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Tales of Galicia

Andrzej Stasiuk


"
 The clouds split and light the colour of honey and blood filled the church’s structure like water, like a wave of flood. And for an instance Janek, and Grandma, and Zalatywój, and Lewandowski hunched over the yellowed keyboard, and the sergeant, and everyone became as transparent as angels or as their own most secret dreams that they never remembered when they woke up on all of the dawns that had been allotted to them.... "
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Reviewed by  Elizabeth Rutherford-Johnson

Ghosts abound in Stasiuk’s Tales of Galicia. There are the ghosts of Poland’s Communist past, like the decaying collective farms that cling to the brooding landscape or the church removed for restoration that leaves the shape of itself in the air: “You can walk into it, feel its touch on your skin, but it all flows between your fingers, you can hold it in your lungs, but just for a moment.” And there are also the ghosts of the people who live beneath the brooding shadow of the mountain Cergowa, which is “trying to hold up the sky, but darkness still tumbled down the earth. 

The pace begins gently. The first few stories are portraits of the individuals living in this unfamiliar landscape: Janek, who looks “like a forest kobold, shaped to the proportions of the dense thickets, wind-felled trees, and tangled, chaotic scrub”; Władek, whose soul is “a bit too light and insubstantial to cope in any way with the heaviness of matter.” The language is deft, the evocation of landscape and the turn of the year is luscious, and the handling of character is insightful. 

However, just as you’re settled down for a leisurely series of vignettes, something changes. Kościejny is the sixth story of 15, but the tale of Kościejny, who murders his wife’s lover in front of the whole village and later dies, dominates the rest of the book. The pace slows to concentrate on his unhappy shade: we are shown him talking mournfully with the red-headed sergeant, observing the priest who cannot see him – and finally, devastatingly, witnessing the beginnings of another murder. 

Tales of Galicia shows a nameless, almost mythical village opened up to outside influences, balanced between its own past and the encroaching future. Through Kościejny’s restless ghost, the stories coil tighter and tighter together, characters reoccur, the same themes resurface and are re-explored.

This leads to the question of what exactly Tales of Galicia is. It is not a conventional collection of short stories – whatever that is. However, neither does that make it a novel – the default critical position when a collection is greater than the sum of its parts. Even calling this a “linked” collection of stories is to diminish the originality of Stasiuk’s accomplishment. The stories are each unique, almost wilfully so, with different narrative techniques, different views of the world, different half-told tales that do not fit neatly together like a puzzle. Rather there is something choral about the cumulative weight to these stories. By the end, these disparate voices sing together.

 
Elizabeth Rutherford-Johnson started writing shorts as an excuse not to redraft The Novel and now can't kick the habit. Born in Dublin, she lives in London where she works as a writer and editor. Her short fiction has appeared in Mslexia, LITRO, The New Writer and www.pulp.net. The Novel is coming along nicely despite the lure of more concise forms.

Elizabeth's other Short Reviews: Best American Short Stories 2007

Andrzej Stasiuk "Tales of Galicia"   

Michael Chabon (ed) "McSweeney's Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories"

Sylvia Petter "Back Burning"

PublisherTwisted Spoon Press

Publication Date: 1995 (first translated into English in 2003)

Paperback/Hardback? Paperback

First collection?: No

Translator:  Margarita Nafpaktittis 

Author bio: One of Poland’s leading writers and an outspoken defender of free speech, Andrzej Stasiuk was born in 1960. He is part of a generation of writers who came of age in the years after the collapse of Communism and his work is described as being preoccupied with borders, limits and peripheries.

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What other reviewers thought:

The Chicago review 

The Absinthe review 

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