Time is the muse and director of Piotr Paziński’s novel The Boarding House, in which a grandson returning to the site of childhood visits to his grandmother enters a claustrophobic journey into a broken world. The Time-muse, though austere, also exercises a seductive presence, advancing the sinuous pace of the novel in scenes-on-scenes of characters, labyrinthine hallways and doors, and an omnipresent whirlpool of objects.
Time has fixed the objects in the boarding house in a way that makes them seem immortal. Under their spell—and using them as lenses and navigational tools—the grandson-narrator’s return after the gap of a generation whips back and forth into and from a post-World War II tableau. The boarding house, through his eyes, is a living memory palace and a final window on the last generation of Polish Holocaust survivors.
Awarded both the European Union Prize for Literature and the Pasport Polityki, a Polish Cultural Award, The Boarding House is translated by literary translator and performance artist Tusia Dabrowska. Paziński scaffolds vivid description, argument, humorous dialogic tussles, exacting oral history, and heart-rending memories recalled by a host of the boarding house’s current and deceased residents. His editorial work with the journal Midrasz and his two scholarly books on Joyce, serve this debut novel exceedingly well. Reportage delivered in the voices of those who fled Warsaw to the safety of the boarding house functions like oral history made new. The survivors’ stories—because of the way Pazinski manipulates shifts in tense and creates quick-cut, mid-paragraph divergences into the past—feel intimate as personal diaries left open on desks in the private rooms of the house.
Here are two examples of collisions in voice and Time:
The buildings here were erected quickly: post-and-beam structures, wooden boards and some pine-needle thatch inside to keep in the warm air. They still prove to be resilient, more than half a century older than their oldest inhabitants. They pretend they haven’t been orphaned. . . The rooms on the first floor are cheaper because they require a hike up the stairs, but they’re cozier . . .
On summer evenings, crowds of pedestrians swarmed on the path through the resort, the Warsaw gentry ambled up and down, the lanterns flickered. (3, 4)
“Mala?” Ms. Tecia spoke. Thanks to her I learned the name of the other old lady. “Where were you? I looked for you in the forest, you know?”
“I was here the whole time. I didn’t move from here at all,” Ms. Mala was defensive. It was obvious she feared Ms. Tecia.
“How were you here if you were not here?” Ms. Tecia gave a grim look. (8)
Here and not here: who was swept away from home in Warsaw, and who fled across countries and continents, and who perished en route, and who miraculously escaped and survived? Who in the novel is here, and who, like one of the most compelling characters, Doctor Kahn, is here handing a small boy a sweet or transmogrifies into Mr. Jakub (fused in the above scene with Jacob) now occupying the doctor’s room?
While reading The Boarding House I considered other novelists laboring in a vineyard perhaps similar to that of Paziński, novelists like Jenny Erpenbeck, Olga Tokarczuk, Esther Kinsky, and Bruno Schultz, among many others. But the element of pure enchantment in Paziński’s style and lyricism most clearly recalled for me Elio Vittorini’s masterwork Conversations in Sicily (translated by Alane Salierno Mason, New Directions 2000).
Though Vittorini’s novel is more dramatically operatic in many of its choral-like dialogic scenes, and his narrator’s existential crisis and psychological exposition are more deeply explored, Paziński, like Vittorini, reveres the power of objects as luminous elements in Time’s slippery passageways and stopping places. While Vittorini calls forth and repeats emblematic foods and drinks, Paziński hones in on lamps, a box of photographs, the doctor’s candy bowl, and scores of other objects to guide his narrator through the boarding house and into history.
All begins with the semi-circular glass dining room door. Its dramatic convexity works like a larger-than-life lens: Time, then, offers a curvilinear, plastic view, and the narrator is able to go close and to “read” the past through images.
The common room with a clumsy fresco, behind the dining room. I used to think it was a ballroom and that’s what I called it. Separated by a heavy, semi-circular door. Crystal glass framed in wood. Hard to peek in, the space was always filled with sacral dusk. The most mysterious place in the house. It was set aside for adults, but I was allowed to come there for evening cartoons. Before the news. White noise on the screen of the color TV that no one knew how to tune properly. (21)
Tangibles: fresco, door, and TV frame the unknowable visceral “dusk,” “white noise,” and the animated other-world of cartoons. News blocked out. Later, the grown grandson continues manipulating optics while caught under their spell:
My hand finally reached a light switch. A gray lampshade responded with the scant light of a fluorescent lamp. Dried dead flies cast fantastically-shaped shadows. Considering the size of the building, the hallway was short, yet it seemed to lengthen as I crossed it. I used to be scared of walking down here: over there, at the end, a damp and stuffy twilight draped with a thin layer of dust particles that reluctantly parted in front of an intruder. But maybe the source of my fears was entirely different, I’m not sure anymore. It is very likely that I feared less the darkness and more the consequences of illicit ventures into the regions whose existence for reasons still unclear was kept from me like a deep secret. (27)
A conditional in-between realm seems to blur even further the way to the padlocked door on the past, except when the past emerges through Paziński’s gathering of characters telling their stories. Some of the stories’ exactitude call to mind the vivid work of Svetlana Alexievich. Others are humorous, quirky, uncanny in their tenderness and idiosyncrasies.
Variations on the effects of the massive glass lens/door take on additional forms, when, in sharp memory-passages, the narrator recalls his boredom inside the web of adults’ conversations, when he could meditate on a painting and “gaze into the forest of figures staring at me with their nonexistent eyes. Sometimes the painting shone with a pale light and I thought that I could see a silver glow stretching above the figures, and they reached out of the painting to populate the room, sit comfortably in the armchairs and on the sofa, or insolently squat down on the shelves of bookcases.” (52)
Paziński’s familiarity with the presence(s) of the dead emerges in a stark and elegant presentation of “built” and “natural” structures: house, hallway, forest, railway station. As the narrative builds, he steps inside his take on “Polish realism” as everything begins to move on its own motion as the following scene fuses street and house: “More noise than in the street—everyone is yelling, everyone is debating. The tops of the desks squeak, in their hands volumes framed in brown leather, frayed from use, flutter” (55).
Similar fusion and memory-film occur when the narrator’s sudden vision of his mother appears on a path:
to the forester’s lodge that I couldn’t find now, but which I know for sure existed at the edges of our wonderland, in this magical place where the train tracks turned and the land was becoming slightly damp and from which it was impossible to go any further because it seemed that all paths lead to nowhere and the surrounding wall of the green forest didn’t really exist but instead was painted on some great magical curtain that reached from earth to heaven. (66)
Many epiphanic passages interrupt and loop around and within the dreamy novel. Intermittently the narrator nears a “gate” seeming to head to the station and leave the village, only to be presented with further questions as well as premonitions. Paziński’s startling “ghost train,” “schedule,” “chains,” and the enticing “night owl” persona who wrestles with his insomnia and his waking moments’ bracing visions all act in concert. Thus, Time remains slippery and monolithic. Yet we might find slivers of movement within it.
Paziński, Piotr. The Boarding House. Translated by Tusia Dabrowska. Dalkey Archive Press, 2018.