Brigid Pasulka is a first time novelist (though an award winning short-story writer), who has written a novel that dwells in the well plowed furrow of WWII roots and remembrance. What happened? What really happened during those times? You’ve probably read a few of these yourself. The theme – and the title for that matter – somehow remind me of Jonathan Safran Foers’s Everything Is Illuminated. But Pasulka’s novel stands on its own two feet as a lovely novel of enduring love and family.
The story – until the very end when the two threads intersect finally – alternates between the WWII era Poland and its dreary communist aftermath, and modern day Poland, struggling to shake off the previous 50 years or so and move into the sunlight. The first story centers around Czeslaw, aka The Pigeon, his great love Anielica and their extended families. We follow them from the remote village where they lived and fought the Germans as part of the Resistance, to their post-war move to Krakow and life under the Russian workers paradise.
The second thread centers on Beata, or Baba Yaga as she is more typically called, who is the grand-daughter of the Pigeon and Anielica (Nela). Beata is in many ways the alter-ego of the author. She’s looking to uncover the family history, if not the history of Poland in the second half of the Twentieth Century. In fact, this is where the novel does its best work. Pasulka is adept at breathing life into the story of Poland: the old fears of the people, what haunts them, where they are headed, how they can make their way into the modern world. And especially the sense that opportunities are something not to be taken lightly. Life can pass you by in the flutter of an eyelash.
Beata is toying with the idea of making a film, which she eventually does. Her first halting attempt is not so successful though. A relative with whom she’s staying had wanted to be a film actor, and in a Sunset Boulevard kind of way, Beata films her. Pani Bozena is taken aback by what she sees of herself on Beata’s video.
She [Pani Bozena] takes a long nap that afternoon, and I sit on the chaise with the camera in my lap, listening to her snoring on the other side of the wall. I think about how exhausting it must be to act out the life you wish you had, detail by detail, a life that was either thrown away or taken away or drifted away on its own, a life that there’s no chance of ever getting back. And I was the one who brought that life right up to her face, who allowed her to run it between her fingers, fog it with her breath, and realize it wasn’t hers.
Brigid Pasulka’s novel has won the 2010 Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award, and will be feted on March 28th in Boston.
If you’ve read the book, you’ll love this flash animation about the Pigeon’s brother, Jacub. Maybe hold off if you haven’t, as it could be considered a spoiler.