tells the story the only way it can be told. His bedrock flat prose says all that needs to be said. To elaborate on it, give it finish, make it literature, if you will, is to falsify it. Its flat unfinishedness is its definitiveness. "There are often narratives," Marguerite Duras reminds us, "but very seldom writing."

*Pankrasy is taken from the name of the revolutionary leader in Zygmunt Krasinski's nineteenth century play, The Un-Divine Comedy, who believes that paradise can be built on the ruins of a destroyed world, but in the end becomes paralyzed.

Robert Buckeye has had two works of fiction published, Pressure Drop and The Munch Case and has written on film and art as well as literature.

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