“Your sick,” he said, quietly. “You see everything in unnatural proportions and in weird associations. You suspect people of having complexes they don’t have. Please look at them, living their own lives, now better, now worse, they love or dislike one another, they work or idle, are sad and cheerful. But they’re normal. They’re healthy. It’s you who is sick.”
One of the most basic things you look for as a reader embarking on the journey of a fresh book is for the signposts that the author has decided to use to help you on the journey.
Is the book split into parts, long or short chapters or in this case none at all has a bearing on the experience. Clearly here the effect that was being aimed at was a stream of consciousness. As the main character Mr Paul drifts in between dreams, memories and the present the fact there are no breaks in the narrative is meant to make that effect feel more powerful.
Sadly for me it just didn’t work and it would be difficult to see it having the desired impact unless read at one sitting. But aside from the style the story itself is a tale of loss and that does get through and sticks with you.
Before concentrating on the main character look at the situation he is living in and the people around him all are scarred by the past in a small polish village. He is in a valley dominated by a forest and river where a partisan leader is reputed to live even though the war ended many years before. The woods are full of ghosts anyway with an abandoned German bunker that was being built by Hitler, graves of those killed by the Red Army and the memories of the villagers who sought shelter there in times of occupation.
But the forest is now turning against the valley with engineers and machinery turning up with plans to dam the river and flood the valley. The past will be sealed under water and the shadow of that forthcoming flooding hangs over everyone.
The book starts with the main character coming round from an attempted suicide, although even that remains slightly vague with his reasons for taking poison never really unfolding. Surrounding the ill man on the bed is a cast of oddballs all with their secrets. Count Pac, who denies his aristocratic heritage, is arguing with the partisan Krupa who is denying he is a Jew. Then there is the railwayman who is struggling to talk of the past and the horrific deaths of his wife and children.
But the main focus is of course on Paul and his battle to come to term with his own past. As he unravels his own memories he reveals a life as a partisan, killer and a loner living in the woods fighting the Germans and trying to find a place to settle after rejecting his parents.
As he talks of leaving the village he believes he has met a figure from his past but as he tried to get closer to resolving history it slips away from him. Even his attempts at some sort of future happiness escape from him.
As you stand back from it you start to widen the story to summarise the feelings of a nation. Invaded and fought over by the Germans and Russians the Poles are left wondering just where they stand. Where is safe and what land can be called home? Everywhere you look there are ghosts and the actions of the living intertwine with those of the dead.
A difficult book to get through and one that at moments seems to be going down a dead end but as the train pulls away from the station and alone Paul has to decide about his future you do feel engaged and you understand the predicament of someone haunted by their own history.