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Dukla by Andrzej Stasiuk

Dukla (1997)

by Andrzej Stasiuk

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Couldn't finish this, despite several weeks of intermittent efforts. The author, Andrzej Stasiuk, is attempting to write photographic images of the town Dukla as the narrator experiences and remembers it in 1996. The book, its narrator says, is about light and time. It isn't driven by plot, and the episodes don't accumulate into a coherent memory of the past.

Fair enough, and exactly on some of my own interests. The problem is that, in this translation at least, Stasiuk isn't a good writer. The problems begin immediately. The book opens with this line:

"At four in the morning the night slowly raises its dark backside as if it were getting up from a heavy dinner and going to bed."

Is "backside" "back," in North American usage, or is it "bum," in UK usage? Either way, it's an odd word and an indigestible image. It's faintly Rabelaisian, slightly awkward, a bit absurd, somewhat comic, and somewhat rude. As a reader I don't mind being challenged in this way, provided the author intends me to be thrown off by such an odd opening image. The proof that it's intentional should come in the next few pages, where I'd expect echoes of the humor, the Rabelaisian body imagery, or some such ironic misuse of the sublime.

But the very next line belongs to en entirely different mode, a kind of photographic lyric:

"The air's like cold ink, it flows along the road surfaces, spills to each side and congeals into black lakes."

This is lyric realism, worlds away from "backsides," but we're not given a way to understand the bridge between the two. The opening pages and chapters repeat this sort of problem. On p. 6 there's this mixed image:

"The sky is bursting with the glow, but it remains trapped inside itself like air in a child's balloon."

That's not something I can visualize: it punctures the serious sublime with a playful metaphor: and yet the context isn't playful, it's plangent and lyrical. One more example, among hundreds:

"The hills, houses, water, clouds all had the distinctness of a supernatural photograph." (p. 9)

This is again photograph imagery, and it's easy to imagine. But then the next sentence is:

"In a landscape like that, thoughts sound like mechanical music."

That doesn't fit with the sentence before, but it also doesn't make a comprehensible contrast. And it isn't a metaphor I can understand. Then the next sentence:

"You can watch them, listen to them, but their meaning is always ominous, like echoes in a well."

Is mechanical music like echoes in a well? Are thoughts in "supernatural" landscapes like either?

I won't go on, even though my copy is marked up until p. 105, when I gave up. I can understand Stasiuk's intentions, and the affect of memory is sometimes very strong. He wants to recapture some intense feelings he's had looking at deserted landscapes and thinking of his childhood. Mainly he is preoccupied with capturing some intense visual memories of a kind of oppressive absence which is nevertheless a plenary presence. I understand that, and I can feel its effect on his images: it presses his metaphors into some very strange shapes. Sometimes he tries hard, repeatedly, to capture that mood, and the result, as Damian Kelleher writes, can be "tiresome." (reviews.media-culture.org.au/) But it's a boredom I would be happy to accommodate if I thought that Stasiuk was aware of the effects of his attempts as writing.

The problem is that he is content to leave each trope as he finds it. Writing has to be more than that: the strangeness of an impression does not always find its way into an equal strangeness of writing. Images like these need to be written down, but then they need to be remade as writing. ( )
  JimElkins | Mar 23, 2012 |
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"At several points in the haunting Dukla, Andrzej Stasiuk claims that what he is trying to do is "write a book about light." The result is a beautiful, lyrical series of evocations of a very specific locale at different times of the year, in different kinds of weather, and with different human landscapes. Dukla, in fact, is a real place: a small resort town not far from where Stasiuk now lives. Taking an usual forma short essay, a novella, and then a series of brief portraits of local people or eventsthis book, though bordering on the metaphysical, the mystical, even the supernatural, never loses sight of the particular time, and above all place, in which it is rooted. Andrzej Stasiuk is one of the leading writers of Polands younger generation, and is currently one of the most popular Polish novelists in English translation."--Amazon.com… (more)

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