Monday, May 06, 2013

Of Poland Then And Now

Born of Brigid Pasulka's search for her roots in Kraków, Poland, 'A Long, Long Time Ago & Essentially True' traces a family torn asunder by the war, communism and all the perils of life. On a separate yet related note, photographer Ilona Karwinska's depiction of neon signs in the cold war era of Poland stands as a oxymoron to the ideals of the regime.

Two stories run parallel to the content, but the reader wouldn't know that from the first few pages:- of the love story between Pigeon (a man nicknamed thus, and he had eight sisters. His name is Czesław) and Anielica in the countryside during 1940s wartime, and of their granddaughter, twenty-two year old Beata 'Baba Yaga' who had returned to post-Communist city of Kraków in 1990s to begin life with her Aunt Irena and angsty cousin Magda, in a not-too-desperate search for identity.

As I read on, there was this sense that I wasn't exactly reading about the humans, tragedies or the youth's search for identity; it's more of seeing Poland through the eyes of the characters' experiences, pre-war and into the new city today travelers are familiar with. (Read reviews here, here and here.)

The book started with the courtship of Pigeon and Anielica who lived "two hills and three valleys away". To win Anielica's love, he approached her father to work for free in order to remodel and build new additions to their family home, hoping to win their hearts.

May saw the windows replaced by clear glass and sturdy frames, as well as a pump and a pipe fitted to make a kitchen sink. June, the addition of two small rooms on either side of the main room. In July, the Pigeon took Pan Hetmański aside and had a Serious Conversation About Hygiene, a full eight years before the communist volunteers were dispersed throughout the mountains to have their own Serious Conversations About Hygiene with the górale. Unsuccessfully, if you remember. It was that the górale were against hygiene per se; rather, they were simply against anyone outside their garden walls trying to make any suggestions about what went on inside their garden walls, and the communists eventually learned the valuable lesson that any subsequent policies enforced on the highlanders should neatly skip the discussion step. The Pigeon, though, after only a few months, had gained more respect in Pan Hetmański's eyes than the communists ever would, and the result was that one Friday, the Pigeon and Władysław II Jagiełło took off down the mountain with a pallet of sheepskins and returned two days later bearing a white porcelain throne for Anielica and the rest of the family.

Then it abruptly switched to first person narrative of 'I' and turns to the city where Irena lived. The first inkling of the interwoven story comes when in response to Beata's question about her grandfather, Irena mentioned the legends of how her father fought the Soviets and that Pigeon Street was named after him. The two stories moved back and forth between chapters, creating mental images that weren't easily understood just yet. It's only mid-way through that the reader realized how the two stories have been cleverly woven together, and come Chapter 21, we learnt of Irena's childhood with the stories of the lovers, coping with life in Poland today, as well as dealing with what the fates meted out to the family. The ending, is of course more depressing than the beginning, and one wondered if somehow, the innocence and the happiness back then, have been lost along the capricious pages of history.

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