I read this book a month and a half ago and sadly last week’s events reminded me I still have to review it. What happened last week you may ask, in the Polish city of Białystok an LGBT march was met with a slew of violence and hatred. You may also rightly ask what does it have to do with this book or its author, Dehnel was at the march and he wrote a very urgent text about it on his Facebook page, which subsequently got translated and published in the Guardian – here. It made me cry, I do admit I am living in a happy bubble, consciously avoiding news to stay sane. So when the bubble gets burst like this it is never pleasant.
I read only two or three books by Dehnel so far and enjoyed them all, mostly for the quality of the prose. The crime fiction he publishes with his partner Piotr Tarczyński as Maryla Szymiczkowa are witty and full of bourgeoisie references (as possible in Cracow a 100 years ago). Krivoklat, on the other hand, is a scouring pastiche on society. Both of them beautifully written, in a bit old school prose, but one that the reader can luxuriate in.
As you may have guessed the title Balzakiana refers to Honoré de Balzac and The Human Comedy. At this point, I must sadly admit not having read any of Balzac’s books. A mistake which after reading this book I am adamant to fix.
Balzakiana consists of four stories, which Dehnel uses as a vehicle to show us a gallery of Polish society types. They are on one hand generic on the other very specific and fully fleshed individuals. We despise them when they get petty and mean (which is often), only to start pity them and recognize ourselves in them when some of their choices are explained, only to again condemn them when they become petty and evil.
The stories show us a bourgeois family infiltrated by an artist; a self-made woman, that wanted only affection from her family, but instead got robbed blind; a man offering lessons in being someone else and an older singer dreaming about rebuilding her career and falling prey to evils of this world. They are all blindsided, selfish, and small, but at the same time so very human we cannot fully condemn them. They are us, just without any pretty excuses, all our bad thoughts bared and showed back to us.