Through the eyes of Szymek Pietruszka, a peasant with scant education, little money and even fewer prospects, we are shown a slice of rural life before, during and after the Second World War.
The transition is captured in minute detail and delivered in a series of soliloquies that act as metaphors for the change in Poles’ relationships to family, to community, the church and the land.
Memories pour onto the page and while there’s no fondness for the post-war Communist period there’s no great nostalgia for the past either.
Author Wieslaw Mysliwski takes us into a bleak period where people are living hand to mouth, shackled to the land as much as their beasts of burden. This is no rural idyll. This is a world of brutal work, simple minds, ignorance and superstition, jealousy and viciousness.
Pietruszka shuns the plough and spurns the authority of the church, but cannot escape his basest instincts. He drinks, he fights, he fornicates and wakes up to do it all again and again and again. He’s a ladies man, a heartbreaker, a man with the gift of the gab, a peasant who meets life head-on, takes the knocks and comes back for more.
He’s variously a policeman, a resistance fighter, a barber and a wedding officiant. At times he’s a hero, at times a rogue and, just occasionally, a man with words of peasant wisdom that pierce the sophistry of church and state.
Ultimately, he becomes the broken down shadow of the man he used to be, a cripple looking after his mentally ill brother in the ransacked farmhouse where they grew up. And the book ends where it begins, with Pietruszka intent on building a family tomb in the churchyard of the village where they grew up.