Sońka is set in Królowe Stojło, on the Polish-Belarusian border where the author spent his childhood. It opens like a fairy tale – Once upon a time – although its eponymous heroine is a toothless crone. She has lived her long life in the same small homestead with a cat, a dog, a few hens and a cow whose milk provides her meagre income. Although set in contemporary times, Sońka considers her life to have ended with the Second World War. She has a story that she has never told, of a time when she was “still very young, lived and felt so much afterward she didn’t live or feel at all.”
When her urban prince arrives – Igor Grycowski, a theatre director from Warsaw whose car breaks down leaving him stuck in her village where there is no mobile phone coverage – Sońka offers him a mug of fresh milk and decides it is time to tell the story of her life. It has been shaped by her great, unhappy love.
Igor has carefully hidden his background from his peers for reasons of self-preservation. Unbeknown to them he is familiar with this remote area. He spent his childhood with his grandparents in a nearby village, Wysranka, where he was called Ignacy Gryki and was Slavic Orthodox rather than Catholic and Polish as now.
As Sońka recounts her tale Igor shapes in his mind the play he will produce of her trials. He understands the potential power of such a depiction. The Ignacy in him comes to realise that this narration offers Sońka her final catharsis.
In August 1941 Sońka was living with her hated father and two older brothers, her mother having died in childbirth. Although now subjects of Adolph Hitler, their day to day life has continued as before. On the pivotal day, Sońka dons her only good dress and sits on the bench outside her home. From this vantage point she views the passing of numerous army trucks carrying soldiers she regards as “wonderful, dangerous and noble.”
An SS officer, Joachim, travels alongside, on a motorbike, and stops to speak to Sońka in a language she cannot understand. He presents her with a puppy and everything in her world is changed.
Sońka feels happiness when with Joachim that she had not realised could exist in her harsh life. Despite her dreams for the future, it cannot last. Her lies lead to barely imaginable personal tragedy, for her own and a neighbour’s families.
Phrases in Belarusian are included providing insight into a time now past in which Sońka, alone, still lives. For all his plans to appropriate her tale, Igor is sympathetic to her ongoing needs.
The fickle art world is depicted with humour despite the brevity of the subject being played. Igor wishes his production to touch heartstrings, even at a risk of turning tacky. He understands that critical response need not affect a play’s commercial success.
The author has said in a previous interview (with culture.pl):
“A few years ago, I realised that writing an outstanding novel for fifteen people is in fact a simple solution. It is not so difficult. If someone has a sort of a talent and is hard-working, he can easily create such a masterpiece. It is much harder to come up with a book that contains something deeper, and that is written in a reader-friendly language.”
With Sońka we have a novel that has this depth yet throughout remains accessible.
Any Cop?: Multi-layered, nuanced and perspicacious – an impressively satisfying read.