4th September 2009

NIne by Andrzej Stasuik

The Poles, probably more than any Europeans, must feel that they deserve a little peace, freedom and prosperity. Sandwiched between the neighbors from hell in the form of Germany and Russia, they were certainly at the back of the line when late 20th Century history dispensed its favors. Now experiencing democracy, unparalleled economic growth and enjoying membership of the European Union, the nation’s future, on the surface, appears rosier than ever.

Yet beyond the glitzy style bars of central Warsaw and their conspicuously successful clientel, huge swathes of Poland’s capital city are lain to waste, and youth is largely noticeable by its absence. Emigration has made its presence felt, and the main beneficiaries have been the construction sites, bars and coffee houses of Chicago, Dublin, Edinburgh, London and Berlin. It’s not so much that western capitalism has rebuilt Poland, but that the Polish diaspora has provided a low-cost army to help renew and service western capitalism.

For those who do not work in ad agencies or high-tech industries, or have not been able to try their luck abroad – the losers in the crap-shoot of the free market at its peripheries – all that beckons are the old uncertainties of the black economy. It is this Warsaw underworld and its scamming and subsistence culture that is so vividly evoked in Andrzej Stasiuk’s novel Nine.

The publishers blurb refers to the book as an ‘existential crime novel’ which may incline the more sensitive reader to proceed with trepidation. In the English language both ‘existentialism’ and ‘Warsaw’ are prefixed as habitually by the term ‘bleak’ as burger is followed by fries. To be deterred however, would be a sad loss; what this book reminds us of is just how much bland fiction we publish in the English-speaking world. Our cultural hegemony has its down side; our imagination is increasingly filtered through the marketing lens of escapist genre fiction, and our so-called literary efforts too often comprise of rehashed classics thinly disguised20yet brazenly trumpeted as original work. In an era of uncertainty, the purpose of all this becomes to affirm rather than challenge our sense of ourselves in the world.

But one measurement of true greatness in a writer is the ability to evoke a place that is instantly acknowledgable, yet outside our direct personal experience, presenting it to us as a more accurate and vivid depiction than our prejudices had previously allowed. Andrzej Stasiuk fits the bill here; a consumate prose stylist, he has an eye for the telling detail that brings characters and situations to life.

The narrative of Nine follows Pawel, who wakes up in a wrecked apartment devastated by the loan sharks who are on his trail. The failed businessman turns to Bolek, a former miner turned drug-dealer, and Jacek, an addict, both of whom seem unlikely sources of help. But Stasiuk understands that in the black economy we do not choose our associates, and that as well as the need to make a living, people require compelling drama in their lives. Thus behavior that seems self-destructive and high-risk is, in some social milieu, not only rendered understandable, but it becomes positively fanciful to consider alternatives. Despite the harsh circumstances his protagonists find themselves in however, their humanity is never compromised.

The novel is a fool’s gold chase through Warsaw; the bus terminus’s, the railway stations, the shopping centers and the grubby apartments. Like the Dublin of Joyce’s Ulysses, the city itself becomes one of the central personalities of the book. The mundane and the desperate elements of urban life are skillfully intercut with a sense of jeopardy. Stasuik’s characters spend a great deal of time on the city’s transport system, looking for others in a comparably marginal state, hoping to beg, bully or barter improbable salvation from them.

Strangely, it’s the graceless Bolek who emerges as the novel’s most compelling character. The ostentatiously successful gangster has the vulgar trappings that his associates like Iron Man and Blond Guy aspire to emulate, but he’s smothering slowly in20his own ennui as he slovenly voyages from bed to leather couch to upholstered automobile. It’s the rejection of his young gold-digging girlfriend Syl, a cowardly and callous deed, that paradoxically forms a moral centre in the book. For we see before he does that in casting her aside and through his fantasies about the more mature Irina, Bolek is fact searching for a connection beyond the shallow cash nexus shoes-and-shelter-for-sex exchange that underpins his association with the younger woman. This doomed relationship, thoughtfully and telling observed, could have decended into crass caricature in less gifted hands.

But Stasuik’s prose soars over the city in a helicopter vision, illuminating the lives of its inhabitants with empathy and verve. I caught a flavor of Hansum, Satre, Genet and Kafka in his scalpel-like, but evocative writing. And I realize that I’m adding to the chorus of often extravagant claims that have emanated from Europe on behalf of this writer, but on the evidence of Nine these are fully justified. The novel is a major work of modern fiction; a portrait of an uprooted and restless generation of East Europeans and a city resigned to the fact that post-communism was not as advertised (at least for some) but yet longing for and aspiring towards something different. This book will undoubtedly win Andrzej Stasuik a greater following in America and hopefully pave the way for the translation of more quality literature from Eastern Europe.


Originally featured in the New York Times.