Stylistically, Jacek Dehnel’s family saga is a hybrid. It reads like a memoir, includes real people and their portraits, covers historical events, and features a family tree and endnotes. And yet Lala is described as a novel. It is based on fact, but is crafted like fiction. The narrative is intricate, rambling and, like memory itself, sometimes frustratingly elusive.
Dehnel’s family tales begin in Kiev in the 1860s and encompass more than one hundred and fifty years. Accounts of personal fortunes, and of loves won and lost, are set against some of the moments of the 20th century that helped to shape today’s Poland.
On the first page, Dehnel tells us he is beginning at his story’s end, with his grandmother, the eponymous Lala, sitting out her final days, like the doll she is named after, ‘muffled in rugs and baggy knitted waistcoats, so very thin, small and light, it’s hard to connect her with our memory’. Lala is made up of reminiscences, both Dehnel’s and his granny’s: ‘the story begins, as usual, in pieces, now here, now there, in all sorts of different places and bodies, most of which ceased to exist long ago.’ Indeed, Lala has a tendency to ramble, to repeat herself, to lose track of her thoughts and to misremember certain details. She rarely draws to a conclusion but, for Dehnel, ‘of all the antiquities to be seen in my northern Polish city, she was the most fascinating’.
Early on, we learn that Grandpapa Leonard, Lala’s father, faced the tsarist firing squad and owned the first automobile in Ukraine; that Grandmama Wanda was orphaned as a young girl and grew up in a convent before Leonard rescued her and made his fortune; and that another relation, Romusia, had galloping consumption. We are given snapshots of history, fragments of past lives, before learning more about each of these people and their place in the wider narrative.
Astonishingly, Dehnel (born in 1980) started writing down his grandmother’s stories when he was 14 and had completed Lala by the time he was 24 (it was originally published in 2006). In the final section, Dehnel interrupts Lala’s recollections and takes over the narrative, because, tragically, she had started to suffer from memory loss. Suddenly the focus becomes less about memory and more about saying goodbye to a loved one. Dehnel is similarly fond of digression, ‘putting out shoots and proliferating into whole thickets of words and punchlines; unrestrained…’ This rambling creativity appears to be a trait of contemporary Polish literature. Writing in the TLS, Dehnel observed: ‘Modern Polish fiction is often amorphous and untidy, replacing traditional order with linguistic inventiveness and the poetics of the dream.’
Dehnel is an acclaimed poet and this is clear in his lyrical descriptions of family and landscape. But Lala is a challenging novel – memories overlap and the reader has to work hard to keep up with his long, expansive sentences. Dehnel suggests that the ‘repetition of wise and beautiful things is wise and beautiful in itself, and is the same sort of virtuous act as feeding the hungry, caring for animals, watering plants or donating to charity’. I’m not entirely convinced, however, that such repetition enhances what is an already rich narrative.
The novel’s finer moments are when Dehnel alights on a theme and sticks with it. The periods when Lala lived under occupation – first under the Nazis, then the communists – are particularly memorable. Here, personal anecdotes illuminate the political. Dehnel’s grandfather, Lala’s second husband, worked for the State Forests and thought himself a genuine communist because ‘he always put the good of the community in first place’. But his honesty got him into trouble because he ‘sniffed out all sorts of plots and swindles … dubious hunting activities or illegal tree felling, selling timber on the side and profiteering; every time he was transferred to another department, and if he blew the whistle on something really serious, he was relocated to another city’.
Eloquently translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, Dehnel’s Lala offers an extraordinary insight into historical events by examining one family’s response to them. And in writing so explicitly about Lala’s mental deterioration in the novel’s final pages, Dehnel inhabits a space that is both private and public. His novel thus serves as a celebration of Lala’s life and a striking evocation of Poland’s turbulent past.
Reviewed by Lucy Popescu
Written by Jacek Dehnel
Translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
Published by Oneworld (2018)
Lucy Popescu reviews books for various publications including the Financial Times, TLS and New Humanist. Her anthology, A Country to Call Home, focusing on the experiences of young refugees was published in June 2018. Her other publications include A Country of Refuge, The Good Tourist and Another Sky. She is chair of the Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award. www.LucyPopescu.com / Twitter: @Lucyjpop
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