Title: White Raven (original title: Biały Kruk)
Author: Andrzej Stasiuk (English translation: Wiesiek Powaga)
Publication date: 1995 (English translation: 2000)
For this year’s Book Diaries, in a departure from my usual focus, instead of being inspired in a random fashion, I’m looking for inspiration that I can take to my writing. (See my general blog to find out why I’m doing this.)
Five childhood friends, now in their early thirties, take a trek into the mountains in an attempt to break the monotony of their lives. An unexpected death soon has them on the run, and they must face not only the harshness of the Polish winter but also their own doubts and fears.
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What did I find out?
I think I’ve mentioned before that I’m not overly keen on lengthy descriptions of physical environment: ‘it was a dark and stormy night’ doesn’t really do it for me. Yet this book was packed to the gills with descriptions of nature – the weather, the mountains, the changing of the seasons – and I found, to my surprise, that I really enjoyed it.
This may be due to, as the back cover blurb puts it, ‘the Polish romantic tradition in which descriptions of nature reflect states of mind and the soul’. In other words, the blizzards, forests and lonely paths do not feel superfluous; they feel like a direct representation of the trials the characters are going through.
It is fascinating to read a scene where, for example, they pick their way through deep snow, some striding on ahead, others falling literally by the wayside, and to wonder what this is telling us about their current state, both mentally and existentially. Who is moving onwards, and who is struggling? Who is sick and who is coping? And, at the end of the novel – if not of their journey – who has been the most affected, and how does their environment reflect that?
In the future I’ll certainly be paying more attention to the descriptions of nature and scenery: even if the writer doesn’t specifically intend this to reflect the characters’ internal journey, you never know what clues you might pick up along the way.
What do I now see differently?
The novel is set in post-communist Poland, and the characters’ daily lives reflect the changes that the country was going through at that time. In this way the book is similar to others I’ve read this year, such as Midnight’s Children and The Heart of Redness: the former deals with India’s independence from Britain, and the latter with the post-apartheid era in South Africa.
All of these periods were ushered in with a great deal of fanfare, with the expectation that life in the respective countries would be greatly improved for a significant number of their inhabitants – and yet, as time passed, it became clear that the new regimes were not immune from problems of their own. In Midnight’s Children, Rushdie talks about how India struggled with its own identity after so many years under British rule; in The Heart of Redness, Mda points out that many indigenous black people gained no more empowerment under the new black ruling class than they had done under the white government.
Similarly, in White Raven, Stasiuk depicts his characters as having lost their way in the new country; even though, in theory, the world has opened up to them, they do not necessarily feel liberated. On the contrary, some of them feel assimilated into a wider (global) culture, bereft of the identity they had grown up with and uncertain of their future.
It is a great reminder that, even when cultural and societal shifts appear to be happening for the better, there will always be a cost, and no-one can ever really know what the long-term effects of massive change will be. As Zhou Enlai is reported to have said, in 1972, of the French Revolution: ‘It is too early to say.’
How will this inspire my writing?
As I read this book, the atmosphere couldn’t help but make me think of what a fabulous film it would make. Five friends – well, four and an outsider – straggling through the woods and mountains, on the run, losing their way, beset on all sides by both the weather and the authorities… It has the drama, the suspense and the action of all good thrillers, and the ending – when it comes – is not at all expected. If it hasn’t yet been made into a film (and I can’t find any reference to one), someone should really snap it up.
This naturally made me think about the possibilities of turning my own novel into a film! True, I have yet to finish writing the actual book – but it’s (perhaps) every writer’s dream to see a successful translation of their story into this visual medium. Look at JK Rowling and the development of her ‘Potterverse’ with the recent Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. I wonder whether she ever dreamed of these dizzy heights when she was starting chapter 1 of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone?
There are many times when I find myself thinking visually as I write. Maybe it’s my long history with amateur dramatics: I like to think of how a scene will play out in person as well as on the page; I also love writing dialogue and feel very comfortable with it. I wonder whether this will make me a natural in this area – whether my work will slide seamlessly on to the screen – or whether it will remain firmly within its covers.
I don’t think I’ll be giving up the novel to write a screenplay any time soon, but I will be paying just a little bit more attention to the possibilities of a visual interpretation of my story.
A musical interlude
This song is perfect. Not only are the lyrics appropriate, but (if I recall correctly) The Doors also get referenced in the novel; the characters enjoy listening to their music, along with the songs of Bob Dylan, John Lee Hooker and a variety of jazz musicians.
Fittingly for this book, this track has one of the most atmospheric intros I’ve ever heard. Enjoy.