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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

     

Stone Tablets

by
Wojciech Żukrowski


general information | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Stone Tablets



Title: Stone Tablets
Author: Wojciech Żukrowski
Genre: Novel
Written: 1966 (Eng. 2016)
Length: 733 pages
Original in: Polish
Availability: Stone Tablets - US
Stone Tablets - UK
Stone Tablets - Canada
  • Polish title: Kamienne tablice
  • Translated by Stephanie Kraft

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Our Assessment:

B : fascinating picture of places and the time, blunted some by its dominating love-story

See our review for fuller assessment.




The complete review's Review:

       Stone Tablets is set in India in 1956 -- the time significant because its protagonist is Istvan Terey, a counselor -- essentially the cultural attaché -- in his second year at the Hungarian embassy in New Delhi, and the turmoil and the fall uprising back in Hungary naturally affect the diplomatic staff abroad. Married, with two sons, Terey had to leave his family behind, though there has been (and continues to be) vague of talk of them joining him. Terey is not a mere bureaucrat, he is a poet, too -- and while he doesn't seem to find too much time for creative work, his artistic bona fides affect how others see him, both in the bureaucracy he is part of and in the foreign world outside.
       The novel opens with him at the wedding of Grace Vijayaveda and an officer in the president's guard. Terey was attracted to Grace, and she obviously to him as well, as they have one last shocking hurrah before she is married off -- on a fateful evening when Terey is also introduced to a friend of hers, Australian ophthalmologist Margit Ward, whom he falls head over heels for.
       Terey's position puts him in contact with local artists and pretenders: he does his best to encourage and support a promising painter, for example, while trying also to use a local hack who just wants to travel abroad to best advantage. He keeps up professional appearances, both at the embassy and beyond, participating in local conferences or screening films, all the while trying to show Hungary off in the best (or at least some) light. Still, a co-worker notes: "You live in a bubble".
       The Australian eye doctor he obsesses over truly becomes his bubble, as he grabs every chance he can find to be with her, reveling in their passionate affair. There are a few bumps on that road, too -- and there is the danger of their affair coming to the attention of those who could use that information to damage him (which is, in fact, only a question more of when rather than if, since he really isn't that careful about it).
       He promises his beloved:

     "I will give all the world for you," he said as if it were a vow. "I will give everything. Everything, Margit !"
       Of course, that's a lot to promise, and the question is whether his position will allow it. East and West are still very much divided, and his life (and, yes, that wife and the two sons ...) are still in Hungary. The freedoms both have far away from their homelands are a comfortable respite but one that is not easily carried over anywhere else once their situations change -- as both surely realize they will, sooner rather than later.
       Margit spends much of her time stationed in Agra, and so the sweeping love story conveniently takes them to the Taj Mahal (and Fatehpur Sikri). Later, Terey seeks her out in the hard-to-reach backlands, and they eventually also travel to southernmost India, Cochin (now Kochi). If not quite all of India, Stone Tablets does cover an impressive range of the country (as well as all the varieties of Delhi itself), and Żukrowski presents this strange and different world exceptionally well.
       The situation in Hungary naturally affects Terey, both personally and professionally. Even before much has happened, there's a sense of possible change in the wake of the post-Stalin shifts in the Soviet bloc, Terey noting that Hungary lags:
We still have the old, proven system: suspicion, informing, fear. They already think differently in Poland. A thaw, a breaking of the ice; the politicians speak so euphemistically, it's as if they had all become poets. A storm is coming. It must come. It must.
       Of course, it blows through rather differently than hoped. Briefly there is the frenzy of the uprising -- "The dispatches are so hot, my fingers are burning", one character tells Terey when they first get word of what is happening -- and Terey naturally is concerned about his family back home. Ironically, the embassy is hardly a source of information; it's almost cut off from Hungary, as there are drastic changes day to day, and Terey and the rest of the diplomats have to rely largely on foreign reports to learn what is happening.
       Terey has a complicated relationship with the ambassador, a careerist most concerned with remaining in a position somewhere in the hard-currency world, so that he continues to have a way of lining his pockets on the side. Terey manages to further antagonize him by looking into an automobile accident which led to the firing of the embassy driver, a local who was blamed for the accident, when in fact the truth is considerably uglier than what was first revealed.
       The India of Stone Tablets is littered with death and corpses -- even on the beach of their idyllic get-away Terey and Margit find: "Half embedded in the packed sand lay the blackened body of a drowned man" (legless, too: "Exactly like a fashionable sculpture", the by now inured Terey suggests). In Żukrowski's rendering, life has far less meaning for the locals, with fatalism shockingly pervasive. It makes for many of the most striking scenes in the novel, from the widow who threw herself on her husband's funeral pyre, to the brother from a wealthy family, allegedly risen -- horribly disfigured -- from the dead, to the more intimate and close (a miscarriage), as well as the violent and accidental. Up-close yet often treated -- even by those close to the deceased -- as the natural course of things, death in India stands in contrast to the distant deaths in Hungary during the brief uprising.
       From their distant outpost, Terey and his colleagues follow events in Hungary -- only to find the Suez crisis pushing it aside, and dooming any hope for real change. What waves of change do make it to New Delhi take their time in coming; that Terey's position is precarious is unsurprising, though it is amusing that in the end he won't be the only fall guy.
       Terey's problem is a too often rather unrealistic attitude, manifesting itself in particular in his romantic obsession. As even Margit recognizes:
     You are a child. You build an unreal world for yourself. It's more comfortable for you. But the one we live in is different: jealous and cruel. Don't be a poet.
       The world around him is constantly cracking, whether in distant Hungary or all around him in India. What he tries to hold onto crumbles like sand between his fingers -- and yet he's loath to loosen his grip.
       Much of Stone Tablets is well-realized. The lack of privacy Terey experiences is nicely presented, as he finds himself unable to keep even the locals who work for him from closely monitoring all his affairs, an amusing twist on the surveillance state he has otherwise been able to leave more or less behind (though the embassy also takes an interest in his correspondence ...). Terey's friendships, whether with the painter or the young son of a colleague, are well done too, even as there is a bit much to the melodrama of his relationships with women.
       The India of Stone Tablets -- a country of only four hundred million at the time -- is somewhat uncomfortably, by present-day standards, exoticized. Terey interacts with a surprisingly broad range of society, but it remains a strange, different world. Yet this is also fitting, given Terey's bubble-view: the diplomatic circus, and the interaction between the different delegations, is similarly bizarre and exotic, too.
       The affair -- the passion -- between Terey and Margit is the dominant feature in Stone Tablets, yet arguably also its weakest major component. The affair is overheated, and the lovers often blinded by it, and Żukrowski struggles to balance that with the rest of his story, which includes several other strong storylines. Terey's obsession, and his desperate need for Margit become stumbling blocks at many turns -- though of course the fundamental problem is that the two never fully convince as a couple.
       Żukrowski writes of a time still in the throes of the aftereffects of the Second World War, including an India just beginning to gain its independent footing. Tellingly, too, both Terey and Margit are marked by the war, in which Terey fought and in which Margit lost her fiancé (who perished in terrible circumstances, while remaining true to himself and his cause).
       History and the present are well balanced in the novel: with its unusual perspective -- (central) European, but situated in a barely post-colonial then-still-Third World outpost, with world-events (Hungary, Suez) all at a distance, while the local and personal are in constant tumult -- Stone Tablets is a very fine novel of that time.
       Stone Tablets is indeed a sweeping saga, with just a bit too much swept up in a love story that doesn't quite convince. But there's enough here beyond that too to make for an engaging and colorful -- if, in parts, longwinded -- read.

- M.A.Orthofer, 24 May 2016

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Links:

Stone Tablets: Reviews: Wojciech Żukrowski: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Polish author Wojciech Żukrowski lived 1916 to 2000.

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© 2016 the complete review

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