Tales of Galicia is set in the south-east corner of Poland a few years after the fall of Communism. A time of upheaval certainly but, as the name of the volume implies, this part of the world is no stranger to social change. A mountainous region, once called Galicia, it rolled down into modern Ukraine before being annexed by the Polish. The image of a ghost territory haunting the contemporary map is an apt illustration of Stasiuk’s exploration of boundaries and demarcation. Around here, cultural identity is a history of flux and capitalism is just the sequel to earlier religions, armies and political ideologies.
The book opens on the very cusp of change, with Józek “driving the last tractor”. Soon there will be “red Zetors: soundproof cabs, built-in radios, twenty-first century” but, for now, the narrator describes a kind of captive present – “motionless time” – which gives no space for imagination or, consequently, the very concept of the future. “People who have been disinherited live in the present. If they possess any kind of past, then it is a memory just as uncertain as the future.” This generation of 40-somethings finds itself, then, in a present which is simultaneously constrictive, apparently eternal yet about to come to an end. Realities overlap or are inherently multiple.
Stasiuk’s metaphysics may be knotty but they are also economical and direct, complex ideas presented in fewer words than it takes to explain them. His poetic density manages to coax these notions from the material conditions in which his characters exist. Tales of Galicia is very much a work of the pub and the soil, and philosophy is a blunt fact of existence rather than something tacked on. These characters have rough hands and tongues loosened by cheap alcohol. Without sentimentality, Stasiuk imbues his drinkers and murderers with inherent dignity and the phlegmatic presence of cattle – unfashionable ideas that crackle to life thanks to his intellect and descriptive rigour. The writing creaks like a leather strap, rises like steam.
Each tale traces the effects of change. New products flow in, ironically from Russia, with a kind of holiness to them. They give shop windows the miraculous shades of stained glass. “Sky-blue – Blue Ocean Deodorant – this is the colour of the mother of God, of the firmament, and like white it represents purity.” Social status is upended as Władek, “on a fairly low rung in the village hierarchy”, becomes an entrepreneur and ends up outdoing religion: “One Mary, one Joseph, one Pope, compared to such quantity, such variety…”.
The stories are threaded by Kościejny, who begins as narrator, dies mid-way through and returns to haunt the latter half of what has now revealed itself as a novel. Kościejny crosses several other thresholds – from observer to subject, stranger to local, outsider to insider. Likewise, the book itself changes constituents as multiple fragments become a single, unified work and genres rub up against one another. We might normally expect this tactic to undermine metaphysics but, as translator Margarita Nafpaktitis notes, this is an attempt to articulate “what Stasiuk calls the ‘fissure in existence,’ where boundaries dissolve between the natural and the supernatural, and where passage can be made from one side to another”. Nafpaktitis’ translation is a work of poetry in itself, her afterword providing the best introduction and review you could want.
Stasiuk crosses and recrosses the line not to find the point where untenable boundaries collapse but to map a liminal space and open up pathways into the spiritual. If this sounds absurd, Stasiuk offers literal examples. In a masterly story/chapter called Place, a church has been dismantled and moved into a museum. What remains is more than a patch of disturbed ground: “places cannot be carried off. A place does not have dimensions. It is both a fixed point and intangible space. That is why I still wasn’t sure if it had really been taken away”. The soul of the building remains, another ghost. The story ends with Kościejny explaining the absent building to a tourist. “You’re standing at the threshold”, he says, indicating the doorway of the church but also the metaphysical point of crossing. What we get is a smudged boundary around people and things. Another word for the thick border between here and there is an aura.
Within this ecotone, everything is liquid – time, place, consciousness. There is even a slipperiness in the use of Polish grammar and verbs which, Nafpaktitis admits, does not survive the jump to English. But Stasiuk’s poetry is pitch perfect and so organic it makes most other novels look melodramatic and artless in comparison. As part of Prague’s excellent Twisted Spoon series, it is also a handsome, tactile publication. It is often said that a book is haunting. Thanks to Stasiuk’s skill, Tales of Galicia has a rare soul that is likely to linger.