While I slowly plod through Far From The Madding Crowd, I thought I’d write up some of my notes on other books I’ve read this year; partly so there’s not too much radio silence on the blog and also to prove that I do read books that are less than a hundred years old. Sometimes I read books that are fairly new. Sometimes I like them.
“Golden hands. It is said that all Poles have them and that this is how you know your place in life, by the ease of your hands, that whether you were born to make cakes or butcher animals, cuddle children or paint pictures, drive nails or play jazz, your hands know it before you do. Long before birth the movements are choreographed into the tendons as they’re formed.”
I read A Long, Long Time Ago And Essentially True back in February, just after we’d booked our trip to Krakow. I’ve been to Krakow a couple of times – it’s lovely – and I like to be relatively informed about the places I visit so it seemed like a nice idea this time to track down some fiction set in the city. I thought it would make a change from all the guidebooks we’d been scouring over. I checked Trip Fiction and a couple of other places but didn’t really find much I fancied or that was readily available in English. Krakow is a UNESCO City Of Literature so my failure to find anything by an actual Krakovian author to read before we went is pretty shameful. In the end I got a copy of ALLTAAET very cheaply on Amazon. I’m a sucker for whimsical cover designs.
ALLTAAET switches between two connected stories. The first begins with a young shepherd, known locally as the Pigeon, who glimpses Anielica, the most beautiful girl in Half Village, and is instantly smitten:
“And since courting a beautiful girl by using a full range of body parts has only recently become acceptable, in the Spring of 1939 the Pigeon made the solemn decision to court Anielica through his hands. Specifically, he vowed to turn her parents’ modest hut into the envy of the twenty seven other inhabitants of Half Village, into a dwelling that would elicit hosannas-in-the-highest every time they passed.”
His devotion and hard work win her over but their lives are quickly thrown into turmoil by the Nazi invasion, the war and then by the communist takeover. They spend a brief period of time in Krakow, looking for work, but Anielica eventually returns to Half Village alone. The second story is set 50 years later, shortly after the collapse of communism. Their granddaughter Beata has left Half Village (where her grandparents’ romance is legendary) and arrived in Krakow hoping to find a better life for herself. Instead she (like Krakow itself) is caught between old and new, overwhelmed by too much choice and grappling to find her place in the world.
It was a quick, light read, which is sometimes just what you want. And really I can’t think of anything much that I disliked about it. It might have been nice to know a little bit about the generation in between Anielica and her granddaughter, maybe. I also wondered whether some of the more distressing aspects of the war were glossed over very quickly. But these are both quite small quibbles.
In comparison there were many more things that I liked: Pigeon, the fairy-tale style romance, the jokey asides and the Polish fatalism… The alternating storylines could have been distracting in the wrong hands but I didn’t find them particularly jarring so they were obviously skilfully handled. It helped that Beata was very likeable and I looked forward to reading her chapters particularly. She spends much of the novel flailing about trying to work out what to do with herself and it could have been irritating after a while. But really I found her quite relatable.
As a book specifically about Krakow it was really useful. Pasulka obviously knows the city really well and her love for it shines through. It was quite a nice way to recall the atmosphere of the place, something you can’t really glean from guidebooks and Trip Advisor reviews. I came away with lots of ideas for bars, cafes and tourist spots to visit, so many I started to plot them on our map. We never made it to half of them but at least we have lots of ideas if we go again.