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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

     

A Thousand Peaceful Cities

by
Jerzy Pilch


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase A Thousand Peaceful Cities



Title: A Thousand Peaceful Cities
Author: Jerzy Pilch
Genre: Novel
Written: 1997 (Eng. 2010)
Length: 143 pages
Original in: Polish
Availability: A Thousand Peaceful Cities - US
A Thousand Peaceful Cities - UK
A Thousand Peaceful Cities - Canada
A Thousand Peaceful Cities - India
  • Polish title: Tysiąc spokojnych miast
  • Translated by David Frick

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Our Assessment:

B+ : appealingly boisterous and off-beat

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The LA Times . 1/8/2010 David L. Ulin


  From the Reviews:
  • "The result is a vivid tension that is only amplified by the exuberance of the book. In Pilch's treatment, Mr. Traba becomes almost a Falstaffian figure, full of highhanded advice on the art of living, rewarding himself with a drink for each bon mot. (...) (T)he book is a testament to the primacy of art, not violence, in the preservation of a culture. Certainly, that idea was essential under the communists, who sought to vilify visionaries as dangerous to the status quo. But if A Thousand Peaceful Cities has any larger message, it's that such vigilance is no less essential now." - David L. Ulin, The Los Angeles Times

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Set in the Communist Poland of the early 1960s, A Thousand Peaceful Cities is narrated by the young Jerzyk, a lad who is already obsessively driven to write:

The desire, stronger than anything else, to record words and sentences that had just been uttered, or would be in a moment, directed my every step, waking and sleeping.
       The story is dominated by the larger-than-life Józef Trąba, a near-constant presence -- and a near-constantly inebriated one -- in Jerzyk's parents' home. A one-time would-be Lutheran clergyman, Trąba defers to Jerzyk's father, calling him 'Chief', but Trąba is the irrepressible dominant figure, offering both fantastic tales and grand ambitions.
       Jerzyk likes to write down everything he hears, and soon finds he writes faster than speakers speak -- so he begins guessing what the final words of any given sentence will be. He notes:
This was especially interesting in the case of Mr. Trąba. Stylistically, Mr. Trąba was far more unpredictable than Father.
       This guessing what is to come and inventing what has not yet been uttered is the exercise of a young writer, barely risking invention but having a first try at it. As it turns out, Jerzyk -- or the mature writer, returning to that youthful version of himself -- is far more creative than he first understands (and/or lets on): reality and imagination converge -- and diverge -- in a perfectly turned poignant apogee in A Thousand Peaceful Cities.
       A Thousand Peaceful Cities is a digressive novel, with Trąba leading the way down these many paths. Jerzyk frequently finds himself listening to "the murmur of their conversation", an almost constant babble of often indistinguishable voices, telling tales. He goes with and into the flow, hardly a full participant, often nodding off, but happy to be carried along.
       When not digressing, Trąba does go full steam ahead with his grand ambition, intending to: "join the murky circle of the great tyrannicides of human history." His first ambition is to assassinate Mao, but though he can see how he'd accomplish it in his mind's eye that proves a bit too much to take on. Better to stick closer to home, and take out Party Secretary Władysław Gomułka. Trąba hatches a plan and, along with the Chief and Jerzyk, tries to carry it out. Given that Gomułka's worst days were still ahead of him, and that he only died in 1982, the outcome is clear enough -- yet Pilch still manages a nice twist (and one of the reasons why he is vague (until the critical moment) about the exact time when the story takes place is, presumably, to make the surprise all the more effective).
       It is a fantastical plot Trąba hatches, and Jerzyk plays a critical role, as an "innocent child disguised as an Indian" -- though the Poland of this times is a world where:
Jerzky looks like a colorful magic bird, like a firebird that has flown out of the pages of a fairytale onto the grey streets of this wolfish city -- people should be spellbound. And here you have the opposite. Instead of slowing down, passersby speed up. Instead of casting friendly smiles, they become gloomy.
       Jerzyk, meanwhile, can still get caught up (here: literally) in such fantasy-worlds, and A Thousand Peaceful Cities is a paean to that possibility, of living in the imagination and of the power of creativity, even when it ostensibly involves an act of violence.
       Digressive as it is, there's considerably more to the novel too, including scenes of Jerzyk's domestic life, as well as his first romantic longings. Still a child, he is advised:
     "You're very amorous, Jerzyk. Grow up as quickly as possible. Amorousness combined with erotic illiteracy is a deadly combination."
       As Trąba reminds the local Commandant: "it's in the subtext, or rather in innumerable subtexts", and that consistently goes for Pilch's writing, too. A Thousand Peaceful Cities is all layers, as much childish reminiscence as political satire as period piece as fantasy. Alcohol-suffused, the narrative is surprisingly forthright in some respects -- the political discussions, the religious fervor in this supposedly Communist state -- while very subtle in others.
       Reading Pilch -- especially this novel -- requires a slightly different frame of mind than the far more direct American fiction of today, but it offers considerable rewards.

- M.A.Orthofer, 15 August 2010

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Links:

A Thousand Peaceful Cities: Reviews: Jerzy Pilch: Other books by Jerzy Pilch under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Polish author Jerzy Pilch was born in 1952.

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© 2010-2012 the complete review

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