Archive for the 'poland' Category

Norman Davies: God’s Playground – A History of Poland (vol 2)

September 19, 2022

    This second volume of Norman Davies’ history begins with a nation that has vanished from the map of Europe; the idea of Poland survives nevertheless, and he shows us the problems national aspirations can cause. His account of the period is wide-ranging, comprehensive, and he demonstrates a deep level both of sympathy with, and understanding of, the situation of Poles during those years; he is a historian widely read and respected in Poland. Given the absence of a country of which to record the history, he examines things thematically: church, language, history and race create a sense of a nation.

Unless you are prepared to go into great depth, you will never unpick or make sense of the incredible complexity of Polish history, culture and society. Davies manages to do all of this, making things clear and evident, as well as acknowledging that there’s often a touch of the mildly insane about it all…

At another level, the problems really began in 1919, with the task of reconstituting a nation from its very disparate parts, after more than a century of oblivion: the Russian, Prussian and Austro-Hungarian empires had all now disappeared, but each had left a very different mark, culturally, politically and physically, on the Polish space. Although this wasn’t the first time I’d read this magisterial work, I had allowed myself to forget the extent of the horrendous catalogue of bestial Russian behaviour towards the Poles in the part of the nation they occupied (and from which my ancestors came); the picture is of more than two centuries of both Tsarist and Bolshevik domination and brutality. I’d make a glib observation about some aspects of the Russian character and psyche, except that I then remember the atrocities the occupying Nazis carried out; it’s human beings per se that are not a very nice species…

So, to write a fair history of Poland, one needs to have a full grasp of, and be able to explain to others, both the complexities on the ground, and also in hearts and heads; Norman Davies and Timothy Snyder are the only ones I’ve found able to do justice. Davies sets the record of the Second World War straight too, and he’s not afraid to be critical; Poland doesn’t emerge from that period of martyrdom completely covered in glory, and there are those in the current regime who wish to sweep certain things under the carpet. Poland’s shameful treatment by the Western Allies is also fully and correctly catalogued.

A range of necessary maps are included, but I have to say they are reproduced too small and fail to do justice to the subject, mainly through illegibility. Davies has an encyclopaedic knowledge at his fingertips. It’s not a recent work – completed before the advent of the Solidarity movement in 1980 – and his summative remarks at the end of the history do read like something from another age; to be fair to Davies, he does acknowledge that historians shouldn’t write about (their) present. I don’t imagine another history this complete and comprehensive being written in the near future.

Joseph Conrad: Heart of Darkness

August 11, 2022

     This astonishing novel remains as enigmatic and impenetrable as ever, like its subject-matter: I studied it, along with Conrad’s other works, at university, I taught it to sixth form students, and I’ve come back to it after many years for my book group. Conrad is not much read or studied now, sadly I feel, because he has so much to say. And this particular text I have often seen referred to as racist, colonialist, offensive… and I don’t buy these interpretations.

Heart of Darkness is very short. My American paperback edition has fewer than seventy pages. And yet so much is densely packed into that brief space: there are the carefully layered levels of the narrative; the settings of Victorian London and deepest central Africa, contrasted and yet also likened to each other; the density of Conrad’s descriptive language. And that’s before we engage with the subject-matter: a steamboat journey to nowhere in search of a man who has become a myth. All the time we are wrapped in the question of understanding and not understanding, which for me is the kernel of the entire work: just how much can a white man, a westerner, comprehend of the so utterly different world of the natives whose world he invades? And what on earth do those Africans make of the strangers, the invaders, their weird machinery and brutal actions?

Conrad pushes the situation to extremes because he is questioning the crazed rush for colonies, plunder and profit that the ‘civilised’ European powers were engaged in at that time, but the question is also a more universal one: at what level, to what extent is anyone capable of understanding someone from a different nature or a different culture? Can we ever really know or share? Kurtz, the man/myth at the heart of the novella, has been driven insane – in my understanding – by the powers he has managed to acquire over the native population, and Marlow, the narrator, has fallen deeply under his spell, but is in some slight way capable of understanding Kurtz and his power.

Ar some level, I suppose the question of whether and how much we can understand of ‘the other’ is also rather meaningless, for we are what we are and have to make the best of that, although we should surely respect other cultures and traditions rather than strive to pillage and exploit them. But once again, Conrad brings me to reflect on my own particular situation. I’m half Polish. I know a fair amount of that nation’s history and my father’s family and past, I’ve visited the country a number of times. There are aspects of the country and its people I love, others I loathe, and yet I do wonder how much I really know or understand. If I had moved to live there as a student – I was offered the opportunity but didn’t take it up – would I ever have become fully Polish? Similarly, although I have lived my entire life (apart from a year) in England, I feel I can never be one hundred percent English: there are things about this island I do not like or understand. And yet I know I could not live anywhere else, and my life’s work has been centred on the study and teaching of this country’s literature, which I do feel I understand pretty well.

Conrad is enigmatic, as I said. He makes his readers think, think hard. To me it’s pretty evident that, although he may not be able to understand Africa and its people, to him what the westerners are doing there is evil, and in some ways actually insane. And I have to respect a man who is a giant of English literature, even though English was his third language.

Jan Potocki: Voyages

May 15, 2022

     I bought this because I was planning to re-read his amazing novel The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, and then watch the film; I hadn’t known much about his life or that he was widely travelled, in the years at the end of the eighteenth century when his native Poland was gradually being dismembered and removed from the map of Europe.

Potocki is a careful observer with a good eye for detail and a focus on the exotic (or what would have seemed exotic to a European traveller at the time). The book is extremely well presented with a very detailed commentary and copious annotation, rather like the current Hakluyt Society volumes in the UK. The one thing seriously lacking is maps of any sort, to allow the curious reader to track the traveller’s progress.

It’s a strange mish-mash of places: travel through Holland during a revolution, extensive travels through the then Kingdom of Morocco, travels in Astrakhan, and detailed analysis of why a Russian diplomatic mission to the court of the emperor of China was an utter fiasco. Morocco is closely described, and Potocki seems to avoid Western prejudices against Arabs and Islam. The minutiae of events at a chaotic time in Morocco now seems rather dull and dreary stuff, though.

Descriptions of peoples, places and customs in Astrakhan are rather more interesting; perhaps Potocki was one of the first Westerners to travel there and write a detailed account? He comes over as erudite and a seeker out of knowledge, balanced in his approach, eschewing the racism and bigotry often found in accounts of that time. He’s not only interested in the peoples – and lists and differentiates many of them – but also their languages, and the differences between them: a researcher in the sense we would understand the word.

The piece on the mission to China is fascinating. Potocki is far more aware of the demands of diplomacy, of understanding others and how their approach might differ from his own, of the necessary sensitivities and protocols required in such situations, than are the Russian diplomats he accompanies. They plod woodenly on, it seems, trampling on every sensitivity until the Chinese basically tell them to clear off, that the mission will not be received…

Having said all that, reading the book was something of a chore and I am not going to recommend it to you unless you have similar and quite particular interest as I do. Not a piece of light travel reading for a casual reader.

Norman Davies: God’s Playground – A History of Poland (vol1)

April 9, 2022

     It’s well over thirty years since I first came across and read this monumental work by Norman Davies, who is the current expert par excellence on Polish history, so much so that all of his works have been translated into Polish and seem to rank alongside native-born historians’ work…

He begins by making it clear that it’s not merely the physical/ geographical location of Poland in the Central European plain sandwiched between Germany and Russia that creates many of that nation’s difficulties, but also Poland’s rule, and lack of it, too. He manages dexterously to pick his way through the minefield of the borderlands, national allegiances and historical changes in a way only recently paralleled by Timothy Snyder; he also demolishes a good number of nationalist myths and sacred cows along the way. It’s worth reminding ourselves that this history was written in the days of the People’s Republic, too.

There was much intermingling of races and peoples back in the days before the earliest origins of the Polish state in the tenth century, along with mobility of all frontiers: here is an aspect of the region’s history that the British, safe on our little island, repeatedly prove unable to understand. Reading for personal reasons, I’m still trying to unpick the history and geography of the region of my ancestors, on the verges of Poland/Lithuania and Belarus.

The maps are mostly excellent: one really can attempt to understand the complexities of the past millennium with their help, although the chaotic politics and regional warfare over centuries do still go over my head.

There are still surprises to this experienced reader of Polish history: from the stridency and bigotry of the 21st century Polish church, you would never deduce the spirit of toleration during the Reformation era, the lively debates that took place, and the strength of Calvinism at the time. Davies shows us how the nation eventually developed into a bulwark of Catholicism, and this was obviously reinforced by the resistance to Soviet rule, and the election of a Polish pope, some time after Davies was writing this book.

Poland’s economic and political problems seem to have stemmed from its being a decentralised state for much of its existence, as well as a complex, multi-ethnic mix, with its borders in pretty constant flux; the country was seriously anarchic during the crucial 17th and 18th centuries when most nation-states were consolidating themselves, with an over-emphasis on individual liberties for nobles and magnates which impeded the development of a strong centre which might have more successfully resisted Russian and Prussian encroachment; the nobility waged many of their own private wars, and paralysed the state through their use of parliamentary veto; magnates could also be bought up, and were, by the nation’s enemies…

We can clearly see the origins and development of Poland’s deep-seated mistrust of Russia, its rulers and their methods; recent events justify this wariness. Equally, we can see the origins of anti-Jewish sentiments which developed over the years, and about which the current regime is in denial.

Davies tries very hard to enable his readers to make sense of centuries of chaos, but at times, even to this seasoned reader, it became dull, overloaded with (probably) necessary detail. Nonetheless, the necessary broad outlines are there. This volume ends with the disappearance of Poland from the map in 1795; I shall take up the second volume when I can find it (it’s in a box somewhere…).

Olga Tokarczuk: The Books of Jacob

November 30, 2021

     ‘Literature is a particular type of knowledge, it is… the perfection of imprecise forms.’ I love that.

I’ve been waiting a couple of years for this one finally to come out in English, and I resisted buying the French translation a year ago because I wanted Jennifer Croft’s English version. She’s translated other Olga Tokarczuk novels so well, and I was not disappointed here: she creates atmosphere and tone consistent with her other successes, and I felt I was reading the same Olga, if you see what I mean. Not knowing Polish well enough to read it means I can’t comment on the ‘feel’ of the translation, but this doesn’t alter the fact that translators are really important.

Nor is it possible to summarise the plot of a 900+ page novel, so I shan’t even attempt. Suffice it to say it centres around an eighteenth century Jewish heresy in Eastern Poland led by Josef Frank, who presented himself as the Messiah and urged his followers to accept Christian baptism. Wikipedia is your friend here if you want more details. The whole is also set against the backdrop of the beginning of the collapse and dismemberment of the Polish Commonwealth. But there’s so much more besides, with Tokarczuk’s familiar erudition and digression on display throughout. I found myself thinking at one point, is this Poland’s take on magic realism, with her blend of history and fiction?

I have to admit that this book will not be to everyone’s taste, as the arcana of Judaism and Jewish history is pretty pervasive; at times it all felt a little rambling and self-indulgent, but this did not put me off. It is a book to lose yourself in, a bit like Flights, where you are never quite sure where you are heading next. I thought of Tristram Shandy at times, the endless shaggy dog story; sink into it and go with the flow. It took me a fortnight.

You would have to say it’s a particularly Polish novel, with the focus on time and place, as well as a religious novel in some ways. There is the concept of the Messiah to wrestle with: Christians have had one, but the Jews not, so how will they know when theirs finally comes? And because considerable parts of the novel are set on what was then the border between the Polish Commonwealth and the Ottoman empire, Islam, the third religion of the book, also figures a good deal.

It’s very easy to see why traditional Polish Catholics hated and denounced this book on its publication. Tokarczuk is genuinely interested herself and through her characters in all sorts of heretical and semi-heretical notions; it’s a philosophical and theological minefield for a Catholic reader, as she validates elements of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. And interestingly, too, when it comes to the Catholic Church interrogating Josef Frank and his followers to see if they are genuinely seeking to be united with the one true church, the questioning style and behaviour of the inquisitors is – deliberately – reminiscent of the behaviour of Communist party interrogators during various purges, as they have been recorded in history books. The atmosphere is sinister, threatening, ominous; the Church has spies and agents everywhere, just like the KGB

And then there are the scenes – based on history – set in Catholic Poland’s holiest shrine at Częstochowa. We are shown religious ignorance and trickery on both sides. In the end, for me, some of the most interesting and intriguing parts of the novel were those broader explorations of the meaning of religion, spirituality and the human future in the context of eternity.

Clearly it’s not a book for everyone. If you’re curious, I’d say go for it, but it’s a challenge. It’s evident why Olga Tokarczuk is a Nobel class novelist, for what that’s worth, with this as part of her complete works. I intend to read it again, hopefully in the not-too-distant-future.

As an ex-English teacher I’m a stickler for correctness, and there were quite a few bizarre typographical offerings in this version, particularly in the area of hyphenation, where I thought there were established conventions, but hey…

Richard M Watt: Bitter Glory

November 11, 2021

     Although I bought this book some twenty years ago, I’ve only just finished it, and the timing is perfect, as today is Polish Independence Day

It’s an account of the life of the Second Republic, from start to finish – only 20 years – and I finally have a clear and detailed understanding of the country my father grew up in. The opposition between Pilsudski’s (perhaps romantic) vision of a Poland of many peoples, and Dmowski’s homeland for ethnic Poles only is there right from the outset. Josef Pilsudski’s vision was tried in the Second Republic; Roman Dmowski’s was artificially imposed and created by the Soviet Union and its puppets after the Second World War. And so we have the situation that so many of us in the Polish diaspora find ourselves.

We could have done with more maps, and better copy editing and checking of the book, but I’ll let those pass.

The task was truly Herculean: resurrect a country which had been abolished for 120 years, from three disparate parts run under three very different administrations, with a resentful Germany to the West and an unpredictable Soviet Union to the East. The Versailles conference fixed the Western borders: the East was to be a DIY affair, settled briefly and very resentfully after the 1920 war with the Soviets. So for its entire existence, the republic was hemmed in by unfinished business. The Western Allies, savaged by the Great War, didn’t really care that much.

The book is very broad in scope and detail. In particular, the ethnic and national conflicts on the Eastern borders – the Kresy – are explained and contextualised with great care, and the various approaches to the issues, crystallising in the personalities of Pilsudski and Dmowski, are also clarified. The permanently scarred relations with the former ally Lithuania are also explained. It really does become evident that for so many reasons, and not just the fault of Poles – the new Poland was not really a viable state in the long term. Perhaps that should not surprise us?

Economically, the situation was horrendous: too many peasants on too many small farms. Little industry. No coherent communications. And all was made worse by the fact that no Poles had any experience of ruling or governing. The 1920s were totally chaotic politically, through incompetence and corruption. The roots of the awkwardness of the church date from this time, in a flawed concordat with the Vatican, and of course, antisemitism was always lurking in the background, to come to the fore in the 1930s.

Which was the more dangerous potential enemy, Germany or the Soviet Union? And where were reliable allies to be found? Increasing chaos led to the virtual end of attempts at democracy by 1930 and the country was thereafter rules by authoritarian governments who exploited anti-Jewish feeling when it suited their interests, disgracefully supported and encouraged by the church. For most of the life of the republic, the military were heavily involved in government. There was scandalous trickery used to pass a new constitution in 1930, and a new rigged electoral system.

Things clearly were unravelling all over Europe as the 1930s progressed and Poland was no exception; under an authoritarian rule, swaggering at times as if it were a great power, it waited its turn to be picked off by Hitler…

It’s an exhaustive and authoritative book, with thought-provoking evaluation and conclusions. And though Watt’s picture is very dark, we must acknowledge what was achieved: Poland was brought back into existence effectively enough to survive independently for two decades, and was not to be erased from the map permanently again by the Second World War, though the epoch of the People’s Republic drew out the agony for another four decades and more. The beginnings of a modern nation-state, with national self-awareness took shape. And today’s Poland still has plenty of crocodiles to wrestle with…

Jozef Czapski: Inhuman Land

May 7, 2021

     Reading this book was part of my ongoing research into what my father and his comrades went through during their imprisonment in the Soviet Union in the early years of the Second World War. Almost all of them are long dead, but many accounts survive in memoirs like this one, and are very interesting to read, when you finally come across them. Czapski lectured on Proust to his comrades in the Soviet concentration camp where they spent two years; you have to admire this. And the book has an excellent contextual introduction from Timothy Snyder, who, along with Norman Davies, has currently the greatest knowledge of time and place. Antonia Lloyd-Jones, who is also Olga Tokarczuk’s translator, has produced this recent version of Czapski’s memoirs. It reads well: she’s done an excellent piece of work.

So: the nation erased from the map, the Nazis experimenting freely in the western part and the Soviets eliminating all trace of Poland in the east, deporting people in the tens of thousands as well as murdering thousands of officers and intellectuals. Then all change in June 1941 when Hitler attacks the Soviet Union and suddenly from reviled class enemies the Poles are allies, released from captivity and all striving to make their way to the middle of nowhere, where the Polish Army is reforming, and is eventually, grudgingly and with much hindrance and impediment, allowed to leave for Persia.

Czapski’s account only covers the first year of this gathering of the diaspora. There is a real sense of the atmosphere of liberation as men travel en masse to join up, tinged with the tragedy of countless deaths from disease, exhaustion and starvation, topics which my father only ever alluded to very briefly. Yet in this account figure all those details he mentioned, and the places, too. And there is the attempt to piece together where all the Poles are who have been dispersed thousands of miles in every direction; in particular, just where are all those missing officers? Czapski had been one of them and had strangely, along with a few others, escaped their fate…

Czapski provides a general account which is enhanced by his artist’s eye for detail and sympathy for others. There are several interesting digressions on art, poetry and literature. He is a thoughtful writer, and not afraid to be critical of his fellow-countrymen and officers at times; he’s aware of the shortcomings of his nation and people, as well as very aware of what they face.

There is also a sense of futility and impending despair, as he’s constantly fobbed off by the Soviets in his searches; they obviously know something has happened to the missing officers. He catalogues the craziness and the misery of the countless deportations of so many peoples and nationalities for so many different reasons, and if we didn’t already feel this, we can see why his book has the title it does.

Czapski eventually comes to run the Army propaganda department as well as taking responsibility for getting education up and running for the younger refugees; he’s well aware of the need to build cohesion among Poles from such disparate origins and backgrounds. As I’ve been discovering recently, he catalogues the willing help and support for the Polish diaspora from many countries; as I know from my father’s story, disease – typhus and dysentery in particular – and starvation exacted a dreadful toll on those who survived the ‘Soviet paradise’.

There is a quite lengthy concluding section appended to this translation, written after the war, in which Czapski expresses the bitterness of his countrymen at how the Allies reneged on the promises they made to Poland. His final analysis is very thoughtful and challenging, particularly when it comes to reflecting on the relationship between Poles and Germans. I have read a good deal over the years about these times and these events, and Czapski’s account is one of the best, from the perspective both of detail and of balance.

Olga Tokarczuk: Drive Your Plow Over The Bones Of The Dead

March 14, 2021

   I’ve re-read this one for our book group, and decided to focus on what might be the qualities in Tokarczuk’s writing which make her a Nobel Laureate – not that that particular accolade is a guarantee of anything. You can read my first take on the book here.

The heroine and narrator lives in a remote village in the mountains close to the Polish/Czech border. She immediately comes across as rather strange, for her world-view is deeply dependent on astrological interpretations of events and people, and she has a strong sense of animals having rights in the same way as humans do; as the novel progresses, Tokarczuk succeeds in having us empathise with and eventually respect and like her, as well as see the logic and the sense in such a response to the world.

This world picture is fully developed in the sense that the narrator takes it and us along with her wherever she goes, and she is always philosophising and reflecting on the world and trying to make sense of it in her own terms. Her rage at hunters and killers of animals knows no bounds, and a series of deaths – are they murders? – of locals connected with hunting form the core of the events and the mystery at the heart of the book: our suspicions grow as we wonder if the narrator is connected with them, and we look for gaps in her awareness and her narrative…

I shan’t give any more away. The book is eminently readable, though not gripping in the usual sense. In the end, the qualities I especially admired were the subtle sense of place she creates, the astonishingly conceived plot, the carefully developed characterisation, and the artistry in the writing, which of course I can only appreciate through the work of her excellent translator, Antonia Lloyd-Jones. Lloyd-Jones’ work must have been extraordinarily difficult, as a side strand of the story concerns the narrator and a friend of hers attempting to translate some of William Blake’s verse into English, and comparing versions; that would work in a Polish text, obviously, and here the translator makes it work for English readers too!

It’s well-known that right-wing and religious circles in her country do not like Olga Tokarczuk, and when we read the episode where she heckles the local priest during his sermon on St Hubert’s feast day (patron saint of hunters) it’s easy to see why: her reflections on the sacrament are highly provocative. In the end, taken along with other of her work, including the equally astonishing Flights, I can see why Tokarczuk received the ultimate accolade.

2020: My Year of Reading

December 29, 2020

No need to remind you what a weird year it has been. When lockdown arrived, naturally someone like me thought, “Well, OK, time to hunker down and get on with lots of reading..” Only it didn’t turn out that way. I found myself dithering a great deal, unable to choose what to settle down with. So I ended up reading quite a lot of magazines, and articles I’d saved offline on all kinds of different topics, tidying up my reading loose-ends if you like, but also, I increasingly felt, frittering away useful reading time. Overall this year I have actually completed slightly fewer books than usual. And the tidying up of my library, and the weeding out and disposing of many books that I know I’m never going to open again, has proceeded apace and some 250+ books have made their way to benefit Amnesty International at some point in the future. I think I’m now down to only 1700 or so books now!

You may not be surprised that I went back to Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, which I taught once, many years ago; nothing new there, so I didn’t bother with revisiting CamusLa Peste

When I did manage to settle on a book, I found I did quite a bit of re-reading – Sherlock Holmes, Hermann Hesse, Josef Skvorecky, science fiction. I have read 51 books this year, and acquired 25 new ones. After some reflection I have decided I’d like to spend some of 2021 re-reading some of my favourite classics. We’ll see how far I manage to get with that one… but it is somehow comforting to return to a book I have previously enjoyed a number of times. It’s a sort of anchor in a very turbulent world.

Blog report:

Once again, my posts analysing various poems of or about the Great War have been the most visited. A logical deduction is that the poetry appears on examination specifications in various countries and students are perhaps tuning in for some insight, or else coming across the blog in search engine results and opening it by mistake. I do wish I got more feedback from visitors, and once again record my gratitude to those readers who take the time to like my posts and to occasionally comment or engage in discussion.

Other popular posts this year have included (again) Theodore Kröger’s The Forgotten Village, and Alexandra David-Neel’s With Mystics and Magicians in Tibet.

This year’s awards:

My biggest disappointment of the year: re-reading Christopher Priest’s The Space Machine, of which I’d carried positive recollections for quite a few years. It palled, it dragged, it was simplistic and it went on the ‘I don’t need to read this ever again’ pile. Ditto Harry Harrison’s A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah!

The weirdest book I’ve read this year is definitely the Strugatsky brothers’ One Billion Years to the End of the World.

The best novel of 2020: re-reading Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March, which never fails to disappoint in its poignant picture of a long-vanished age.

The best new novel of 2020: not awarded this year as I haven’t read any new novels!

The best non-fiction book of 2020: after a fair amount of hesitation, I decided on Alberto Angela’s Pompeii, which I’d wanted to read for quite a while, after really enjoying another book of his on daily life in the Roman Empire. His formula for telling the story of those dreadful days in 79CE worked really well, and sent me back to the catalogue from the major British Museum exhibition a few years back, the closest I’ve actually got to Pompeii itself (unless you count passing through a train station just south of Naples – Ercolano – many years ago and realising ‘hey, that was Herculaneum!’)

My book of the year award goes to a book I ought to have read years ago, Adam Mickiewicz’s Polish national epic poem Pan Tadeusz, which was a gentle and lyrical revelation and took me closer to my Polish roots.

Travel book of the year: in a year when not a lot of travelling could be done, reading about travelling was a substitute. A review sent me to Sophy RobertsThe Lost Pianos of Siberia, which was a surprisingly thoughtful, interesting and well-written variation on history and travel in Siberia. And I’ve read a good deal of that.

Special mention – because there isn’t really a category for it: Yuri Slezkine’s doorstopper of a book about the inhabitants of a building which housed the ruling elites of the Soviet Union over many years: The House of Government. If you’re interested in a deeper insight into the machinery of how the country worked and its ruling classes, this is the one. It felt like an obligation, but it was worth the effort.

Here’s to 2021: may it be a better year for everyone in every way, and may we all get lots of good reading done!

Miron Białoszewski: A Memoir of the Warsaw Uprising

December 13, 2020

     I’ve read a number of historical accounts of the Warsaw uprising of 1944, notably the excellent account by Norman Davies in Rising ‘44. This memoir is a completely different thing. Historical accounts enjoy the benefits of hindsight and can make judgements broad in scope; they can give a full and complete overview of what the situation was at any particular point. Białoszewski’s memoir was originally written a number of years after the events in which he took part, and not published (in a slightly censored version) until 1970, yet it has an astonishing sense of immediacy which can be breathtaking.

Warsaw was already a pretty chaotic place after nearly five years of war and German occupation, and the previous year there had already been another brave but futile rising in the Jewish Ghetto, brutally suppressed by the Nazis, who then razed it to the ground. And the Soviet army was approaching the city from the east, although it decided to sit and await the outcome of the rising, and the consequent weakening of the Home Army…one of the most cynical of Stalin’s many vile calculations.

Białoszewski’s account shows us the camaraderie and self-help, among the ordinary citizens themselves and between them and the fighting partisans: here is ordinary humanity, sharing deaths and cruelties which are sprinkled through the account in a completely matter-of-fact way, which is alarming to those who have never experienced such random existence.

The narrator frequently to admits a sense of total confusion; details of time and place are often vague, descriptions impressionistic, laconic even. There is never a clear picture of the overall situation or state of play, for how could there be for someone in the middle of it all, and deprived of any certainties other than death? The feeling is one of suspended animation and it’s deeply disturbing.

As the rising progresses – Warsaw, or parts of it held out for 63 days in total, against the might of the Wehrmacht – Białoszewski and his family and companions move about the city, seeking new, safer havens temporarily, undertaking dangerous journeys through the city which he describes as existing on three levels: the gradually-demolished buildings on the surface, an immense network of interconnected cellars, and beneath these, complex routes through the city sewers…

We share people’s fears, panics and frequent calculations about potential safety in particular streets and buildings, under shellfire and bombing from German planes. We see them living underground from day-to-day, sometimes without food, sometimes with plenty of it, like insects constantly on the move.

Stylistically the writing is very interesting, and the translator – who has done a marvellous job – tells us how difficult her task was. Sentences are frequently very short, often verb-less and so non-sentences, creating a disjointed pace, and vivid impression of the universal chaos and violence surrounding everyone, and just dropping the reader in the middle of it all. Time isn’t linear – Białoszewski flits back and forth, and often drops back to the autumn of 1939 when the war began, to draw out connections and parallels, as well as to remind us just how long this hell has been going on for.

Not an easy read, by any stretch, but a strangely gripping and fascinating one, once you wade in and go with the flow, which is all anyone there in 1944 could do, anyway…

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