Sergiusz Piasecki: L’Amant de la Grande Ourse

January 13, 2017

51t79-mp7l-_ac_us160_Well, this was an unexpected pleasure, in the sense that it was very different from, and a lot better than what I’d anticipated. Piasecki seems to have been a very wild character, leading a wild life, though ending up dying in poverty in England. What attracted me to the book was that it was a novel set in the times and places where my father had been a young man, near the Polish/Soviet border.

As a novel, it became clear quite early on that it was quite thinly disguised autobiography; it was apparently a best-seller in the 1930s and saved the writer from death from TB in Poland’s harshest prison…

It’s basically about smuggling across the wild borderlands that existed between Poland and the new Soviet Union in the 1920s, a time when Belarus was part both of Poland and the Soviet Union, and when the region’s commerce seems to have been largely in the hands of Jews. Interestingly, there’s no overt anti-Semitism in the novel, though because the Jews have money and the locals generally don’t, no-one’s averse to occasionally scamming them.

Our hero learns smuggling from other smugglers; there is a deep and powerful code of loyalty between them. They are ridiculously hard-drinking. They learn all the routes through the forests and fields, avoiding occasional frontier fortifications and obstacles, out-smarting border patrols from both sides most of the time, but life is cheap and there are deaths. There’s also a ridiculously large amount of money to be made, but almost nothing to spend it on apart from drinking, eating and whoring, and by the end of the novel, our hero can’t really see the point of having it…

I’d have expected the book to be dull, once I’d realised that it was basically smuggling, without any real plot other than whether he was going to get the best girl or not (he doesn’t, his arch-enemy does), but it really wasn’t. There’s a marvellous picture of the beauty of the borderlands region and its nature and landscape that pervades the whole book; the Great Bear of the title is the constellation in the sky that he learns very early on is his guide back to safety in Poland if there are ever any problems. There are marvellous characters who are brought to life (and death), his various smuggling companions, and his loves, as well as his rivals who he must constantly outsmart.

The world of the smugglers grows increasingly fraught and violent, with more betrayals and scams and insecurity, and it cannot continue: his only surviving friend, the Rat, loses his mind and lights out for new pastures and our hero leaves us contemplating the beautiful landscape on his last night: he has vowed to leave forever the next day…

I came across the French translation of the book while in Carcassonne last autumn; my researches haven’t turned up an English version. Sorry.

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