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Polish Nightmares

Moonrise, Moonset

by Tadeusz Konwicki, translated by Richard Lourie
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 344 pp., $19.95

The Color of Blood

by Brian Moore
Dutton, 182 pp., $16.95

There is a kind of dying star called a white dwarf. This is a celestial body that was once enormous and radiant but is now falling in upon itself, becoming smaller in size and yet inconceivably greater in density and mass. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, an episode of increased energy output and soaring temperature is followed by partial core collapse. But total implosion, “catastrophic collapse,” does not quite take place, and the star stabilizes as a white dwarf:

A solid core consisting largely of heavy atomic nuclei is densely packed in a lattice-type structure of tremendous rigidity. The output of energy of the white dwarf is very low; and it may continue to radiate until no energy is left to emit, when it becomes a dark star.

Poland, which was once—until the end of the eighteenth century—an extensive and rather enlightened commonwealth, no longer has to follow that astronomical destiny through to the condition of Europe’s dark star, although I know many intelligent Poles who have come to think that possible. But there are ways in which the Polish nation, now confined between the rivers Oder and Bug, exists on a scale and with a compressed complexity that is utterly out of proportion with geographical size. After scorching and amazing the rest of the world, it has an output of energy that is indeed low these days. But the density and mass still grow. Poland can seem a very much larger place than its continental neighbor to the East.

It is full of time zones, constantly crossed by people who seem to be migrating from the eighteenth century, or even further back, toward the present—some completing the journey, many disembarking in the landscape of 1830s Romanticism, others preferring the Positivism of the late nineteenth century, others again alighting after 1900 in the time of early modern mass nationalism and state worship. It is seamed by broken and faulted zones of locality. Those who were thrown out of their homes in Lithuania or the Ukraine or Belorussia went West and displaced Germans from their homes, and stayed there, crowded together with Poles from Upper Silesia or West Prussia, people almost more strange to them than Russians in spite of shared language and religion.

Poland’s personal–political biographies, or biographical politics, can flow as long and as unpredictably as the Yangtze. To illustrate, one may imagine a Polish Jew born in what is now the western Ukraine who joins the Polish Socialist Party at eighteen, is deported to Siberia by the Soviets in 1940, joins the Polish army, which goes to Iran and then to Italy, returns to Poland in 1946 as a sympathizer with the new Communist power, is jailed as a suspected Western agent in the Stalinist period, is released and joins the Communist party in 1956. He then loses his job, and is forced into emigration as a “cosmopolitan Zionist element” in 1968, returns from the United States in 1976, becomes a Catholic under Solidarity influence in 1981, gets himself incarcerated after martial law, and in 1987 is attacked in an underground bulletin for being hopelessly compromised by flirtation with “the alien Marxist ideology of hate.” He dies. His funeral is marred by the reluctance of the priest to say Mass for a nonpracticing convert, and by a row at the graveside between elderly ex-Communists, a rigidly pious officer who fought with the deceased at Monte Cassino, and a group of neo-Hasidic teenagers whose fathers came from the same town in the Ukraine, spent the war in Moscow, and returned as officers in the secret police….

The black sparkle of the new book by the Polish writer and filmmaker Tadeusz Konwicki comes from densities like those. It is a work hard to classify. It is not a journal like the Warsaw Diary of Kazimierz Brandys,* although it was written during the same period, ending in 1981, and has entries about contemporary public events and scenes. Neither is it a notebook or a log of reflections, although it has qualities of both. It is a darting, constantly changing mixture of different elements: autobiography, criticism, self-criticism, fiction, gossip, both benevolent and malevolent, history, anecdote, and fierce moral polemic.

It may appear shapeless, but it is not. Konwicki records a remark made of him by the writer Jerzy Putrament: “You know, Konwicki pretends to be poorer than he is; pribednayetsya, as the Russians say.” Konwicki comments that this was the language of a sadistic Chekist (Putrament went on to suggest peeling layers off him like an onion to see what was inside). But there is something in it, as a literary judgment. Konwicki, in this sort of work, shows a self-deprecating—almost slapdash—surface. It is contrived. What is really taking place is a complex but carefully planned process of self-exposure, culminating when, near the end of the book, Konwicki reproduces a long selection from a novel written just after the war and never published, which is scathing about some of those who opposed “the People’s Power.”

Konwicki’s own history, as far as he reveals it, is winding enough. He was born and raised near Wilno, in Polish Lithuania, and lived through Soviet, Lithuanian, Soviet again, and then Nazi occupation. He took part as a boy in the noncommunist resistance against the Germans, and escaped to western Poland when the Soviet liberators crushed the resistance in 1944–1945. He became in disillusion a supporter of the new regime, and was a Party member for fifteen years, writing some books that he now feels were written “by somebody else,” and that are still resented by some of the older generation. His views changed fundamentally, as time passed, and he is now—as a filmmaker but above all as a novelist—probably the most popular writer in Poland, although almost all his recent work has been published only by the “second circulation,” the underground printing houses.

Anybody who hopes that this strange book is the result of exorcising a bad conscience, however, is mistaken—and in danger of grievous mental injury from Konwicki’s often murderous wit. Certainly, Moonrise, Moonset is at one level a presentation of evidence to show how he came to write as he once did, although that unpublished novel written in his early twenties seems to me, on the basis of those extracts, a brilliant piece of fiction that requires no apology. But in all the facets of the book, in the lyrical passages about his home countryside and the Wilno Rising of 1944, or the irritable, aggressive sketches of some contemporaries, there is reflected a search for solid values. He returns constantly to the writing of Gombrowicz, and his doctrine—a simple and sometimes arrogant one—of the superior and the inferior. It is recognizable in people, in institutions, in art. “Gombrowicz of course loved the superior and paid it homage, tried to apotheosize it. But we shall be more restrained.” Konwicki is arguing that the ability to identify quality, and the will to respect it, form the only reliable guide.

Throughout his book, Konwicki returns to the theme of Russia, wrestling and cursing at the knot of hatred and love within him. He is an Eastern Pole who had Russian classmates, whose territory spawned the most intense anti-Russian romantic nationalism, and whose countrymen in what was once the Grand Duchy of Lithuania experienced Russian brutality at its worst and Russian culture at its most brilliant. Sometimes he falls into wild abuse, and not only of Soviet communism. But he can also write that

I am a hideous hybrid formed at the boundary of two worlds. The boundary of Polish life and Russian life. The mind of the Roman Pole chatters in me, making judicious calculations, and the wide-open steppe of Russian Orthodoxy howls in me. In the morning I run my fingers down Johann Sebastian Bach’s harpsichord, but by evening time I’m dead drunk in the gutter…. Yes, I love what is deceitfully Asiatic in Russia, but I long with all my might for what is rational and European in it. I worship the ground Dostoevsky walked on, but I dream of a new Chaadaev or Amalrik…. I can sit without discomfort for two hours watching some sorry little Soviet television production, but a refined French film full of Diors, stripteases, and Sartrean melancholy bores and wearies me after fifteen minutes.

In recent years many of the “white spaces” in Polish history have begun to be filled in: it is possible now to discuss truthfully and openly even the relations between Poles and Jews. But the positive side of the relationship between Poland and Russia in the last century and a half (and I don’t of course mean the infantile propaganda pumped out by the Warsaw regime in the early postwar decades), an enormous fact without which history is incomplete, remains almost blank—a suppressed intimacy.

It has to be said that Moonrise, Moonset will often be very hard going for a Western reader who does not know much about Poland, as most do not. It is a book written mainly for Polish readers, full of allusions, references to Polish history, and to personalities in Polish culture and politics. Why not? But books like this set problems for publishers in the West. Konwicki becomes unreasonably truculent on this point, complaining of the “offensive compassion” of foreign publishers who worry that his references will escape their readers “as if we were, objectively speaking, snarled, obscure, lacking contour, inarticulate, a subspecies, on a different wave-length, with a different biology, a different brain.”

That view is misconceived. To point out that an American reader won’t know that Spatif is a club, or who General Dowbór-Musnicki was, or why Soviet troops were arresting Polish partisans in Lithuania, or that the exclamation “Renewal, Renewal, why do all the fine young men run after you?” dexterously mixes together a 1980 Party slogan with a prewar officer’s song, is not to denigrate Polish culture as provincial but to raise pertinent practical questions. Either you don’t publish the book in English at all, or you equip it with an introduction explaining the episodes of history to which the work refers—the Second World War in Poland and Lithuania, and the Solidarity years—and with proper footnotes—the present edition provides only about three. The decision to publish Moonrise, Moonset was the right one. Although it is certainly more “difficult” (pace Konwicki) than his novels, Konwicki’s importance is such that no book of his should remain unpublished; judgment should be left to readers. But by dumping this work on the public without interpretation, the publishers seem to lack the courage of their own convictions, and to show disrespect to readers and author alike.

The Color of Blood, Brian Moore’s latest novel, was on the short list for the Booker Prize, the main British fiction award. Though widely admired, it did not take the prize; the murmur in London was that it was “slight.” A strange reservation. The book is certainly brief, and has the pace and economical structure of a thriller. But it is the work of a masterly writer now at the height of his powers: some of Graham Greene’s “entertainments” were called slight when they first appeared, and those judgments seem today absurd. Nabokov’s Pale Fire and Lolita, if one judges by length, are more rich and substantial than his briefer works, but Laughter in the Dark, which one can read on a short train journey, is among the most nearly perfect of Nabokov’s fictions.

The scenery, physical and political, in Brian Moore’s novel, reflects Poland’s history. The Cardinal’s name is Stephen Bem (Cardinal Wyszynski’s first name was Stefan, while Bem was a patriot general of the last century), while the prime minister is named Urban (like the Polish government spokesman), and the book contains many other such allusions. But Moore also shows an uncanny sensibility in penetrating to the heart of Polish moral dilemmas and nightmares. He achieves this penetration largely through creating a fabulous, not-quite-specific location, thereby freeing Polish debates from the supposedly hermetic quality which encourages others to regard these debates as idiosyncratic. He has released them into the consciousness of all who have to seek the just path in places where repression, nationalism, violence, and a religion of peace belong to present experience.

Years before the novel opens, in this Catholic nation ruled by a Communist government and police, the cardinal has signed a Church-State concordat with the prime minister, one Francis Urban, who was once a fellow pupil of Bem’s at the same Jesuit school. But for some traditionalists in the Church and in the Catholic laity, that compact with foreign Marxism and its agents has amounted to national betrayal. Now, as the tension between the people and the regime is swelling toward a crisis, a plot has been laid between Catholic nationalists and some of Bem’s own bishops to proclaim a popular insurrection. The proclamation is timed for the great Catholic pilgrimage and rally at Rywald (Moore’s Czestochowa). But to give it a chance of success, the workers and their underground trade unions must be persuaded to call a general strike. And to persuade the union leaders and the population as a whole to move, the full authority of the Church must be put behind the appeal.

The obstacle is the personality of the cardinal-primate himself, Stephen Bem. Unlike many of the plotters, he is not a son of the aristocracy or the old officer caste. His father was a stableboy in a nobleman’s palace, and this sets him at a distance from the tradition of insurrections led by the nobility. No less patriotic or anticommunist than they, he sees more clearly than they do the futility of a rebellion that could only end in bloodshed and invasion by Soviet armies. His task under God, as he sees it, is to ensure the survival of the nation and its true values, and his faith is that the nation will outlive its oppressors. His agreement with Urban, compromise as it was, has given the Church the right to run its own schools, publish religious literature, and in general to carry on its duty of maintaining the integrity of the nation. “Remember,” he says, “that, no matter which government rules us, we remain a free people, free in our minds, free in an unfree state. That is the greater heroism.” Cardinal Wyszynski, too, put his name to such an agreement, and he, too, told the Poles in 1956, on the brink of rebellion, that it was sometimes harder to live for one’s country than to die for it.

Cardinal Bem will never approve the call for a rising. Yet it cannot hope for success if he condemns it. The novel opens as his car is ambushed by a group of Catholic fanatics, who can see no way to cut this knot beyond eliminating him. But Bem survives, although his driver and one of the plotters are killed. Back at his palace, he is seized and abducted by men apparently from the security police, who take him “for his own protection” to a guarded hideout in the countryside. (The location, Bem’s relationship with his custodians, and his own reflections owe much to Wyszynski’s own prison notebooks, published in English under the title A Freedom Within, and it has been said that Brian Moore’s reading of that book was the novel’s original inspiration.)

Bem contrives to escape, tries to find his way back to the capital, and is caught once more. He realizes suddenly that his captors are not the regime’s men at all, but members of a Catholic underground conspiracy; his kidnapping has been staged in order to provide the final provocation which will justify the rising (“The Communists have arrested the Primate”) while gagging him at the crucial moment. Again, Bem manages to break away and flee. He is at last brought to a clandestine meeting with Jop, the aging workers’ hero who once led a free trade union struggle, and persuades him to throw his influence against the coming strike. Jop is not sure if he will be obeyed. “We don’t count any more, the unions…. We can’t afford to speak out against the Church. If the people want this demo and the Church is behind it, then we have to go along.” Here, expertly mirrored, is the real choice the Polish Church faced in August 1980: “If the people want this strike and the working class is behind it, then we have to go along.”

Now Bem must somehow reach Rywald, before the bishop there delivers the fatal sermon. But the real police, who have been frantically searching for him, catch him on the way. He is flown to the capital, as rumors of insurrection begin to course through the nation, and is brought to confront Francis Urban himself.

At school, Urban was the rich boy, son of a landowner: “It was natural for an Urban to become a general, even a prime minister. What was not natural was his route to this power.” Before him is Stephen Bem, again the poor boy now that he is no longer in robes but wears an ill-fitting civilian disguise. They attack each other’s credentials as a patriot: one is abused as an agent of Moscow and the KGB, the other as the servant of Rome and the CIA. When calm, though, both are forced to admit that they have a common interest even though neither can confess to being “on the same side.” They say in Poland: “Nobody knows what compromises a man can make for his country.” Urban and Bem have both risked their careers for a shabby concordat which was meant to save their country from itself and from its neighbor. Bem knows that the West will betray his people if they rise, as it has betrayed them before. To save them, he must do the betraying himself, abort a great national and religious upsurge, and save the neck of this detestable government in the process. What compromises can a man make for his God? That Greenean question lies at the heart of this novel.

In the end, Cardinal Bem goes to Rywald. What happens there would be heartless for a critic to disclose. It’s enough to say that this short novel maintains its physical and intellectual suspense to the last page, and the last line.

A great many ideas are carried by the characters of The Color of Blood. Not for a moment, however, do they cease to be unpredictable, genuine human beings. Cardinal Bem, lonely and steadfast, is afraid only of that moral darkness in which right and wrong begin stealthily to exchange places. I will remember him not only when thinking about Poland or Hungary, but also when I read about the travails of bishops in Latin America and South Africa, or—very particularly—about Bishop Edward Daly of Derry and Cardinal Tomas O Fiaich of Armagh.

It may be that Moore would not wish to be called a “Catholic novelist.” But he shares with some other novelists who are Catholics (and some of the great Russians) the capacity to make characters who remain entirely convincing whatever burden of “significance” they carry. Muriel Spark, a convert, once took fright at her own sin of creating human beings without the power of saving themselves. If I have grasped this notion correctly, it means that when God understands, he does not so much forgive as extend mercy. A few novelists extend mercy of that kind to those they have imagined. Brian Moore is one of them.

  1. *

    Kazimierz Brandys, A Warsaw Diary: 1978–1981 (Vintage, 1984).

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