A Long, Long Time Ago and Essentially True, by Brigid Pasulka

This book was published a couple of years ago and I’m just getting around to it. It’s a tender book looking at two different generations of Polish life: Village life at the beginning of World War II a second generation of Poles living in post-communist Krakow.

In Half-Village a young man with the nickname Pigeon falls in love with Anielica Hetmanská. He woos her by working with her brother to slowly make improvements to her family’s home, adding a carved door, a wood floor, a gate, and other luxuries to show his faithfulness and dedication to her.

The narration then skips to his granddaughter Beata who has the nickname Baba Yaga, one of the last to leave village life, who moves to Krakow to live with her cousin Irena and her daughter Magda. She also works as an assistant to the once-glamorous Pani Bozena.

The past few years there’s been a flood of books dealing with the second world war. Some excellent (All the Light We Cannot See) some awful and violent (you know who you are) so I’m a little reluctant to re-enter that world to see the destruction of village life by the Nazis and relive that era again. Pasulka elevates the book beyond that. She not a sadist but wants to explore love and loss: amorous and family love, loss of ones we love in war and in peace. It’s a tender book with touches of humor. Pigeon and his love must navigate the rules of courtship in a small Catholic village. Baba Yaga must navigate the stories of Pani Bozena, who lives in the past and can barely tolerate her lost glamour and beauty. Baba Yaga herself would rather spend time watching films than have to deal with the real world, in which Irena and Magda bicker constantly. She transforms when she reaches the point where she would rather make her own films.

The ebb and flow of the narratives is wonderful and when there is hardship and violence it almost always happens off scene. The book works its way toward a surprising and touching reunion as the characters grow and develop through both eras. Meanwhile Pasulka does a wonderful job of describing the frustrating changes in Polish life from independence after the Russian revolution through the German occupation through the Iron Curtain to the Walesa era and the mixed feelings for post-Communist existence.

An excellent book. I may be the last person to get to it. If you, too, missed it somehow it’s well worth your time.