Market forces


Andrzej Stasiuk<br /><em>Harvill Secker, 230pp, £12.99</em>

ISBN 0436206

Set in post-communist Warsaw, this cheerless novel begins when a down-at-heel underwear exporter wakes to find his flat wrecked: a debt-collection notice for £3,500 of arrears. To raise cash, Pawel turns to old acquaintances now caught up in the city's heroin trade, where the prospect of score-settling violence is never far away.

Nine is an "existential crime novel", according to the publishers. Don't expect a thriller, they
mean: any momentum from the suspense-filled opening vanishes soon after the first of Pawel's
many reveries, as he dwells on a romanticised communist past when "no one yet imagined that commerce would save the world". Thoughts of his factory-worker father clocking in day after day make Pawel's life as a free-market entrepreneur – that is, to spend a lifetime in hock to unscrupulous creditors – seem no freedom at all.

It's a bitter, sullen tale, in which even passing extras don't get off lightly: watching an old man being driven by his son, the world-weary narrator tells us that "they'll be hit by a lorry . . . the father will survive, but the rest of his days will be poisoned by guilt". Combined with a frustrating style, which contrives unwarranted mystery from personal pronouns, Nine's excess of misery rather blunts the edge to its attack on capitalism.

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