Monday, October 02, 2017

Living among dirt and chaos

"I don't like the fact that eventually every conversation between Catholic Poles and Jews goes back to events from almost seventy years ago. As if there hadn't been seven hundred years shared history before that, and everything after it. Just a sea of dead bodies and nothing else."
A Grain of Truth, by Zygmunt Miłoszewski, is the second mystery novel featuring State Prosecutor Teodor Szacki. I stayed away from this novel for a few years precisely because I didn't want to read about that conversation.

But Miłoszewski handles it judiciously. Since World War II, and even before then, Polish-Jewish relations have been complicated and strained. The plot of this mystery hinges on those tensions, which persist today.

The murder has the characteristics of Jewish slaughter, and the story is linked to the myth of blood libel. As such, the prosecutor has to confront the anti-Semitic past of his adopted town, Sandomierz: xenophobia and violence and resurgent nationalism. The investigation delves into archives, symbols, and local legends.

A Grain of Truth also features a painting in Sandomierz cathedral, which for years was covered up with a cloth because it was considered offensive. Since the novel was written, the painting is again on display, but with an informative plaque. Here's the thing about owning your past.

Read the excellent review at NPR.

What I particularly like about these novels is the cultural touchstones Miłoszewski offers me: Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz. Jacek Kaczmarski. Julian Tuwim.

I'm not even sure why I know those names. My mother doesn't know those names. It's just luck that my social and educational path at one time crossed the Poland Miłoszewski references. For this reason, I find these books highly relatable. Surely someone who has no Polish heritage would also enjoy these books, but maybe they wouldn't resonate in the same way.

Szacki's failed marriage and his general uncertainty about life (in any realm beyond his profession) also contribute to the feeling of relatability. He's just a regular, fucked-up guy.

I also like how he disses both small-town life and Warsaw. I never much liked either.
All those years living in Warsaw he'd sensed that something wasn't right, that the ugliest capital city in Europe wasn't a friendly place, and that his attachment to its grey stone walls was in actual fact a sort of neurotic dependence, urban Stockholm Syndrome. Just as prisoners become dependent on their prison, and husbands on their bad wives, so he believed that the very fact of living among dirt and chaos was enough for him to bestow affection on that dirt and chaos.

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