Cbr13bingo Landscape, bingo #6 and #7; Cannonball!
In the Memory of the Forest was published in 1997, shortly after author Charles T. Powers died. This was his one and only novel, having spent his career as a journalist covering Eastern Europe for the LA Times. I remember reading this novel after it came out and thinking it was amazing, but it has been almost 25 years. Does the novel stand up? Yes, it does. In the Memory of the Forest is a story about Poland’s past and its people’s attempt to deal with the upheavals that came in the 1990s. Powers’ knowledge and understanding of that country’s history, its political and economic situation, and of human nature fuel a thrilling mystery involving corrupt politicians, mobsters and the Catholic Church. It also asks provocative and still pertinent questions about how (or if) we acknowledge the past as we try to move forward as a nation. While this story is specifically about Poland, the questions are completely appropriate for the US as well.
The action of this story takes place over the course of a year, some time in the mid-1990s, in a small Polish village called Jadowia. This was a time when communist regimes throughout Eastern Europe had fallen, and things were “opening up” — borders, markets, archives, and so on. This is something I had direct experience of since I was in graduate school at that time studying the Soviet Union, and I had a couple of opportunities to travel to Russia/Eastern Europe and see the kinds of street scenes described in this novel. I also had the chance to work in libraries and archives that had been closed off to westerners for decades. State stores where folks would buy their bread and so on often suffered shortages, but street markets were thriving and offered all manner of western goods previously unknown in this part of the world, such as electronics, clothing, music, and various food items. Jadowia, although a little podunk village, is not immune to these changes. In fact, we learn early in the story that young people from Jadowia can’t wait to get away to the cities where opportunities await, leaving Jadowia with an aging population. One such youth with dreams of getting rich is Tomek Powierza, neighbor and childhood friend to Leszek. Both young men are sons and grandsons of farmers, and Leszek intends to keep up the family tradition. Tomek takes off for long periods of time and returns with tales of black market schemes where he gets money selling things like Western produced soap or diapers. But that is just a stepping stone to bigger, more lucrative items. On a trip back to Jadowia Tomek gets involved in a deal with the local distillery, but something goes wrong and his body, with its head bashed in, is discovered in the forest. Tomek’s father is wild with grief and intent on revenge. Leszek, who feels a greater kinship to the elder Powierza than he did to Tomek, agrees to help him investigate the deal and find who killed Tomek.
Leszek and Powierza’s investigation of the murder brings them into contact and conflict with the local political boss Jablonski. He has run the village, officially and unofficially, for decades and is somehow involved with the deal at the distillery. It’s no secret that the party/government always worked its own deals to get the village what it needed, but times are changing and more and more people are questioning Jablonski’s authority. It seems as if justice might finally be coming his way, except he also knows all the secrets of the village and its inhabitants, and he is adept at blackmail.
At the same time that Tomek’s murder has occurred, another odd crime surfaces in the village. Someone is removing foundation stones from houses and other structures in the village and, with the aid of a crow bar, pulling the wood off of door jambs. Initially, villagers assumed this vandalism was the work of local teens, but there is something more to this, and the older folks in the village know what it is even if they prefer not to speak of it.
The Catholic priests in Jadowia, older Fr. Tadeusz and young Fr. Jerzy, get drawn into local politics in very different ways and demonstrate the complicated role of the Catholic Church in Poland’s politics. Fr. Jerzy is a virulent anti-Communist who encourages villagers to rise up against Jablonski and to demand change and justice for past grievances. Fr. Jerzy is new to Jadowia and has great ambitions for himself, seeing his work there as a stepping stone to national prominence. Fr. Tadeusz has only been in the village for a few years and has kept a low profile. He had hoped to have an academic career in the city but is resigned to his role in the village. He spends time every day walking in the forests and realizes when Jerzy starts stirring the pot and when the vandalism occurs that he really doesn’t know his flock very well. Fr. Tadeusz’s investigations, his delving into Jadowia’s history, is where we learn about the memories suppressed not just by the people of Jadowia but by Poland as a whole.
This novel raises some excellent questions about history, what we choose to remember and what we choose to forget. For Leszek, who is in his mid-20s, the past is past; you can’t do anything about it, so why keep complaining? This is reminiscent of those who in our own country get upset when matters like slavery and reparations come up. I didn’t enslave anyone, that was a long time ago, why can’t you just get over it? What Leszek learns is that the past is never really over; it is right there with you if you choose to see it (or if someone is blackmailing you over it). A related issue then would be how do we move forward in light of our history? Are some things better forgotten? What do we owe those who were wronged? These are more complicated issues and to its credit, the novel does not try to fix everything nicely. Characters do make choices about how they will move forward, and the reader might not approve of those choices, but I think Powers shows some pretty realistic responses to the truth that comes out.
This novel is an interesting and exciting read, and the issues it raises are significant today not just for Polish history but for all of us who are learning ugly truths about our history. This book might be hard to find, as I think it is out of print, but if you can find a copy, I highly recommend it.