Author: AndrzejStasiuk
Publisher: Dalkey Archive
ISBN: 978-1-56478-687-6

Dukla is a small town in southeastern Poland on the Jasiolka river at the foot of Cergowa mountain. It has a population of about 2,200 people, a 17th century town hall, the ruins of a 1758 synagogue, the ruins of a 16th century border tax office, the ruins of a brewery. In 1944, the Battle of the Dukla Pass left 90 percent of the town in ruins. In 1997, Pope John Paul II visited and in his sermon mentioned John of Dukla, one of the patron saints of Poland and Lithuania.

Dukla by Andrzej Stasuik is a remarkable work of literature. It is memoir, travelogue, nature writing, reportage and ethnography. It contains a short essay, a novella, and a series of brief portraits of local people or events. It was translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston, my workshop leader in a translation conference, and that connection led me to it. Stasiuk is well-known in Poland and has won the NIKE, the country's most prestigious literary prize for his collection of essays On the Road to Babadag. That book and four others of Stasuik are also available in English.

In Dikla, Stasuik says, "I always wanted to write a book about light. I never could find anything else more reminiscent of eternity. I never was able to imagine things that don't exist. That always seemed a waste of time to me, just like the stubborn search for the Unknown, which only ever ends up looking like an assemblage of old, familiar things in slightly souped-up form. Events and objects either come to an end, or perish, or collapse under their own weight, and if I observe them and describe them it's only because they refract the brightness, shape it, and give it a form that we're capable of comprehending."

As a writer, I've felt sometimes my weakness—inability perhaps—in describing the physical world. It is easy (relatively) to write dialogue, to explicate ideas, to write useful abstractions. It's not so easy to find the words that convey a vivid sense of place. Stasuik (and Johnston) seem to do it with ease: 

"The shadows of early morning lie upon the earth as if the wind were blurring them. They're black yet hazy, because the dew atomizes the light and refracts it back at the edges. Even in the middle, the black is far from distinct—it rather resembles a reflection. Beyond Dynów the San touches up against the road with its crooked elbow. We have to flip down the visor, because the sun is shining directly in our eyes. It hangs there just above the road. The blacktop is peeling like old gilding. The river down below has the color of a mirror in an unlit room . . ."

In his Introduction, Johnston suggests that Dukla is "a languid prose poem." Perhaps. But few of the prose poems I've read are as engaging. Stasuik is not playing with language for the sake of language. He's not trying to create a beautiful, if impractical, object like a Christmas ornament. He's trying, I believe, to do what he says, to write about light, but also tom write about "things and places no one else thinks worthy of writing about," says Johnston. "Polish literature has preponderantly been urban in character; writing set in the countryside has traditionally involved country estates, and has concerned above all the life of the gentry. What goes on in the small towns and villages has . . . been overlooked." 

The book includes a section describing the Pope's visit to town, but Stasuik says almost nothing about the Pope or the pomp. Rather, "I walk about and watch people. They all look like my grandfather, my grandmother, my mother my father, like all the people I've known and seen in my life. Their shoes pinch, they limp, they sweat in their wrinkle-proof outfits, and examine the goods for sale at the stalls, medallions, white busts, color prints, canvas beach chairs for four fifty; they sniff at the food on the grills, chicken breasts, sausage, bacon, dark glistening blood pudding. From time to time the sun comes out and captures their silhouettes in misty aureoles. Busy with their ice creams, Pepsis, mineral water, and children, they fail to notice this indifferent caress. . . " 

I'm afraid that the bulk of this review is quotation from Stasuik and Johnston. I had to restrain myself or there would have been more. How else to convey the book's flavor? I can say it's a remarkable work of literature (and I did), I can urge you to find it and read it (and I do), but without the extended quotations I don't know how to let you know about it. I feel fortunate that circumstances conspired to lead me to it. It enriched my life.