Piotr Szewc


By Piotr Szewc, trans. Ewa Hryniewicz-Yarbrough (Dalkey Archive Press, 1999)

In what is perhaps the best use of jacket copy I've ever seen, we learn from the back of the book that this novella is about a day in the life of a Polish town in 1934, a few years before it is completely destroyed during World War II. It's tempting to wonder if Szewc and his editor intended to use the jacket to divulge the single major plot point from the onset; maybe I just don't know enough about Polish history to catch the clues (very likely), or maybe something is lost in translation (very unlikely), but this sharp, beautiful book itself gives very, very little indication of the catastrophe to come. Certainly without the jacket copy, I would have missed it.

But the copy does divulge its single, overwhelming fact, and as a result, in —which really is, no more and no less, a snapshot of a single day in the life of a town doomed to destruction, a single day in the lives of a handful of its inhabitants, who are not going to live much longer—every detail hums with urgency and, yes, meaning, carried along by some of the most exquisitely understated prose I've read in a while. The book is almost unutterably sad, because it doesn't succumb to the pretense that by documenting these characters, they've somehow been saved; that's a copout. It's the other way around: For all the calmness that the narrator describes, the narrator himself is frantic, running from street to street, from person to person. Look at this house, he says. Meet him. Meet her. Because they aren't going to be here when you come back.

Yet somehow, in all that frenzy and sadness, as the details mount and the day progresses and draws to an end, the mourning starts to feel like celebration, and at the same time, defiance. When I finished it, I didn't want to crawl into a grave, or ruminate on how lousy people are; I wanted to hug my wife and kid, to call my parents and my sister, to visit my friends. To walk around my neighborhood and fly around the world, to meet as many people as I could. Because if you believe that everything is temporary, this book opens your eyes again to how important it is, as Marvin Gaye once said, to love before it's too late.