Review: A Treatise on Shelling Beans by Wiesław Myśliwski, Translated by Bill Johnston
Wiesław Myśliwski’s most recent novel, A Treatise on Shelling Beans, begins with a question: “You’re here to buy beans, sir?” Myśliwski never offers an outright answer, and you get the sense he’s content without one. Instead, the book resides within the interstice of question and answer, imbuing its characters with the lilting ambiguity of a half-forgotten memory. This is to say, Shelling Beans is for the dreamers.
The story unfolds as a meditation on life in its mutability, specifically the life of the aforementioned question asker whose present-day wisdom Myśliwski contrasts with the follies of his youth. While the conceit of fiction narrator–as-autobiographer is time tested, Myśliwski brilliantly subverts the form by bucking chronology in deference to the caprice of human memory. Disparate vignettes such as childhood saxophone lessons and a late-life missed connection are remembered adjacently, equal to the narrator in their potential for a hindsight epiphany (or not). The resulting narrative is more akin to the flurrying images of a zoetrope than a bildungsroman. It’s a powerful choice, one that affords Myśliwski the resonance of Proustian reflection without spilling too far into the solipsism of that technique. At times, Shelling Beans feels like the Great Polish Novel in its fascination with life and death, but the humility of its narrator—and its author—always concedes that there exists no one great answer.
This sense of activity—the sense that nothing is so decided that it can’t be interpreted otherwise—is part of what makes Shelling Beans so compelling. The integration of these vignettes into the frame of the narrator teaching his guest to shell beans makes the whole book feel like a musing on fiction writing. At first glance, the narrator’s multitudinous tangents and set pieces smack of colorful but minor characterization: apprenticing as an electrician at a juvenile reform school, a grandfather all too effusive about his war crimes, tossed-off references to an uncle’s suicide. A master of minutia, Myśliwski offers a hundred such breadcrumbs, each leading down its own trail of intrigue. Gradually throughout the story, these components start to coalesce like the notes in a musical scale, each detail building upon a handful of other details to induce an increasingly clear chord. In this way, Shelling Beans almost reflects the process of setting out to write a novel. As Myśliwski’s narrator learns to cohere his experiences into a truth by which to gauge his life, Myśliwski himself seems to revel in the freedom of perspective. “If you ask me everyone lives their own life,” he writes, “and every life is a separate history.” As a reader, then, part of the fun is playing author and stitching together your own take on the narrator’s history—or, at the very least, seeing if you can keep up with Myśliwski’s.
The success of the fiction’s construction lies in no small part with the fluidity of the prose. The 2013 Archipelago Books publication of Shelling Beans is a translation by Bill Johnston, who previously translated Myśliwski to great acclaim (2011’s Stone Upon Stone, also published by Archipelago). The symbiosis of the two men is palpable, with Johnston’s keenness for careful diction and repeated phrasing contributing immensely to the sensation of walking around inside someone else’s brain. If there was ever a book too tonally sinuous for translation, it’s this one; this is a novel that plays a militant throng of grade-schoolers (naturally enraged at a power outage that robs them of a film’s final frames) for both political satire and Modernist tragedy, juxtaposing the kids’ absurd motivation with the ruination of a well-meaning but feckless professor. Yet there is hardly a moment of humor or pathos that feels unearned, no image that seems meaningless.
All of this, then, leads back to the book’s seeming red herring of an opening line. Although the narrator instructs his guest in bean shelling for the duration of the novel’s frame narrative, it’s an activity that takes place around the margins of the more comprehensive vignettes. What, then, is Myśliwski’s treatise all about? One answer comes straight from the narrator himself: “We’re sitting here shelling beans, you could say you’re here, I’m here, and between our hands we feel every pod . . . It’s only our imaginings of one another that fill out the fact that we’re shelling beans. Honestly, I even think it’s only what’s imagined that’s actually real.” Perhaps the bean-shelling can be understood as clearly as an opportunity to examine oneself given such a simple task, its facileness a conductor of surging, esoteric truths. Myśliwski’s ambiguity would be infuriating if his novel didn’t herald something far more singular: a novel with the power to make us feel every pod simply by reading it.
For more information, please visit Archipelago’s website.
A Treatise on Shelling Beans
Wiesław Myśliwski, translated by Bill Johnston
Posted: Dec 10, 2014
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