By Charles T. Powers.
Middlesex, England: Schribner's, A Penguin Book, 1997.
ISBN # 0-14-027281-X
Comments by Bob Corbett
In one of the most humble and misleading openings of any book I've ever read the narrator tells us:
"I wish I could tell you a tale of espionage and international intrigue, the kind of story I once liked to read, set in places I liked to imagine, but I'm sure I would get the details wrong, put croupiers at the blackjack table and tumbleweeds in Miami. So I won't do that. This is a story about a little town in Poland and intrigue on a narrower scale, about minor corruptions for dubious profit, retribution and forgiveness, and the accounts of the past that we live by or fear."
And so it is, and so very much more, so much larger than the life of international intrigue and espionage. The tiny village of Jadowia, Poland, about 100 miles from Warsaw is struggling as the Soviet era has ended. The main business in town seems to be an illegal smuggling of vodka from a small distillery into Russia where the demand is greater. But other intrigues are going on, perhaps bigger fish, but we never really learn.
What we do learn is a great deal of the simple people, their struggle to leave the old communist system behind and forge, blindly, toward a new democratic and modern Poland. The going is not very purposeful and certainly not easy, but the humble narrator, Leszek Maleszevski, a young farmer, stumbles into stories of Jadowia's recent Soviet past, its seamy World War II past in which it went from a dominantly Jewish town to one without a single Jew, and many secrets which people had conveniently forgotten.
It is a chilly, even frightening story in its everydayness, a world that one can easily believe was repeated in hundreds of similar villages in Poland and thousands across Eastern Europe. Leszek is a most unlikely and bumbling detective, yet the story gets told and the depth and reach is beyond any international espionage story I've ever read.
Leszek's childhood friend, Tomek Powierza has been killed. He seems to have been mixed up in shady deals with Russian mafia and other unseemly characters, but Leszek decides to look into his death, partly because he was his friend, partly because Tomek's father, a neighboring farmer, is one of Leszek's closest companions. There were some papers, a few telephone numbers and such found on Tomek's body and Leszek has these. Again he returns to his humble realization that he is fundamentally a simple farmer and not a detective, he doesn't know how to proceed.
"I guess I could see then what ought to be done. I'd read enough detective stories. I could picture it, the shamus in his seedy office with palm trees out the window. He would be working the telephone, dialing the numbers, driving his coupe into the back streets of San Francisco or Hollywood, climbing stairs, knocking on doors. But I knew that was just entertainment and fantasy. Here, when bad things happened, the telephones didn't work, there were no palm trees, no car to drive. People were robbed or killed and no one ever caught for it. In the real world I had two sick calves in the barn, and I needed to walk across town and find the vet. The tractor wouldn't start. I had errands at the hardware store and the welding shop, and I needed to clean about a ton of manure out of the barn."
And the story proceeds within these limitations. No one gets caught for Tomek's murder, we never really learn who did it, perhaps some vague Georgian mafia members who might just as well killed him because they felt like it rather than for any real reason.
Nonetheless, in Leszek's "investigations," in his reporting of the interconnected things going on in the village, we are taken deeply into the times of the early 1990s, the struggle to overthrow the old system and replace it with a new, different but unplanned, and somehow more efficient and hopeful system. There are the young revengeful anti-communists led by the new priest, Father Jerzy, the hidden stories of the Jews of the war years, the worry of their coming back to reclaim property and hidden fortunes (even though they were poor folk who struggled for survival like the non-Jewish residents of Jadowia), and the new economy of black marketers, founded on the remaining powers of the communist era. Leszek has a failed love affair with a married woman and life simply goes on. It is the powerful and overwhelming mundaness of it, the everyday reality, the universality of the story which is so much more powerful that the story Leszek always feels he should be telling -- a sophisticated tale of folks whom you and I never meet or encounter in our own lives. But Leszek's people we live among and ourselves are. Certainly most of us are not farmers in a tiny village in Poland, but the lives we lead, but the agonies and fears and struggles we face are certainly those of the people of Jadowia.
Each tiny drama, from Leszek's failed love affair to the crumbling of the old guard communists is powerful and satisfying. But I think Powers' insights into the villages dealing with the long-buried "Jewish" question is his crowning achievement. We learn of it from two major sources, Leszek's own grandfather who was caught in the war in a situation in which he believed he had to sacrifice a Jewish family to save his own resistance group, and the story of Czarnek, the one boy of that family his grandfather managed to save. Now, some 55 years later each of them comes forward to deal with those long hidden years and the tale is one of the most revealing and powerful stories of what happened to the Jews and to their neighboring Gentiles that I've ever read.
I am captivated by this device which Powers uses to have his narrator constantly apologizing for not telling us a different story, a more sophisticated on, a story of romancing of lives we never glimpse. He opens the book with that theme in the very first sentence and comes back to it frequently. Very late in the book Leszek in embroiled in the affairs between the reformers and the old guard trying to hold their tenuous positions of privilege. He observes a small player in this drama, Jablonski going from a meeting which Leszek has observed and preparing to drive away. Leszek again retreats into the ideal world:
"I trudged on to the chores, feeling weary and ineffectual. In a detective story, the sleuth would have braced Jablonski against the side of his car and forced him to talk. But this was no detective story and I didn't see Powierza, much less myself, slamming anyone up against a car. Instead, I was in a cold barn, squatting in manure up to my ankles, wiping down the udders of a Holstein cow."
But Leszek's responses and manner of facing local problems is much more like what the rest of us in fact do. We don't face off as though we were characters in movies and beat and force people; we don't reach for guns at every moment to solve the problems which confront us; we aren't dressed in thousand dollar suits and drinking rare wines while fantastic women chase us. We, like Leszek and the people of Jadowia, face our worlds unsure, bashful, inept, suffering and joyous by turns, inching along in life rather than leaping tall buildings with single bounds.
This story of a strange and exotic village, at one level, is at the same time one of the most real and existential stories of a full range of human experience which I have ever read. Charles Powers, surprisingly raised in St. Louis in the United States, not in Poland. He died in 1996 at the young age of 53. This brilliant and captivating novel is his only book. I deeply regret that. At this point, just having sat back after finishing it, my stomach still in turmoil from the profound emotions it stirred, I would be headed on-line to order more of Powers' works. Alas, there is nothing there to be had.Bob Corbett firstname.lastname@example.org
Bob Corbett email@example.com