By addressing moments in time through short stories, Borkowski is instead sharing pieces of these lives with us, conferring an intimacy upon the reader that might be missing from a larger, more sweeping narrative.
“The front pews are filled with the old women who always come to early mass to claim good seats for the funeral mass that follows this one. These babci are ageless. Smelling of wet wool in their scarves and galoshes, they could be the same women who jostled for the best places when St. Voytek’s opened its doors forty years ago.”
The Poland of Andrew J. Borkowski’s Copernicus Avenue is a land of shifting borders but eternal meaning, shaping and shadowing everything that happens in each character’s life. A set of linked short stories, the book’s setting shuttles between Poland and the Polish Canadian neighbourhood of west Toronto, on the fictional Copernicus Avenue. Spanning many decades, the book tells the overarching story of the Mienkiewicz family, from Great uncle Stefan in wartime Poland to sweet, lost Blaise, the sometimes-narrator of the overall story, in present-day Canada. Along the way we are introduced to Blaise’s family and a host of other characters—and I do mean characters—and given precious glimpses into the minds and hearts of a war-torn and often adrift group of people who are just trying to find a new foothold.
I picked the book up at a recent short story reading. Borkowski stole the show with his animated, accented “Twelve Versions of Lech,” which is one of the book’s showstoppers, transporting a modernist Polish artist from the motherland to Canada. Lech is unlike anything the Polish immigrants and their Canadian-born children of 1980s Copernicus Avenue have ever encountered, and he represents a Poland that is distinct from the memories the older generation cherish and protect.
Blaise, who orbits Lech, hoping to be let in, has heard stories of war, of sacrifice, from his parents and their friends. As we see through the eyes of different narrators, we get to see Blaise as a child, commanding his imaginary troops in High Park or listening to stories of the old country from his babysitter, Magda, who tries to explain to the children in her care how precious her porridge pot is, how as a child herself she carried it with her as her people were massacred around her. As Blaise observes, “Stories like this were all around us, but they were things the grownups whispered after the children went to bed. By telling us the story of this pot, I realized she was trying to confer something on us.”
Even as the children grow up Canadian, not comprehending this immediate, distant world of their parents, we get to move backward in time, seeing aerial fights, witnessing awful execution and forced resettlement in the old world, and polite, systematic discrimination in the new. As Blaise’s father Thadeusz anglicizes himself into Thadeus and courts the broken Women’s Auxiliary Airforce member Marlene, other characters cling to the old ways. As Thadeus decides he will square dance and drink beer and like hockey, dammit, Babayaga, the homeless old woman who takes alms in exchange for prayers, bursts in on Sunday school lectures in order to ensure the young Polish Canadian children are taught properly about their God and their history. And Poniatowski, forever pontificating and rabble-rousing for the Polish cause, tries and fails to recruit Thadeus.
The book is about this clashing of worlds. Blaise sits beside the artist Lech, listening to a phone conversation with one of Lech’s lovers: “Lech let me hear every word…in the tongue I had grown up surrounded by and still didn’t understand.”
It’s in these moments of every day life and survival that Copernicus Avenue works best. These stories might have been told in a sweeping epic novel, something Peter Behrens’ The O’Briens, but by addressing moments in time through short stories, Borkowski is instead sharing pieces of these lives with us, conferring an intimacy upon the reader that might be missing from a larger, more sweeping narrative. It’s like we get to peek in through the windows throughout the years to see what the family is up to. We learn of deaths only in passing, of marriages and falls from grace.
The book stumbles a bit in certain places, and is at times weak when it comes to dialogue and banter. I found myself flipping through the more laboured descriptions of wartime fights and peacetime factory work in favour of sinking into the simple, heartbreaking descriptions of Thadeus’ final days, or of the visits of the gracefully mad, Glenn-Gould hating piano teacher Miss Kalyn. Along with “Twelve Versions of Lech,” which anchors the middle of the book, the opening “The Trees of Kleinsaltz” is outstanding in its portrayal of people trying to survive, the humanness of the every day, even under the worst conditions. I don’t want to reveal the ending of “The Trees” for you, but it left me chilled. The final pair of entries, “Coming to Baranica” and “Being Alex,” are beautifully rendered, bringing the cycle of stories back to their beginning, back to Poland. As Blaise tries to find his way in Baranica, his estranged brother Alex looks at his own, thoroughly Canadian life, and finds himself perhaps as unmoored as his father had been when he first came to Canada.
Copernicus Avenue isn’t quite what I expected when I first picked it up. I was somehow anticipating something more like Stuart McLean’s Vinyl Cafe collections, a set of sweet, light tales about a group of people, the funny happenstances of a particular street in Toronto. Instead, these are stories of war, of survival, of being or becoming a stranger in your old country, your new country, your own family. These are stories about putting one foot in front of the other and knowing that, no matter what, another day will come.
Three and a half out of five blue pencils