I enjoy Jacek Dehnel’s writing immensely, both his prose (Balzakiana, Krivoklat) and his reactions to events in Poland that he posts on his FB account (some of them later translated and published in the likes fo Guardian). And I’ve had Lala on my shelf for a few years now, in a beautiful Polish edition. Yet I was dreading the book, it finally got consigned to the shelf with other thick and scary ones.
It wasn’t only the size that was causing my dread. Dehnel is only a few years older than me, and this book is about his grandmother. My relationship with mine has been varied throughout my life and for the past six years outright difficult. So I was apprehensive to read about someone else’s grandmother, her memories but also her decline. But finally after a string of non-fiction books and resorting to Shirley Jackson for comfort and escapism I thought nothing can be worse than the crazy world we live in.
And I was amazed. Because the book is generally cheerful. It brought back al the tales I heard from my grandparents (in my case it was more my grandfather who was the teller of the family tales), it felt familiar and comfortable. Like going back home. Dehnel was raised in Gdańsk, but his family is not originally from around. Similar to mine. When you think that Poland has been divided among three neighboring countries for over a hundred years, when it was reunited there have been so many various cultures mixing. My family generally comes from the Prussia part, while Dehnel’s mixes some Prussian influence with quite a lot of time the family spent in the east.
The stories range from the crazy business ideas of his great-great-grandfather, through the changing fortunes, wars. The shrinking and vanishing estate, all the way to WWII and communism. He frames is as the stories his grandmother was telling him. Accounting for her disjointed narrative (she was often easily distracted, and then her memory started failing). It is a book about family history and about losing it. Both through people losing memories and dying, but also though losing objects. It is a world that slips from our hands. He also shows how he tries to preserve it not only through the book but by sharing the stories with his closest friends.
It is a book about strong women, but also about everyone losing their battle with time. It is funny, crazy, and sad at the same time. But never tragic. He manages to convey the spirit I saw in my grandfather, of never giving up and always trying to have some fun. Maybe it is the wisdom that comes with age, but I really think that generation had something we’re missing. They would never accept defeat, they would get up and start again because life is important. And despair is wasting it. That is not to say there was no grief and tragedy in their life, there was more than enough, but they never let it define them. They were larger than that and there was a life to live.
Dehnel masterly weaves the family history with the story of his grandmother again, but also with his conversations with friends. Showing us that as much as we’re losing the old world every day, it can be saved a little bit by sharing memories about it. Even if they become confused.