I had never heard of this book when I came across it at my favourite book store. I was glancing through the "new arrivals" section when its cover caught my eye. Actually, it was not the cover alone but the title itself. Who wouldn't, especially if they loved fairy tales, stop in their tracks at site of a title that begins with "a long long time ago..."? A quick glance through the blurb at the back added to my firm decision to buy this book.
I had never, until I read this novel, ever read anything to do with Poland. Especially, with regard to its situation during World War II. So, for me, this was an entirely new experience. The novel covers a span of fifty years in the telling, but essentially it's about two women - Anielica and her grand-daughter, Beata (known mostly by her nickname Baba Yaga - ouch!). Paulka splits the narrative of these two women, running their stories side by side, thereby bringing out a strong contrast between their tales, but also bringing out the gradual backdrop from its beautiful, quiet life before the War to its economical, social, and political state in the early nineties. We read of Anielca and her angelic beauty, her courage and her strength in the form of a fairy tale. A young man nicknamed the Pigeon, falls in love with her the moment he sees her. He supposed to be remarkable with making things with his hands. So he offers to renovate Anielca's parents' home, and in the process he courts her. However, war strikes home before the Pigeon can propose the Anielca, and the rest of the tale is about these people and their fellow-villagers surviving the terrifying months of battles and raids, while still holding strong through love. I simply admired the way Pasulka gives us this whole story - right from start to finish there is a distancing, magical element in the narrative, that keeps you glued to this love story, and makes you feel the way you would while something by the Grimm Brothers or Hans Christian Anderson.
On the other hand, though, there is the story of Baba Yaga after her grand-mother's death. We are taken along in the first person to see the state of things in Poland almost as soon as the gain their freedom about fifty years after the World War. Things are a mess. The young live it up high, with no will to fight, to move along and make something of themselves. This attitude irks their parents' generation - a generation that struggled for its country's freedom only to watch the precious freedom being frittered away by the next generation that did not understand its value. This tussle between these generations is represented strongly in the lives of Irene and her daughter Magda - Baba Yaga's cousins. We get immersed in the atmosphere of the times, and empathise with the struggle Baba Yaga has in order to find her niche in a world where nothing seems to have any order.
I really enjoyed reading this book. It was different in its approach to two stories told parallely. Each chapter alternates without fail between the love story of Anielca and the Pigeon, and the coming-of-age story of young Baba Yaga. However, I recall find the flow smooth enough, enjoying the constant shift between tone, mood and atmosphere across the generations. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a could spot of fiction.