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 Ściana (The Wall) depicts a fragment of the lives of people tormented by obsessions, ensnared by their own phobias and left in solitude through their self-inflicted exile within the walls of their own home. They live in a world of their own. Agoraphobia and hypochondria cause their solitude to be even greater. Time and space in the lives of Topinambur and Server are strictly marked out by the walls, by measuring one’s physical and mental state, by walking to and fro and by counting odd and even hours. For Server the only link bridging him with the outside world is the Internet. But the Net is deceptive. Freedom may turn out to be a trap. That’s what happens when Antoni starts contacting his Internet teacher of English, Lidia. The first few lessons turn into flirting, this in turn develops into fascination, and then fascination becomes feeling. Thanks to the anonymity of his virtual contacts, Antoni is able to leave his hiding place and attempt to become a different person.

Agnieszka Gibas

 

 

 

Up Against the Wall

Paweł Daniel Zalewski’s novel Ściana (The Wall) is a picture of this world, depicting solitude, hypochondria developing into profound pathology, willpower and the quest for love. This novel is particularly interesting for its artistic values.

“The Wall” presents two seemingly separate stories whose style is both agile and light. There is only one thing which links the stories: the titular wall. Two tales – interwoven in a single novel – could easily conjure up the wrong associations, suggesting that each of the heroes is searching for time which can no longer be reversed – time in the understanding of Proust. But both “Topinambur” and “Server” would prefer to conjure up something which took place in the recent or more distant past, rather than return to something which happened. Zalewski plays open hand with his heroes – he uncovers the maladies of their childhood and adolescence. But because the present has become the daughter of the past, the traumatic experiences constantly stand out on either side of the wall.

The word “wall” contains yet another dimension here. This is because the plot evolves around three time sequences, spanning almost the entire 20th century and prophetically touching on the next century.

In many ways Zalewski’s book may be seen as an educational novel, a novel offering initiation and development, one might say a bildungsroman; the attention paid to each detail leads to an intriguing and inspiring composition.

Maybe the moral of this novel is banal: if you want to beat the wall make sure you face up to yourself. But both sides of this meaningful “wall” are capable of astonishing every reader. I guarantee that many readers will keep reading on until they find out which of the heroes finally beats the wall.

“The Wall” is an image of this world. It is authentic, honest, touching, but if it were not for the author, we would probably not see much more than its outer limits. Stand where you are! And get up against the wall…

Jolanta Szymska-Wiercioch

Cracow, 15 May 2008 r.

 

 

 

 

Ściana (The Wall) is written with great skill. The narrator’s erudition and the nostalgic recollections of the heroes are harmoniously combined. The refined metaphors and carefully chosen comparisons are impressive. The plot (parallel lives) shifts “The Wall” to the limits of creative artistic experiment. 

The author skilfully interweaves various time frames and depicts the climate of various epochs with vivid detail (forgotten objects, long faded social relations and the linguistic curiosities of a given period). This is undoubtedly an indisputable asset of the book. But in all this there is also a trap: one can get lost when travelling along this labyrinth of twists and turns in the capricious time machine, piloted by two disintegrated and disorientated neurotics. Up to a point it is even difficult to decide whether the “Siamese brothers” connected by the wall are at all of the same age. Communicating with the spirits of the past through postage stamps and letters is given particularly interesting treatment.

This novel is characterised by skilfully sketched characters and focus on individualised language. I cannot assess whether the archaic language used in the letters read by Zygmunt’s grandmother is faultless.

Wojciech Wiercioch

15 May 2008

 

 

 

 

 Good expression, developed, contemplative. Good classical literary Polish. Reads well. Light style which does not happen often these days. Elegant, even model, shifts from the present to retrospective times.

Not too impressed with the plot of Ściana (The Wall) – it all looks a bit lazy and apart from the flashbacks nothing much seems to be happening. That’s the main theme but my line’s fantasy, so I’ve got a different slant on things and I look for different things in books.

Andrzej Pilipiuk

 

 

 

 

Paweł Daniel Zalewski’s technically well-crafted novel, bearing the ambiguous title “Ściana’’ (The Wall) is made up of two stories: Topinambur and Server. I have the irresistible impression that they were written for the “Man at the Turning Point” competition. However, in assessing prose which usually delves into the vicissitudes of women, these stories depict a particularly interesting study of the male character.

The heroes are the introvert singles Zygmunt and Antoni. In contrast to characters depicted in the well-read works of Jerzy Pilch these guys don’t drink, don’t smoke, they can boast a wide range of positive characteristics, but as far as their interpersonal contacts are concerned, and in particular their contacts with women, they are more reminiscent of the life of Symeon the Stylite, though their thoughts are anything but saintly. I see the enigmatic titles of the two parts originating from the nicknames of the main characters as something of a back-yard provocation: will the history of the original and difficult to pronounce name Topinambur turn out to be worthwhile? Or maybe it will be trumped poker style by the Antoni vel Server computer expert story?

By giving pseudonyms to the characters of both parts the author draws attention to the rather banal but typical fact that nicknames are used to distinguish outsiders from the rest by putting them aside. The entire novel attempts to give an answer as to whether someone else is at fault. And what is even more important: whether loneliness on the Net and living in a tower block is an irreversible process?

The titular wall symbolises all known barriers: primarily the problem of identity, homework done in a slipshod manner during one’s formative years, a kind of internal impotence, the lack of incentive to change, the frontiers of madness and commonsense and the paralysing attacks of fear… The wall is metaphoric: it conjures up associations starting with the showing of slides and ends with images of climbing with the use of lines permitting movement and the creation of a memory path.

Zygmunt, who is obsessed with his health, rarely goes out. This is because Cracow is lurking there, depressing people, choking, stifling and overwhelming them. With his attachment to detail, and the precise description of the city and its climate, Zalewski presents himself as an ardent reader of Bruno Schulz. It is all like a merry-go-round: Galeria Krakowska, the bars, Szlak Street… It’s enough for him to hit the town and his friends and even strangers appear out of the blue, as though stepping out of the canvasses of Magritte. Confronted by specific persons, such as a lady of the night or approached by the nouveau riche Jasiek, the hero slips away from making contact. The plot, understood in the traditional sense of the word, is densely interlaced with reminiscences and oneiric themes fortifying the feeling of being trapped.

The people, situations, and in particular the Cracow landscape conjure up the hero’s memories of the 1980s as though presented through a peepshow. The grey streets and the sight of empty shop shelves fill the hero with hunger and above all make him yearn for a Better World. One of the permits leading up to him could easily be the oranges which the resourceful Wiesiowa manages to get hold of, the microcosms of postage stamps and the fascination brought by books on travel. The times when people treated each other seriously (Wernic not only writes back to the boy, but even sends him his latest novel) evoke genuine admiration and a pinch of disbelief.

A feeling of liking is not only roused by Rozmodlony – a pillar of a well-known weekly cultural magazine, but also by the master chef Wyszynk.

An important theme, introduced with real charm into “Topinambur’’, is the theme of family letters. Displaced from the lands of the east, Wincentyna is able to retain her identity thanks to these letters and to “stand straight”; their contents undoubtedly depict the atmosphere of the inter-War period. Written by Zygmunt to his father they serve as evidence of his interests, the choices he made, his doubts and his awaiting for the one who remains Absent.

The stroll around the city is also a journey inside oneself: Zygmunt, just like Theseus in the labyrinth, should stand up to the Minotaur. The role of Ariadne is played with great charm by Lidia, met on the Internet… The array of women forces one to smile when the advantage of so many aspects of grotesquerie characterising the supporting female roles becomes obvious: the statuesque teacher Wincentyna, the utterly folksy Wiesiowa, the narcissistic and volcanic cousin Kasia or the absolutely divine dental surgeon.

“Server’’ is dominated by associations: the postman on the doorstep conjures up memories of the hero’s brother and his girlfriend Kaja. Even Antoni who is cold, a perfectionist and overcome by virtual reality is traumatised by the disappearance of his brother. His absence becomes a pretext to spin tales about him, about the thousand and one reasons for missing him. The witty, brave and daredevil Kazik, depicted as the with-it radio journalist with open and apparently indisputable views on women, strongly contrasts with the character of Antoni. As inaccessible as the summits of the Alps, he encourages people to follow in his footsteps, and acts as a challenge, but at the same time proves to be overwhelming.

An undoubted quality of this novel is the many layers of language: colloquialisms, learned discourse, occasional distorted poems and the grossly unnatural pseudo-Polish of Polish émigrés.

The turning point in the story is Kazek’s night show dedicated to the brother of the famous singer David Bowie -Teddy. It is then that the following characteristic words sound:
I stand, talking with the wall, I’m not completely well. But I prefer to be here, with all of these madmen, rather than dying, sauntering about freely with the sad ones. I prefer to have a good time here, because I’m happy that they’re just as healthy as I am.

The dramatic consequences of this event should be employed in order to track the ensuing fate of the heroes. Yet another interesting little morsel is the memorable Sylvester and the confrontation of Poles with Western culture.

But just to make sure that these morsel’s are not too sweet I believe that the technical shortcomings of the book include the bombardment of medical terms, the unbelievably grotesque female characters, but above all the presentation of things rarely seen in the world and probably requiring background reading in the endearing embraces of the Internet. Tell me which novels Wernic wrote! Where is Zaleszczyki? Who else is fascinated by Adamo? Even if the above gives us a slight feeling of panic it is the vicissitudes of the two men experiencing a crisis which should at least fill female readers, but male readers as well, with the urge to read.

Inga Malina 2008

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