House of Day, House of Night, Olga Tokarczuk, Granta Publications, 2002, 293 pp (translated from the Polish by Antomia Lloyd-Jones, originally published in Poland, 1998.)
Summary from Goodreads: Nowa Ruda is a small town in Silesia, an area that has been a part of Poland, Germany, and the former Czechoslovakia in the past. When the narrator moves into the area, she discovers everyone-and everything-has its own story. With the help of Marta, her enigmatic neighbor, the narrator accumulates these stories, tracing the history of Nowa Ruda from the founding of the town to the lives of its saints, from the caller who wins the radio quiz every day to the tale of the man who causes international tension when he dies on the border, one leg on the Polish side, the other on the Czech side. Each of the stories represents a brick and they interlock to reveal the immense monument that is the town. What emerges is the message that the history of any place--no matter how humble--is limitless, that by describing or digging at the roots of a life, a house, or a neighborhood, one can see all the connections, not only with one's self and one's dreams but also with all of the universe.
The Tiny Book Club chose this. We are three women of a certain age. Two were raised Jewish, one of whom is a descendant of Polish Holocaust survivors, gay, well-read, and spends every summer returning to Poland to further the reconciliation of Jewish and non-Jewish Poles. The other is also well-read and has a deep understanding of literature. She is an intellectual. The third was raised Christian in America, the daughter of third generation German Lutheran immigrants. We decided to read some Polish literature and this is our first pick.
We have not met yet to discuss, due to winter colds, travels, and other things which could not be helped. I am bursting with discussion questions and topics, so hopefully soon!
Olga Tokarczuk, born in Poland in 1962, is both critically acclaimed and commercially successful in her native country. In this novel, her style is one of crystalline fragments and deep human insight steeped in mythical structures and dotted with recipes for cooking wild mushrooms.
She creates a mosaic of a town, Nowa Ruda. It is one of those little Eastern European towns kicked unmercifully from one nation to another due to wars and the redefined borders made by peace negotiations. In fact, it lies close to the current Polish/former Czechoslovakian border. When a man dies with the halves of his body splayed across that border, tension ensues.
The narrator and her husband moved to Nowa Ruda because relocation policies had made land and houses cheap there. You don't learn much about them but the sense of dislocation and upheaval hangs around like a murky fog. Besides housekeeping, the woman writes so she sets about collecting stories about the town, its inhabitants, history and inevitably its myths. Some of these people are like those found in fairy tales.
Dreams, so many dreams, pepper the narrative. Weather is a huge influence. Marta, the woman's neighbor, is a repository of the town's history. She is an archetypal ghostlike female whose rare utterances are usually non-sequitur. She is also the narrator's only close friend.
I admit that reading American, Canadian, and British contemporary fiction is fairly effortless compared to such a book as this. Of course, each country has its depths of history, oddities, and other pathos, but it is not written about much or it comes in more familiar packages. That probably has to do with our relatively longer history of stability as well as the expectations of the book market.
Reading a book like House of Day, House of Night, was not only enlightening as to how other peoples live. It had the effect on me of causing an increased observation of people in my own life, an awareness of things we just don't usually talk about. In a spirit of tolerance and compassion, Olga Tokarczuk wrote a very human book that reveals the underlying dreams and spirits dwelling in human hearts.
(House of Day, House of Night is available through independent bookstores at a rather high price. It is not easy to find in libraries. I found my copy through a used bookseller on-line in paperback for a reasonable price.)