New in English, Andrzej Stasiuk’s novel Dukla is more of a verbal painting than a novel, but his exquisite descriptions are worth the reader’s work.
Andrzej Stasiuk’s Dukla, just translated into English from Polish, is unlike anything I’ve read before and almost impossible to describe. It’s being sold as a novel, but it has no plot and I’m not even sure most of it is fiction (as opposed to artfully-arranged fact). It might be most accurate to call the book a prose poem or better yet a verbal painting. The viewpoint character is light.
Light: not the soft, tame light of a Monet still life, but light as physicists know it—an impersonal force of nature moving in waves whose speed we represent by the symbol c; light, which was in the universe before us and will be here after us, the austere and impartial witness of every narrative. In Dukla, Stasiuk follows the light with his pen, writing of its appearances here and there. Mostly the sensation of reading this book is like having spent a day lingering in an art museum, looking at one painting, then another. There’s a progression to the images, like the paintings in a well-designed exhibit, that makes sense, but it isn’t exactly logical sense. It’s more like an intuitive flow from one idea to the next. Each one is minutely observed.
The book is divided into three sections. In the first two the unnamed narrator describes his travels—especially his comings and goings over time through the resort town of Dukla, the setting that holds the book together. The look of the town changes through different seasons and times of day, and so do the characters who inhabit it. The descriptions are rich, detailed, and painstaking:
I walked along 3 Maja. A chalky light sprinkling from above blurred the shadows. People were separate, solitary, quiet. Before a storm the air is dense and soft. In the greenish waters of the Dukielka nothing was reflected. To the right, stacked on one another were gardens, sheds, and the rear walls of small apartment buildings, which on the side overlooking the market square were smooth and pastel-colored, calling to mind a confectionary contest. Over there, pink, greenish pistachio, faded gingerbread brown, and custard cream took on shapes of bay windows, ornamental borders, cornices, and curved, sagging balconies. But on this side nature had run rampant and despite the fact that it was July the colors of the flowers were vivid as flames, as raspberry juice and sulfur, perhaps because a tongue of river chill licked this special spot in the middle of town.
Each brushstroke adds to the whole, until the striking combination of “raspberry juice and sulfur” completes the description.
There is minimal narrative in these first two sections of the book, such as a sequence of memories from when the narrator was thirteen and felt attracted to a woman for the first time. He saw her at a village dance: “Her tight, languid body was the materialization of an oppressive aura that had haunted me that summer. All the scents, all the aromas, all the ethereal signs, all the emanations I’d discovered in that airy dance hall suddenly converged, clustered together, and like a genie in a bottle took refuge in her flesh, just as if she’d sucked them in through one of her crevices, drawn them in through her belly button or her backside and in a single moment the world had become flat, distinct, and devoid of meaning.” This sexual awakening dominates his summer, as he spends hours trying to catch another glimpse of the woman from the dance, but then the narrative drifts away from memory and we are wandering through Dukla again, in different lights, different seasons of the present.
It’s “a book about light,” but a light that illuminates the ugly and boring parts of the world as well as the beautiful and fascinating ones. Light is indifferent; it doesn’t have preferences. One passage describes cows shitting in a river: “Along with ooze, fish, and willows, there was a fourth smell to the half lifeless water: cows. The smell of milk, warm animal hair, and greenish cowshit. They stood there in the shallows with their tails raised releasing watery streams that splashed into the river.” There’s something so vivid about that deceptively simple description. You can almost smell it.
The third and final section of the book is a series of vignettes with tighter narratives binding them. Most of these word paintings, each only a few pages long, are about the lives of animals; some are about elemental forces like rain or the sky. These are the most poem-like parts of the book, and some of the most beautiful. In “Rite of Spring,” of mating frogs: “Pairs join into foursomes, lone frogs adhere to couples, then there are eights, dozens, frog-balls appear with untold numbers of legs. They look like bizarre animals from the beginning of time, when the familiar forms of life had not yet been established, and the material expression of existence was still an experiment.” In “A Little-Used Room,” of the wings of the European Peacock butterfly: “They die in a flutter of wings, in the cold sun of December . . . The texture of the undersurface of their folded wings is like a fine mineral. The dark blue is shot through with black veins, while here and there you can see flecks of gold like those in a lump of coal. This combination of minerality and light makes their death seem unreal.”
Dukla is a paean to light and its play over the futility and beauty of life on earth. I wouldn’t have thought it possible to write a book that focuses, from beginning to end, on how light illumines the world in different times and places, without repeating phrases or falling back on clichés. Yet Stasiuk has done just that. To sustain descriptive writing at this length without any of the other traditional elements of narrative—character, plot, dialogue—yet to keep it fresh and interesting all the way through takes a rare gift. I think this book deserves a spot on many more of the year’s “must-read” lists. However you classify its genre, Dukla is a gorgeous book, the kind that doesn’t come along very often, the kind not to be missed.