Andrzej Stasiuk’s novel Dziewięć (Nine) came to me heavily recommended. Stasiuk is a bonafide celebrity in his native Poland and is one of the few contemporary authors form that country to generate a significant amount of international acclaim. Critics have made favorable comparisons to Sarte, Camus, Hamsun, and even Kafka. The book uses a highly fragmented, highly oblique approach that has generally been hailed as modernistic in the best sense of the word. It is also said to grippingly portray the realities of the post-communism generation in Poland.
I think there is a fair amount of truth to what has been said about this book, but I do not think it is quite as good as some have insisted. I enjoyed it, and it is a strong work, but the book’s method of composition does have some limitations, and I think the author’s goals for Nine could have been broader.
The book is indeed very oblique–quite daringly so–and for the most part this works very well. We begin in media res, and the opening sense of dislocation is potent. Pawel, one of the book’s characters (although none are a true protagonist), wakes up and performs his morning ablutions in a shattered apartment:
He picked up one of the toothbrushes, rinsed it under the tap, scraped some toothpaste off the wall. Then he squatted and chose a razor with a cracked handle. He found the can of shaving cream under the bath. It was dented but something still swished inside.
There’s utterly no explanation for what has happened or why Pawel reacts to it all with such nonchalance. It is both an attention-grabbing start and distancing, as the book implies absolutely no intention of filling us in.
This is Nine’s modus operandi. Again and again it drops us in the middle of scenes that usually bear no relation to what has come before or what will immediately follow. Stasiuk likes to refer to characters by pronouns in order to enhance ambiguity and force us to rely on surface details for orientation. (As I will explain in a moment, this poses its own problems, as the scenes and characters blend in this dirty, snow-gray book.)
Even when sections of Nine loosely form a narrative (stress on the loosely), Stasiuk does what he can to stifle our ability to make connections. For instance, at one point there is a tense chase scene that takes place over the course of about 10 one-page fragments. From fragment to fragment, Stasiuk keeps describing the details of the chase in extremely off-kilter ways. The action is really very simple, two men are chasing another with an intent to batter him, but as we jump from fragment to fragment we are forced to figure out whose perspective Stasiuk is now taking and what has happened in the pursuit in the space that has been jumped over.
Although I did not see Robbe-Grillet mentioned in conjunction with Nine, I think in many ways the New Novelists are a more useful reference point than the existentialists. Certainly there is a Sartrean quality to the emptiness of the characters’ lives and the way in which they are depicted with no sympathy or even regard for their most basic feelings, but the existentialists tended to tell a more or less straightforward narrative. By contrast, Nine, like many New Novels, purposely jumbles everything, forces us to do all the work of narrative construction, only infers to crucial scenes (never actually depicting them), and resists giving much beyond surface detail.
I found this both to the book’s advantage and disadvantage. The advantage is that it lets Stasiuk work with a story that isn’t terribly original or interesting: Nine basically covers a few minor incidents in the life of small-time. Plotwise, Stasiuk doesn’t offer any new takes on this story. (Probably this is by design, as I don’t think he would find Warsaw gangsters all that different from their brethren in other lands). But by telling his story in such an elliptical manner, Stasiuk manages to make this dull plot an inviting place for an active readers to spend several hours.
Much more importantly, this mode of storytelling also allows Stasiuk to ignore what, presumably, doesn’t interest him: the deals and thrills around which a normal gangster story would circle. Instead Stasiuk often leads us off-course into the little details of life in post-communism Warsaw, sometimes as they pertain to the gangsters and sometimes as they don’t. For example, here Stasiuk’s resistance to focusing on his characters and their stories (represented in this passage by a mobster’s Beamer) allows him to dawdle on details that would detract from the momentum in a more conventional novel:
Now, adults, they slowed to a walking pace because the Beamer was lurching over potholes and scraping its belly on the cinders. To their right, a long building roofed with felt. Several of the chimneys smoking. Life was going on in ten one-room apartments. People sitting together and watching television. Women opened doors and let out kitchen smells. Men pottering about in small sheds behind chain-link fences, fixing mopeds or cars that would never drive again. Between chicken coops, old discolored refrigerators, things still kept in them. Objects rarely used or completely unnecessary, but even when thrown out they remained in reach and were property. A crow perched on a satellite dish.
"They probably stil eat rabbits." [from within the Beamer]
The characters’ integration with their surroundings never gets deeper than that dismissive comment, but Stasiuk has nonetheless managed to smuggle in loads of atmospheric detail as to this Warsaw slum. Truly, the environment itself becomes the most interesting and original aspect of Nine, and as the above passage indicates, Stasiuk can write beautifully on it. Notably, Nine pays close attention to mass transit and the characters’ relationship to it (people talk about certain number busses as they would actual people). The book is also very observant of the demarcations drawn between those who can participate in the normal marketplace (and all of its luxury goods), and those who must consume in the gray market that often exists right by its side:
They went down into the underpass, where the neon was like fog, blurring everything. In their place people regained their shape only when they emerged again by the post office and went to catch a 4 tram or a 26 or a 34 and found themselves across the river, where the world was completely different. For decades they’d been getting out of trains and suburban buses at Wilenski station dressed in garish clothing to invade, to conquer downtown with its wonders, glitz, and glamor. . . . It was to tempt them that the Rozyckiego bazaar appeared two streets on. By Brezeska, the smell of the country. White pyramids of heart-shaped cheeses, eggs, pickled cucumbers, bundles of dead chickens, their pale, plucked bodies, live birds in shit-stained cages, carrots, parsnips, . . .
The other advantage with this mode of narrative construction is that it, as I hope can be seen above, gives Stasiuk considerable reason to be creative with his language, a call that I think he answers quite well in the pages of Nine.
The problem with Stasiuk’s structure is that we lose out on character. In some novels, ones that are after other things that realism and character development, this would not be much of an issue; however, it is quite clear that Nine wants to depict a realist world, and that the people who inhabit that world are important. But by so obfuscating our ability to know what is going on, Stasiuk places large barriers to his characters coming across as real and interesting people.
It’s no coincidence that in this novel dominated by men, the two women characters are among the most distinct: with such tangentiality, it’s difficult to develop a sense of the male characters (whom blend together for much of the course of this book), but since there are only two female characters, it’s far easier to determine which of them is being portrayed at any given moment, and so we can more easily develop a sense of each woman as a person.
Eventually, to Stasiuk’s credit, even his male characters begin to develop personas of their own. In fact, once you know who is who, you can go back through the novel and see that Stasiuk has been taking care to define them all along (but you probably didn’t notice on the first pass because you were busy sorting out larger, more fundamental issues). But this process does take a while, and by then we’ve experienced about half of the novel only knowing most of the characters as ghost-like presences.
I think overall Nine triumphs and manages to use its more atypical features to its advantage, although I do think that at times Stasiuk could have been more careful to compensate for his form’s liabilities. Also, although writing in this book is generally a strong point, at times it is lax, enough so to be noticable over the course of the novel. However, I do not mean to be too hard on Nine. I would certainly recommend this book as one that largely thrives on its innovations and wages a successful campaign to innovate while rendering an authentic world. And, my reading of Nine has aroused my interest in future translations of Stasiuk’s work.