In the memory of the forest
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Occasionally one comes across a book by pure serendipity, and this is such a book. My wife picked it up in the library, just to see what it was like, and when she had finished reading it she passed it on to me.
It is set in a village called Jadowia in Poland just after the fall of communism, and in a way is a kind of biography of a village. It is a time of transition, and so people are caught between two worlds, one of their recent history, and a new world that is coming. But the change and lifting of restrictions makes at least some of the people in the village aware of an older history, of things that had been suppressed, and had faded from consciousness — that in the past people had lived there who were no longer there, that the Jews had simply vanished, and were no longer mentioned.
In some ways the story is almost familiar, because though I have never been to Poland, South Africa was going through a similar transition in the same period, between 1990 and 1994. I also visited other countries that were undergoing similar transitions — Russia, Bulgaria and Albania. Part of the attraction of such a story is that it has some familiar echoes.
The story starts off quite slowly, and at first it is not clear where it is going, and it picks up as it goes along when the author gets into his stride. Amd then it gets quite lyrical, with what I thought were inspired descriptions, that captured the atmosphere of of time and place. Here, for example, is a description of two of the main characters, from neighbouring farms, going to the nearest town to try to get a battery for an old lamp. They walk down a street where street vendors are selling an amazing variety of goods
This spray of color, this wonderland of stuff that was almost-but-not-quite trash, things that you didn’t want but might use, things that you might buy and take home and offer as a present, a toy, a novelty, a small bright newness. Powierza stopped, fingered a pile of plastic knit gloves, and chose a pair for his wife, borrowing bills from me to pay for them. He folded them into his pocket and walked on, pausing in front of a store window offering pornographic videotapes from Germany and Holland, along with a display of electric can openers and kitchen mixers. Powierza ducked inside, received a curt response to his inquiry about a battery for the flashlight, then lingered to look at the illustrations on the videocassettes, ripe thighs tantalizingly imprisoned behind locked glass doors.
How very 1990s. How very Eastern Europe.
As I read it I had a vivid image of a lantern my father used to own, which took a battery like the one described in the book, a square cardboard-covered one. It had a big reflector on the side, for throwing a powerful focused beam, and a smaller inspection lamp on top, with a hemispherical glass cover, and a wire grill, to protect it, presumably, from dropped spanners. I haven’t seen it for 60 years, but the book brought back a clear memory of it.
All this made me wonder about the author, Charles T. Powers. How did he know all this stuff? Was he Polish? Had he lived in Poland? Had he written any other books? It turned out that he was an American journalist who had once been stationed in Poland, and that this is his only published novel. So there are no more books like this, no more where this one came from. This book is unique, and so is a uniquely good read.