In a remote Polish village, Paul works as a laborer building an extension on the railroad. The other villagers, though friendly, are suspicious of the middle-aged stranger because he seems educated and says little about himself. Paul rents a room from Malvina Korsak, who is unmarried and lives with her elderly brother, Ildefons. The other characters in the novel include Regina, a lusty woman who runs the local grocery cooperative; Jasiu Krupa, a former partisan with only one hand; Count Pac, a railroad worker who, despite his name, insists upon his humble origins; Debicki, who oversees the work on the railroad; Sergeant Glowko, a policeman; Szafir, the local Party official; Joseph Car, a mysterious stranger who leads a religious cult to which most of the villagers belong; and Justine, Car’s young wife.
The fragmented narrative jumps between Paul’s experiences in the present and his past life, mostly his serving with the Home Army, which battled the Nazis during World War II, and with anti-Communist guerrillas who fought the Soviets after the German Occupation of Poland ended. Paul was expelled from the Home Army for killing German soldiers when ordered not to do so. Later, with the guerrillas, he grew sick of killing and attempted only to wound a man he had been ordered to assassinate. Paul is sure that Joseph Car is this man, and his mixed feelings of guilt and anger are intensified by his falling in love with Justine. She rejects his pleas to run away with him.
The villagers’ despair at their seemingly meaningless lives increases when engineers arrive to dam the Sola River and create a reservoir, thereby flooding their community. Forces over which they have no control seem to be out to destroy their efforts to conduct a normal existence. They find some solace in Joseph Car’s cult and seek scapegoats to blame for their troubles, beating Paul and Szafir, who dies soon afterward.