Thursday, May 13, 2010


Our book today is Piotr Szewc’s novel Annihilation, first published by the author in 1987 and then again in a revised version in 1993 and translated from the Polish by Ewa Hryniewicz-Yarbrough (there’s a wedding I’d have attended). It’s a novella, really, only a hundred pages long, and it mostly concerns the things that happen in a small town in eastern Poland in the 1930s, the goings-on in Listopadowa Street as the sun rises on one ordinary day.

Rosenzweig’s tavern is open, having served the night shift of policemen and now accommodating the early risers like Attorney Danilowski in his smart clothes. Mr. Hershe Baum is opening his shop, the rising shutters surprising – as they do every time – the pigeons gathered in the street. The town’s professionally lonely lady, Kazimiera M, is already fussing with her hair, preparing for the heat and languor of the day. Annihilation follows these characters intermittently as they pass in front of the lens of its focus. Daylight defines them all; we are privy neither to their thoughts nor their living rooms.

In an amazing feat of narrative control, the actual plot of the book is kept resolutely offstage for the entire course of the thing. Like the opening chord of a Beethoven symphony, we get the book’s title – and then it’s left there, hanging over the book with a resolution that grows more terrifying the longer its ignored. This is not a book about what happens to Kazimiera M or Attorney Danilowski or the various patrons of Rosenzweig’s tavern; it’s a thorough, almost pointillist look at them, as they move about in the course of one ordinary day.

Although we don’t see their private lives, we occasionally see glimpse of their memories. Attorney Danilowski at one point recalls a boyhood day spent on the verge of a marsh:
Water-thyme entwines his fingers. Tiny snails hidden in thin shells are entangled in it. The shells are most often black, rarely light. Sometimes there may be one that’s yellow or mixed – striped or streaked. Water-thyme must be handled gently because it’s tangled up. Walek separates the plants from one another. A shell with a snail inside falls out, still slimy but quickly drying. The snail walks slowly on Walek’s palm, exploring the unknown territory. It may be thrown into the water. A barely audible splash and the revolving shell settles on the muddy bottom. The shell may settle with its opening up. If the opening is down, it may be possible to see the snail move on the slime or rest on an underwater leaf.

For Danilowski, the point of the memory is its sensory weight, but we as readers can’t help but come to a different point: how fleeting it all is, how the passage describes things of almost evanescent delicacy, one of them after another, an entire memory made of the smallest things imaginable. The book is a series of such moments, caught, held for a second, and then released.

Given this, it’s perhaps natural that the narration persistently returns to the idea of photography. And yet, there’s no comfort drawn from technology: the underlying note about photography is how much it leaves out:
Our photographs, our records. The first, the second, the next photograph. But how to record what happens in the instant? In an instant shorter than releasing the shutter? The movement of the goat’s tail, which right away will hang still, the beating wings of Mr. Baum’s pigeons, the watchman’s hand rising behind the brewery gate, the butterfly flashing over the trees … Are those the records of one moment’s events? Records or no records. Selected glimpses.

Szewc was born in 1961 in Zamosc, an eastern Polish town very much like the one in his book, and the Dalkey Archive hardcover edition of the book is decorated with an old archival photograph of the town on a sunny day perhaps very similar to the day Szewc tries to capture. Men and women go about their business, the clock in the tower strikes the hour, the sunlight and shadow play on the walls, cats wander lazily, a tavern opens for business, a man eats a hurried breakfast, another dreads the arrival of a letter, a third is nagged by the need to buy new shoes.

Such things are all we see of Listopadowa Street, but we know something none of its residents know, and Szewc knows we know it. Only when the book is almost over, when your hour has been gently beguiled with the familiar names and rhythms of this little town, does the cudgel of the book’s title strike you. This town, this street, these people, every single moment, all the innumerable unrecorded things that make a texture even photography can’t show, all if it is facing brutal extinction. Szewc envisions it all with a clarity that isn’t at all sentimental, with the withdrawing affection we feel for things that are doomed. He knows how much we’re not seeing, how much we can never see, and he knows what’s coming:
We should take another photograph – wait, not yet! Standing under the linden trees, let’s try to capture the moment when the heat billowing over the roofs will start to radiate its own light, a kind of luminosity known to those who have watched a bonfire of clouds. Before a thunderstorm, clouds glow with an unusual internal light which enlivens them with luminous colors and their various halftones: yellow, pink, blue, green, purple. Watching the air over a bonfire is like watching clouds that promise a thunderstorm, that are a few breaths away from the first drop of rain.

That special luminosity fills this sad, yearning book.

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