A Long, Long Time Ago & Essentially True
By Brigid Pasulka
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 368 pages, $25.00.
A new literary genre has been making waves recently — one that might be called the narrative of nostalgia. Think Jonathan Safran Foer, Nicole Krauss, Michael Chabon and Gary Shteyngart, to name just a few authors who, in recent years, have achieved enormous literary success through fictional works that explore a personal but remote past by reinventing the worlds of their ancestors. But the nostalgic frenzy that’s overcome a new generation of emerging writers isn’t limited to Ashkenazic Jews whose ancestral villages often no longer exist.
Enter Brigid Pasulka, an American descendant of Polish (non-Jewish) immigrants, whose debut novel, “A Long, Long Time Ago & Essentially True,” reimagines Poland’s past by weaving together two distinct but related narratives, both set in Poland. The first, which takes place around World War II, centers on Half-Village where a heartwarming love story unfolds between the Pigeon (a young man) and Anielica (Polish for “angel”), renowned throughout the neighboring villages for her beauty. The second follows their granddaughter Beata, nicknamed Baba Yaga, as a young woman trying to find herself in 21st-century Krakow, a gray and gloomy city still reeling from half a century of communist rule.
In many ways, the two narratives could not have less in common. While the story of Anielica and the Pigeon has all the makings of a fairy tale, complete with an unlikely romance and a terrifying war that all the family members somehow manage to survive, Baba Yaga’s is an uneventful, achingly dull existence. Which, of course, makes perfect sense: Nostalgia is all about the distant and often inaccessible past; it is, to quote poet and critic Susan Stewart, “a longing that of necessity is inauthentic because it does not take part in lived experience.”
The book’s publisher refers to “echoes of Jonathan Safran Foer and Nicole Krauss” in this novel. But the likenesses are more than mere echoes. Indeed, Pasulka seems to have closely modeled her novel on the works of both these authors — from the title, which brings to mind Foer’s “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” and the characters’ odd names (Pigeon recalls Krauss’s Bird), to the fantastic stories she spins about the Old Country.
But while critics have called Foer’s writing gimmicky and overwrought, the narratorial voice in this novel is contained, sometimes to a fault. During their first romantic outing, the Pigeon accidentally bumps up against Anielica and reaches out to catch her, ending up with a “handful of her ample bosom.” He apologizes, but Anielica “only stared into the distance, her face a collage of fear and confusion.” Often, Pasulka’s elegant sentences seem at odds with the eccentric world of her novel, challenging the reader’s suspension of disbelief.
Like Foer and Krauss, Pasulka infuses her novel with ethnic humor and inside jokes. Surprisingly, though, some of these references end up revealing similarities across cultural divides. In the Pigeon-Anielica narrative, for example, we learn that the Pigeon is endowed with an inordinately large nose. It was “too much of a protrusion to lie prostrate before the altar for his ordination,” and, according to his mother, “too large to kiss a girl without inflicting a concussion.” But the Pigeon is undeterred: “After all, countless generations of Poles have managed to procreate despite their noses.” It’s the sort of humor one easily can imagine circulating among Jews. In another instance, the narrator sums up the characters’ heated conversation about how best to secure the group’s safety with the idiom “three Poles, four opinions.”
And then there’s the food. When a shotgun wedding is arranged for Anielica’s brother, who, horrors of horrors, has impregnated a Jewish girl from a nearby shtetl, the preparations for the Christian wedding (the bride is being baptized) read like something out of an Isaac Bashevis Singer novel: The groom, his father and brother-in-law-to-be made multiple trips “selling and trading everything they could and bringing it all back in the form of food: cages of wild ducklings, strings of dried fish, sacks of flour, salt and sugar, lumps of yeast, jugs of oil and cow’s milk.” And the women, along with their neighbors, work “feverishly, bonding over the steaming pots, the piles of peelings, the jars of preserves….” In the end, it seems as if there is “enough food to last for a year.”
Like Foer and others of his ilk, Pasulka is enchanted by the world of her ancestors. But while the many novels and short stories about Jewish life in Eastern Europe are aimed at re-creating a world that was essentially and — not so very long ago — utterly destroyed, the sense of longing that infuses Pasulka’s novel is less convincing, in part because the country she is writing about continues to exist, if not exactly flourish. Hers is also a jarring novel, because of how it approaches a subject that, to the Ashkenazic-Jewish mindset, is all but synonymous with the worst kind of antisemitism, and with centuries of Jewish communal life that was abruptly wiped off the map, forever.
Jews are not entirely absent from Pasulka’s fictional account of Polish history — but they seem to exist as token characters within the larger framework of this novel, the author’s begrudging acknowledgment, perhaps, of the country’s significant Jewish population until World War II. Antisemitism, too, is always on the periphery of these narratives, with antisemitic slurs attributed to minor characters, while the book’s central characters are utterly devoid of any trace of racism. It’s as if, in the history of Jewish-Polish relations, antisemitism were an aberration rather than the norm.
Further indication that the novel’s Jews are little more than token characters lies in the kind of random bits of information the author offers up about her Jewish characters. When Anielica and the Pigeon heroically hide their Jewish sister-in-law and her family, the only mention made of Jewish ritual observance occurs when the Pigeon “scrounged eight teacups and eight bits of candles” so that the family could observe Hanukkah in war-torn Poland. It’s hardly a likely scenario, especially given that the family is nowhere depicted as particularly religiously inclined: No mention is made of special dietary restrictions or Sabbath observance. In fact, there is barely any description of the Jewish family at all.
Of course, none of this should matter in a novel, which, unlike a memoir, really isn’t beholden to any truths — whether historical or moral. And yet, reading this novel, I couldn’t help but question my own assumptions about the interplay of art and life, and about the moral obligations of the artist.
For me, as a Jew of Ashkenazic, Eastern European descent, Pasulka’s narrative of nostalgia raises larger questions about the ramifications of divergent histories and of what happens when a particular subject — in this case, Poland — conjures up the most horrific memories for some, while evoking, for others, a sense of deep longing.
Shoshana Olidort is a freelance writer living in New York.