This was probably one of the most depressing books I read and am going to read this year. Yet, it is also by far one of the best ones. It moved me in ways I did not expect, made me cry and I do think because of it I was down throughout May (it might have also been the weather, but mentally May of 2019 felt like February, long, cold, dark and depressing). Which explains why it took me so long to review it, I was literally avoiding the place where it waited for me to pick it up for review.
I read only one other book by Szczygieł – Gottland, which I adored, for its balance of wit and humor and the sober look at a nation at the same time. Then my mum recommended and borrowed me this one.
It is a series of reportages, or journalistic essays, all revolving around the lack of something, memory and the passing of time. They are very different, some brilliant other merely impressions, but together they build up to a world where we lose something every day, where sometimes this loss gives us relief, but sometimes it hurts. A world where things that should never be forgotten are, allowing atrocities to keep happening. A world where we all fight for our share of happiness before we’re gone.
Google translate gives this version of the title: ‘there is no’. I’m also tempted to ‘it’s not there/here’. Szczygieł varies his material a lot, using his own memories, but also countless conversations with people like a Czech poet, a Ukrainian soldier, a Polish accountant, an Albanian painter or an Israeli writer. He throws his net far and wide, trying to understand all aspects of loss and vanishing.
It’s not all doom and gloom though. He shares an excel spreadsheet in which one of his interviewees track her life’s successes failures and stresses. Adamant that she will end in a positive, otherwise how sad would be her death. She did not have an easy life, yet the feeling of control of her own destiny is very powerful. There are other stories, where loss does not have a negative meaning, it feels more like good riddance.
I was deeply moved by this book, maybe it was because I was a bit more fragile when I read it, but it made me think of all the cases of ‘there is no’. It focused me on the past instead of the future, made me brooding and dark. It took me a while to find the light again, and while I appreciate the power of the absent it also made me pay more attention to what is present, as it may be gone soon.
A powerful book and one that I hope will be translated into English shortly.