Fiction Review: “A Treatise on Shelling Beans” by Wieslaw Mysliwski

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“The giddy Poles,” as a Ukrainian author called them, are a freedom-loving people, yet they have lived under tyranny for most of three centuries, most severely punished in the last. In World War II, Poland’s Jewish population was virtually exterminated, and millions more perished. This tragedy was followed immediately by a Communist rule that afforded little opportunity for shedding ghosts.

In his brilliant major novel originally published in 1984, Wieslaw Mysliwski has by accretion, “Stone Upon Stone” as in its title, demonstrated how one man—if imperfectly—rebuilt his life under such circumstances. (Of the novel’s English translation in 2011, this reviewer wrote in Newcity, “As for this ‘Stone,’ you will not want to put it down.”)

Now comes Mysliwski with a compelling new novel—his second to win the Polish Nike Prize for literature—again adroitly rendered into English by Bill Johnston, in which he reveals not just the layers of a man’s life, but those of a nation’s memory and history, by unwrapping it; hence the title “A Treatise on Shelling Beans.”

As it happens, the book is much less about shelling beans than “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” is about vehicle repair. Instead, the task both kick-starts the plot and fosters storytelling, the way knitting lubricates conversation: an unnamed stranger enters a vacation community reared on the bones of a village that disappeared during the war; he seeks the beans for which that village was known. Instead he encounters the community’s caretaker, who tells the visitor that that cottage agriculture is in the village’s pre-war past, but he nonetheless indulges the request by offering up a supply if the visitor will join him in shelling them.

As the men converse (though it is largely a one-sided talk), many questions and some answers emerge. We learn the caretaker is one of the few survivors of the village’s extermination during the war. But why would an orphan return to a scene of such horror, and how can he coexist with it? That question is the dilemma of modern Poland, in a bean’s shell: Where is one to go?

The caretaker’s story, as he unwraps it, is idiosyncratic, eccentric, ironic and darkly comic, essentially without plot, and utterly addictive. What other author could successfully engage the reader for an entire chapter in the acquisition and loss of a hat in the wake of war? This is the magic of Mysliwski; he makes us want to know. What Hemingway does with hunting a marlin in the heart of “Islands in the Stream,” Mysliwski accomplishes with a humbler object.

Along this unexpected, digressive journey, we gain insight into the caretaker’s difficult juvenile re-entry into a fractured society and likewise receive unexpected proofs of the restorative (if not precisely redemptive) power of music (via the saxophone of all instruments), work (especially its mastery) and sex. Underlying it all are questions, with no pat answers, about the roles of fate, chance and self-determination in life. Part of our American conceit is that we are masters of our fates, but this book challenges that notion and seems to inquire: If we are not truly in control, can we at least salvage for ourselves a meaningful individual human identity?

Mysliwski even questions the idea that confession is good for the soul, in the shape of a man from the caretaker’s youthful past, seemingly met randomly, unburdening his soul in a cafe. The man tells of how his own father, broken and despairing, returned to the family after his long absence during the war. He kept his distance and his experience a mystery, until he summoned the son, saying, “Fathers should confess to their sons if memory is to survive. I don’t need you to forgive me. I need you to remember. Your memory will be my penance.”

What he confesses is his own collaboration in the destruction of the family’s village, and that he saw his young son and passed him by: “I saw the terror in your eyes. … They didn’t believe that the soldier with the smoking gun barrel, who could pull the trigger again at any moment, was your father.” After passing this burden of memory to the son, the father commits suicide.

Before departing, the man asks if the caretaker recalls him (and, by implication, the father). Afterward, the caretaker reveals he witnessed the father’s crimes. But he did not admit this to the man. Perhaps he was extending him a small mercy.

Such a willingness to set aside what one remembers—under the right circumstances—may be an unappreciated human value, especially in a nation that, as has been said also of the Balkans, has produced more history than could be consumed locally. Repeatedly, we have occasion to wonder if the caretaker and visitor actually know each other. Mysliwski does not tell us, and neither do they. Perhaps it is another example of an extended mercy—to remember but then choose to forget. (Martin Northway)

“A Treatise on Shelling Beans”
By Wieslaw Mysliwski, translated by Bill Johnston
Archipelago, 374 pages, $22

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