Wojciech Tochman’s LIKE EATING A STONE

Thanks to the Polish Book Institute’s website (my subscription to the venerable NYRB having recently lapsed…), I’ve just learned of Charles Simic’s review of three recent titles dealing with human rights violations in the former Yugoslavia, “Connoisseurs of Cruelty” (New York Review of Books, 12 March 2009). The first book he looks at is Polish author Wojciech Tochman’s LIKE EATING A STONE: SURVIVING THE PAST IN BOSNIA, which Antonia Lloyd-Jones has very generously given to us under the auspices, last April, of Portobello Books in the UK, and last October, of Atlas & Co. in the US. Restrained and bleak, it is a remarkable book; and I could hardly keep from telling everyone I know about it after I read it last November.

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Tochman, who was born in 1969 and lives in Warsaw, is a leading younger journalist in a country that has a long and rich tradition of reportage, or literary journalism. This tradition is primarily associated with Krzysztof Kąkolewski, Ryszard Kapuściński, and Hanna Krall, three authors whose careers took off in the 1970s, the latter two of whom are quite well known abroad. What is usually called the “Polish School of Reportage” (NB: a parallel movement in film is called by the same name), has its roots in the work of Ksawery Pruszyński, Melchior Wańkowicz, Tadeusz Borowski, Gustaw Herling-Grudziński, and Zofia Nałkowska, writers who came of age in the interwar period and who largely wrote about the experience of World War II.Reportage is an established and respected literary genre in Poland in a way that it is not (yet, at least) in English, despite the presence of classics like Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, the Library of America’s recent impressive editions of 20th century journalism, or the work of writers like Anne Fadiman, Philip Gourevitch, or Lawrence Weschler. In Poland, high school students study it alongside novels and lyric poetry as a distinct field of literature. And many publishing houses, like WAB and Czarne, have series devoted to reportage, featuring books by a younger generation of writers: Wojciech Jagielski, Paweł Smoleński, Olga Stanisławska, Mariusz Szczygiel, and Jacek Hugo-Bader, among many others.

Tochman was nominated for two prestigious prizes for LIKE EATING A STONE, which was first published by Wydawnictwo Pogranicze in 2002: the Polish NIKE Award and the French Prix Témoin du Monde. He has a website (most of which is in Polish): http://tochman.com.pl/. LIKE EATING A STONE, his third book, was written in 2000-2001, and aside from one heartbreaking foray into the Serbian Republic, largely follows the experience of Muslim women in Bosnia who, as Simic puts it, “years after the signing of the Dayton Accords were still haunting the mass graves being exhumed in Bosnia in the hope that among the bones being identified they might find their long-missing husbands and sons”—and daughters, too. Organized in short chapters that are themselves subdivided in small sections titled according to specific objects or phenomena—”Body Bags,” “Plums,” “String,” “Questions that Are Not Asked,” “The Last Day of the Holidays,” “The Garage”—the book reads as rather loosely structured for the first fifty pages or so, dipping into the stories of first this character then that, before eventually cohering around the work of one woman, the forensic anthropologist Dr. Ewa Klonowski, and the hopes and fears of a couple of families. There is no “I” in this book—the narrator is entirely evacuated, disembodied—no immediately identifiable organizing principle. But that uncanny vacancy is less the assertion of an intangible, distant authority, than—I think—an unaffected, and affectless, recreation of the author’s own devastation, having come so close to the heart of the atrocity. What the reader gets is about as unfiltered an account of tragedy as anything he or she is likely to read for a long time.

I can only imagine that Antonia Lloyd-Jones’s experience of translating this book, of finding the language in English and editing drafts and galleys of it, must have been harrowing. I’m reminded of a paper I once heard given by the University of Chicago professor Loren Kruger, who described the trauma that official interpreters for South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission themselves experienced as a byproduct of translating the testimonies of victims of human rights crimes. I wonder, too, if Tochman’s resistance to representing his own subjectivity might be understood as a kind of prophylaxis.

LIKE EATING A STONE is by no means an easy book, but for that, like Gourevitch’s stories from the Rwandan genocide, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, it is a necessary one. It is also not only a report about atrocities in Bosnia, but involves, too, I think, an attempt to engage the relationship between self and other, or rather, between others: Muslim Bosnian and Orthodox Serb; the living and the dead; the individual, unmarked male observer and the communities of women observed and described. The book stands—in fact it practically requires—being read multiple times, and certainly discussed and worked through.

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