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…

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