True Ballad About Love, A

Aleksander Jurewicz
True Ballad About Love, A
  • ZNAK
    Kraków 2002
    150 x 213
    192 pp
    ISBN 83-240-0249-9

It hardly needs to be restated that nothing is more difficult to write about than love, despite the fact that the romance is undoubtedly the oldest of literary genres. Anyone these days who can still manage to portray the world of human emotions faithfully has to be a superb writer. Alexander Jurewicz has proved himself up to the task. The story he tells is quite simple: two young people are united in passionate feeling despite all that otherwise divides them — nationality, religion, politics. She, a Belarusian girl, comes from a traditional Catholic family; whereas he is a Russian whose family had been relocated to the Polish-Belarusian borderland, following its cession after the war to the Soviet Union, in order to cement the new political order there. The story takes place on the cusp of the 1950s outside the town of Lida, in a picturesque settlement set in a beautiful and more or less idyllic landscape. And so we see our protagonists against a backdrop of fields, meadows, and orchards, listening to the sounds of nature, delighting in the harmony and beauty all around them. This setting creates an exceptionally poetic atmosphere within which the story takes place. Jurewicz captivates and moves his reader with the graceful simplicity and singular warmth of his narration. A True Ballad About Loveis a ”tale” that gives its readers renewed capacity to experience emotion, a homage to that truest — and most bittersweet — of sentiments. (Of course, like a lot of great books, this one doesn’t end on a happy note.)

Dariusz Nowacki

Excerpt

No light was burning in her window. The cross of the window frame held panes so encrusted with hoar frost that they looked like silver stained glass. Last wisps of smoke leaked out of the chimney and dissipated imperceptibly in the darkness. From under a snowdrift caked with glittering scales of frost, the tops of currant bushes and a desiccated hedge poked out. Everything appeared to be deserted, in hibernation. The trees along the road, the well-trodden paths in the yards, the rectory, the bridge, and the river congealed into ice, birds somewhere hidden from view, hills and valleys, all were sound asleep. Asleep, too, were the orchards, wells, and garden gates, the doorknobs, cobwebs in the corners of picture frames, stalks of icicles over the windows, children’s red sleds, and the belfry in front of the church. The kitchen drowsed with its bread knives, sour milk in clay pitchers, linen towels hanging in front of cast-iron washbasins, mice in their burrows beneath the floor, dried bunches of wild herbs hung on rusted nails, braids of onions and garlic. And slumber had overtaken the cold tiled stoves, the moths in the wardrobes, the Sunday suits and white shirts, cuckoo clocks, clothes draped over the backs of chairs, worn-out shoes, tablecloths, tables, scattered toy building blocks, sewing machines, and wedding portraits on the walls. Slumber had taken for its own foreshortened loves and postponed separations, sorrows, memories, dreams, the onset of despair and the debris of hope. The world drifted off into a snow-mantled sleep. Voices and murmurs fell silent; even the wind, which in the evening had revealed itself in a brief, furious blizzard, had fallen silent. Michał stared at the dark house as if he believed the intensity of his desire alone could summon her shadow from the frost covered window. ”Even if I’m just seeing things,” he whispered into the icy air. ”I beg you, I beseech you, reassure me at least in this way that you’re there, that this search for you isn’t in vain. Give me a sign, even the most negligible, your footprints in the snow, or reveal yourself in the cry of a surprised bird, flare up in the sky like a falling star. So many days have passed, Sunbeam, I’ve lost track of them, and though they’re shorter now, it feels like centuries have passed since you were here. Evenings are the worst; I don’t know what to do with myself — I help Father with accounts in the office; sometimes we play cards; Mother makes me read War and Peace or Essenin’s poetry; all she does the whole day is read books or tea leaves, or play old arias on the gramophone, on records so cacophonous you can hardly hear the voice or the music. But whatever I do, you appear in front of me, and wherever I look, it’s you I see — in the bone beads of the abacus, in the figures on the playing cards, in the spoon stirring honey into the hot milk; and then everything starts to confuse me. I go outside, but here there’s only wind, ice, and silence interrupted by the barking of dogs or the song of drunkards. I look in the direction you took when you left, and it almost seems as though I can see the tracks of the sleigh again, as on that day when I came back from Lida and saw the tracks in the snow leading from your farmstead to the road. Then I followed them almost to the bridge, where they merged with the tracks of other sleighs. And so I look in that direction, towards where you might be, and force myself to  realise that you’re somewhere else now, among unfamiliar snows. All I have left of you is a tiny mark on my jacket, a trace where the button was torn off and I still haven’t managed to sew one back on, though at home they keep yelling at me that I go around like a ragamuffin. And I go around the whole time looking only for those hands that ripped it off. You probably think I’m losing my mind, but for you I’d lose my mind gladly. The best thing would be simply to take off, to wander in the blizzard looking for your uncle’s house, reconnoitring on some farmstead for traces of your footsteps, and to wait somewhere, hiding out until you leave the house to go to the well for water or show up in a window. How often I imagine this; and it’s only the fear that we might miss each other that keeps me here. I’ve been having a recurring dream about torn envelopes that I pick up from the floor, and finding nothing inside them, I greedily begin rifling through all the envelopes again, because something tells me that in one of them there’s a scrap of paper with your handwriting on it. Then someone forces open the door; I hear the latch jiggling and see someone’s fingers in the crack, and at that very moment the old clock we sold before leaving announces itself with an ear-piercing ring; I wake up and at first I have no idea where I am or why I cannot open my clenched hand. Do you see, Nina, what it’s like for me now, how I don’t even recognise myself, can’t even remember my own name sometimes, because for me the whole world has turned into a single name, yours…”

Translated by William Martin