A Dreambook for Our Time
This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen
“You see what our earth is like. No matter where you tread, there are graves everywhere.” A character in Dreambook for Our Time is speaking, in the remote forested valley where the main action of this novel is set. It has many graves: mounds covering the bones of insurrectionaries from the Polish rising of 1863, the dead partisans of the Home Army which fought against the German occupation in the last war, the unknown Russian prisoners slaughtered as they tried to escape from the Nazis. A wanderer in the woods stumbles into ancient bunkers, hiding places for armed bands who fought the Germans or, in the civil war which ensued in the forests, fought the communist militia of their own people.
The people of the valley are themselves mysterious, families from the lost territories in the east absorbed into the Soviet Union after the war, orphans and wanderers with their own secrets and memories who were deposited there like settling leaves after the cyclone of Polish history in the mid-twentieth century died down. Across the river, men are beginning to work on a dam which will eventually flood the whole valley, its dilapidated houses, dusty roads, and graves.
Polish literature—in which this novel, first published in 1963, can be placed as a major work—itself has aspects of the catacomb. Nearly two hundred years have passed since the independence of Poland was first extinguished. Since then, the experience of most generations has been that of foreign occupation or repression, of conspiracy and insurrection, of labyrinthine moral confusion. There have been few times at which the truth could openly be told: censors played their part in that, but so did the complexity of personal fates, the difficulty of identifying truth itself after years in which loyalty could be fratricidal and compromise seem a bold stroke of rebellion. In the catacomb, where the living seek their way among the bones of their dead, the twilight makes a human face unreadable. Only the grasp of another hand is sure.
And the place echoes. Of all literatures, Polish is the most continuous. “Forefathers’ Eve,” the colossal poetic drama written by Mickiewicz in the 1820s and 1830s, is still intensely alive in national consciousness, not because of any predilection for native classics but because, simply, its themes are basic themes of Polish life today. For anybody over forty, and many younger, the experiences of resistance, compromise, treachery, the themes of Messianic hope and bitter humiliation which Mickiewicz drew from the early decades of Tsarist domination, are literally accurate descriptions of episodes and states of mind which they have passed through. Later literature—the work of Wyspianski in the theater, especially, at the turn of the century—varied the same themes and the modes of their expression.
Polish writing of the last two centuries has a coherence and relevance that are without parallel elsewhere. In consequence, it is for the foreigner both difficult and private, intricately traced with historical and literary allusions. There is no comparison with the…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.