Jacek Dehnel’s 2006 debut novel Lala, now translated for the first time in English by Oneworld Publications, covers so much in such a multifarious way that it’s difficult to know where to begin. It leaves me powerless to brand it with the clever sort of introduction that usually simplifies a work to either good or bad, as the reviewer tends to do in a rather smarmy, though diplomatic, fashion. I suppose I should admit, then, that Lala has dominated me and wiped the floor with me, something rather natural considering the forceful personality of its protagonist and namesake.
Plot-wise, Lala’s more or less simple stuff: a family narrative beginning with Lala, the narrator’s grandmother, as the centrifugal force for all of the other family members and personal-historical events she recounts to her grandson before losing her memory. These begin with her aristocratic grandparents in the late 19thcentury, follow the entangled love lives of her parents and later her own, all the while musing, often ironically, on the world wars, the Soviet invasion, and modern to contemporary Polish history.
In retaining the oral character of his grandmother’s stories, Dehnel’s adherence to chronology’s only approximate. The narrative reminded me of bicycle spokes that click rhythmically for the first few pedals until the ride smooths out like butter on a road of unseen horizons, as initial sketches come together in an unraveling chronicle. The decision to brand the book a ‘novel’ seems rather hazy, although it seems justified by the very memorable scene of little-boy Jacek, born in 1980, having his hand kissed by the Empress Eugenie. Perhaps the poetic license and imaginativeness serve towards the transcendence of the grim inevitability of the end of the book and of Lala’s life, even if the reader finds his or herself slightly blindsided. In short, the unorthodox story-telling technique works.
I have grandparents myself. Don’t I understand the impulse to idealize them, to gild them in rococo accents, to laurel them the most beautiful of all in their youth? Yet, Lala’s too much of a supergirl: amusing and endearing indeed, but the portrayal of her as always victorious in her youth comes off as less relatable than Jacek’s own narrative. Though it was Lala’s story and undeniably a worthy one, the charm of this work lies in the unique sensibility of this lantern-bearer of a narrator who allows himself his own voice and his own humour despite telling what’s somebody else’s story. I don’t think such a tender homage would have been possible had it not been for Dehnel’s talent for immersion and embellishment: he portrays his likeable great-grandfather, whom he never met, as ‘optimistically flashing his bald spot as he leaned over some papers’. I found his recollections of his own childhood in his grandmother’s garden, a small aside in the bulk of the work, beautiful in their own right. Given the fact that it’s quite a detailed bulk of a book – and I did occasionally find some recollections, such as those of WW2, to be too long – it’s Jacek’s somewhat eccentric worldview that makes this a memorable read.
Antonia Lloyd-Jones deserves an acknowledgment for managing to transmit the peculiarities of deadpan Eastern European humor into English with brilliant translations like ‘Not only was he a megalomaniac, he was also devoid of talent’. It’s clear that the translation overall was both deliberate and light-handed, with special care for the lyrical style. On the whole, Lala’s an enjoyable book that claims its own path and takes its time, like a lengthy, leafy summer afternoon.