Book Review Lala by Jacek Dehnel

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Stylistically, Jacek Dehnel’s family saga is a hybrid. It reads like a memoir, includes real people and their portraits, covers historical events and features a family tree and endnotes. And yet Lala is described as a novel. It is based on fact, crafted like fiction. The narrative is intricate, rambling and, like memory itself, sometimes frustratingly elusive. Dehnel’s family tales begin in Kiev in the 1860s and encompass over a hundred and fifty years. Accounts of their personal fortunes, of loves, won and lost, are set against some of the defining moments of the twentieth century that helped to shape Poland today.

On the first page, Dehnel tells us he is beginning at his story’s end, with his grandmother, the titular Lala, sitting out her final days, like the doll she is named after, ‘muffled in rugs and baggy knitted waistcoats, so very thin, small and light, it’s hard to connect her with our memory.’ Lala is made up of reminiscences, both Dehnel’s and his granny’s: ‘the story begins, as usual, in pieces, now here, now there, in all sorts of different places and bodies, most of which ceased to exist long ago.’ Lala has a tendency to ramble, to repeat herself, to lose track of her thoughts, to misremember certain details and rarely draws to a conclusion but, for Dahnel, ‘of all the antiquities to be seen in my northern Polish city, she was the most fascinating.’

Early on, we learn that Grandpapa Leonard, Lala’s father, faced the tsarist firing squad and owned the first automobile in Ukraine. Grandmama Wanda was orphaned as a young girl and grew up in a convent before Leonard rescued her and made his fortune Another relation, Romusia, had galloping consumption. We are given snapshots of history, fragments of past lives, before learning more about each person and their place in the wider narrative.

Astonishingly, Dehnel (born in 1980) started writing down his grandmother’s stories when he was fourteen and had completed Lala by the time he was twenty-four (it was originally published in 2006). In the final section, Dehnel interrupts Lala’s recollections and takes over the narrative, because, tragically, she had started to suffer from memory loss. Suddenly the focus becomes less about memory and more about saying goodbye to a loved one. Dehnel is similarly fond of digression, ‘putting out shoots and proliferating into whole thickets of words and punchlines; unrestrained...’ This rambling creativity appears to be a trait of contemporary Polish literature. Writing in the TLS, Dehnel observed: ‘Modern Polish fiction is often amorphous and untidy, replacing traditional order with linguistic inventiveness and the poetics of the dream.’

Dehnel is an acclaimed poet and this is clear in his lyrical descriptions of family and landscape. But Lala is a challenging novel, memories overlap and the reader has to work hard to keep up with his expansive, long sentences. Dehnel suggests that ‘The repetition of wise and beautiful things is wise and beautiful in itself, and is the same sort of virtuous act as feeding the hungry, caring for animals, watering plants or donating to charity.’ I’m not entirely convinced that repetition enhances an already rich narrative.

The novel’s finer moments are when Dehnel alights on a theme and sticks with it. The periods when Lala lived under occupation, first under the Nazis, then the communists are particularly memorable. Personal anecdotes illuminate the political. Dehnel’s grandfather, Lala’s second husband, worked for the State Forests and thought himself a genuine communist because ‘he always put the good of the community in first place.’ But his honesty got him into trouble because he ‘sniffed out all sorts of plots and swindles…dubious hunting activities or illegal tree felling, selling timber on the side and profiteering; every time he was transferred to another department, and if he blew the whistle on something really serious, he was relocated to another city.’

Eloquently translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, Dehnel offers an extraordinary insight into historical events through his family’s response to them. In writing so explicitly about Lala’s mental deterioration in the novel’s final pages Dehnel inhabits a space that is both private and public. His novel serves as celebration of Lala’s life and a striking evocation of Poland's turbulent past.

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