The Baker’s Alchemy
Twenty-one years have passed since John Stephenson’s first novel, The Optimist. His long-overdue sophomore book comes in the unusual form of a Polish fable, The Baker’s Alchemy. Those expecting anything similar to his well-received chronicle of poet Christopher Brennan might at first be scratching their heads in puzzlement, but Stephenson possesses style and humour in spades, qualities that have fallen out of fashion in Oz lit.
The year is 1870, and master baker Ignacy Wadowski has a fairly contented life on the edge of Białowieża forest. His young wife, Jadwiga, married this older fellow partly to escape her own family’s poverty and partly because he was all she could get. Jadwiga has a club foot, which the local boys find offputting. Theirs is a practical arrangement, which has remained unconsummated, much to Ignacy’s frustration. In a pique of desperation, he visits Oaky Ester, an affable sorceress who resides in the forest. Ester provides him with a tonic that temporarily restores Ignacy to his handsome, youthful self. Reinventing himself as forestry worker Adek, he sets about seducing Jadwiga.
A fable on the moral quandaries of fidelity and deception ensues. Stephenson is clearly enjoying himself here. His deadpan, self-mocking prose is spot-on. The story veers into Shakespearean farce as Adek and Jadwiga wrestle both on the shop floor and with the guilt of cuckoldry. Ignacy can only remain as Adek for a brief time, and must establish an increasingly complex routine so Jadwiga does not discover his true identity. A work outing to cater for the gentry convolutes the case further, as Russian soldiers, Polish rebels and balloon-obsessed aristocrats vie for control of the countryside.
Three hundred pages of magic realism may not be everyone’s filo pastry, but Stephenson’s clever book has its rewards. Discussions of statelessness and nationhood are shoehorned nicely into the narrative alongside meditations on ageing and sex. The characters are charming and there is love for the natural world that exudes from the writing. In particular, the show is stolen by a Major Mitchell cockatoo named Kostek – one of several winking references to Australia – a petulant, vain entertainer who wants nothing more than to be adored by a sophisticated European audience. The Baker’s Alchemy marks an exuberant and unconventional return from a wickedly smart author. There has been nothing else like it released this year. JD
Brandl & Schlesinger, 280pp, $29.95
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 2, 2017 as "John Stephenson, The Baker’s Alchemy ". Subscribe here.