Archive for the 'poland' Category

Artur Domosławski: Ryszard Kapuściński – A Life

March 16, 2019

A13Vt7BNcvL._AC_UL436_I don’t often go in for biographies – perhaps less than once a year. However, I’d heard of this controversial biography of one of my favourite travel writers and wanted to see what all the fuss was about. As an example of the genre it’s fascinating in the author’s attempts to analyse, understand and criticise his subject, who, at the same time, he clearly rates very highly; he therefore has also to admit and try to understand his disappointment. It becomes a critical investigation by a compatriot and admirer, uneasy about a lot of what he learns, but it doesn’t become a hatchet job.

Only a Pole could have written this book: there is so much context one needs in order to understand how Kapuściński, from the borderlands originally, and whose home therefore disappeared into the Soviet Union after Yalta, became a loyal Party member in post-war Poland: it allowed him to become a journalist, to travel widely and to develop his craft; it also enabled him to know the right people who could protect him when things became difficult. So Domosławski’s account and analysis of attitudes driving various groups in Poland is careful, detailed and very necessary.

There are evidently many contradictions in Kapuściński, who carefully edited and altered his past when it suited him. It is hard to see when people are playing the necessary games and when they are genuinely sincere about the prospect of building a new society, though it does seem that Kapuściński was genuine in his support of the regime initially. People were seeking out parameters for freedom of action, as well as being idealistic supporters of socialism. And people needed to cover each other’s backs, and still do in the current poisonous atmosphere of Polish politics. Domosławski also explores Kapuściński’s contacts with the security services, and the self-censorship of some of his writing in order not to antagonise the US.

Kapuściński’s journalism developed detailed pictures of the Third World: he fell in love with Africa and Latin America. He rejects the exotic, and talks with ordinary people, developing at the time a new form of journalism much emulated today, spending much time in the middle of dangerous revolutions and anti-colonialist struggles against white rulers in the 1960s. He came to create legends about himself and his scrapes and escapades: Domosławski carefully investigates the myths about his contacts and connections with Patrice Lumumba, Che Guevara and Salvador Allende, among others.

Although he was ultimately disappointed with the failures of African decolonialisation, it’s evident he was committed to the struggles of the poor and oppressed in the Third World, and socialist governments in Eastern Europe gave more than token support to some of these struggles. To me he appeared to be a man of a certain time and era who in a number of ways was gradually left behind or overtaken by events.

A good deal of Kapuściński’s journalism is still unavailable in English, unfortunately. One of his most well-known books, The Emperor, about the court of the emperor Haile Selassie in Ethiopia, can also be see as a fairly thinly-veiled allegory about the state of his own country in the 1970s. Domosławski analyses the qualities of his writing and what made him so popular and successful

There is much fascinating insight into the Solidarity period, the time of martial law and the new Poland which emerged in the 1990s, and evidently Kapuściński had trouble coming to terms with his own past after the fall of socialism, and how it might be perceived by the new era.

Kapuściński wrote committed journalism, in the service of a cause. From his wide experience, he made many very perceptive observations about globalisation, neo-liberalism and its effects on our world, and where these forces may be leading us. Although analysis and research, by Domosławski and others, reveal considerable errors, falsifications and inventions in his works, it is ultimately impossible to separate the man and his deeds from his origins and his time as a citizen of the People’s Republic. Literary reporting and journalism are not the same thing, and he was operating within a very different tradition of the press and reportage from the Anglo-American one by which so much is measured; the borders of journalism and fiction are fuzzier in his work. I’ve read as much as I can get my hands on in English and I have enjoyed it very much; I can appreciate that the atmosphere and the commitment, the love of people and places shine through, and while I have been shown that there are factual inaccuracies deliberately introduced, for me this does not detract from a very important and enjoyable body of work.

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Olga Tokarczuk: Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

January 28, 2019

41PJk9rkWBL._AC_US218_What an extraordinary novel – a woman living in a hamlet in the mountains on the border between Poland and the Czech republic involved in a murder mystery as local people are killed, apparently by wild animals. She is very strange, obsessed with translating William Blake into Polish, endlessly watching the weather channel on TV, her world governed by astrological readings and interpretations.

Olga Tokarczuk takes us convincingly inside the head of this narrator and her bizarre perspective on the world, and we come to like her and empathise with her, even as she becomes ever stranger. Her personality very strongly and sympathetically and shapes the entire first person narrative. At various points I was reminded of the surrealism of Boris Vian’s novels, though our narrator’s world is populated by relatively ordinary folk and objects, and also some of the weirdness of the Ben Marcus novels I have read, except that again things aren’t quite so externally strange in this book.

Everything begins with the mysterious death of one of the other inhabitants of the village, yet rapidly, as events unfold through her perspective, we find ourselves wondering, ‘is this woman mad?’ as she proposes the theory that the man has been killed in revenge by the local wild deer whom he has been hunting…

In some ways it’s a challenging read, presenting the reader with uncomfortable moral truths about our relations with the animal world; what strikes more than anything is how these moral challenges are presented. From inside the narrator’s head, we read a rambling story: she is pleasant, even endearing through her crankiness and obsessions. As there’s an element of mystery and detection I won’t say too much about the plot. When she comes onto the mediaeval court cases that humans brought against various animals for crimes against people, her idea that the animal world might be capable of getting its own back no longer seems quite so weird.

It is an astonishingly good and utterly surreal tale, and several times I found myself admiring the translator’s work: Antonia Lloyd Jones has done a wonderful job making this such a flowing and accessible read. The novel’s title is (roughly) taken from Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. There is a superb twist at the end, which I had begun to suspect… if you want something really different to start your year with, this is a good one.

Walter Kempowski: All For Nothing

January 2, 2019

61xYa-pKCfL._AC_US218_It’s hard to find the right adjective for this novel: it’s very good, powerful, moving and yet none of those words does it full justice. It’s a novel about Germany in the closing stages of the Second World War, and another of my reactions as I finished it was anger, as I realised it would have been impossible for an English writer to produce such a novel, and because this feeling once again highlighted my country’s inability to understand other nations’ experience of that conflict, or their desire, through the European project, to ensure that it was never repeated.

To prevent this piece becoming a rant, and because I want to do justice to a remarkable book, I’ll slow down and explain. The novel is set in the depths of East Prussia, an area of the Reich that was cut off as the Russians swept westwards, and eventually impossible to escape from. East Prussia no longer exists, its territory having been divided by Stalin between the Soviet Union and Poland, for the latter nation as recompense for all the territory Stalin took. And I declare a kind of interest, as much of my Polish family live in those once German lands.

But we need to go further back into history to understand: in those territories for centuries many different peoples had lived along side each other reasonably peaceably – Poles, Germans, Kashubians… after the end of the Great War there had been plebiscites and some areas had chosen to become part of the re-born Polish Republic, while others opted for Germany. The Nazis’ treatment of other nationalities and races as subhuman meant the end of any further co-existence, and Stalin enforced ethnic cleansing throughout the region. The region is beautiful countryside and you can see German characteristics in many of the buildings which survived the war, but it is now indelibly part of Poland. I remember great shock when visiting as a teenager in 1970, and seeing the wreckage of the old German cemeteries, which were being demolished and removed…

Back to the novel: apparently Kempowski spent years collecting information, testimonies and evidence from those who fled – as he had done as a child. So although some of the places in the novel are fictional, the whole is solidly rooted in fact. And he manages to create a lyrical picture of an epoch, a place and a way of life which had totally vanished, which had to vanish, and yet make us regret its loss; the only other novel I’ve read which had succeeded so powerfully is Lampedusa’s The Leopard.

Because it’s a tale of the gathering flight from the region, there are many characters who pass through, as well as those who are more fixed; there are glimpses of Nazism and also the impression that the Nazis have passed them by, which of course they have not. There is a great sense of naivety about many of them, and of wilful blindness and collusion about others, as well as a complete inability to grasp the epic scale of the calamity which is overtaking them. And they are all basically decent people, deep down: they cannot understand what is happening to them. Death arrives horribly suddenly and brutally. Nazi bureaucrats and minions continue to wreck lives in nit-picking little ways even as the Reich is crashing down around them: no-one is spared. People are capable of great goodness and great pettiness; Kempowski shows us it all, achieving a strange, almost Brechtian distancing from his characters and their fates. Perhaps much of the book’s power comes from this, through the sense of ordinary people swept along by the tide of events, both complicit and yet also tragically victims. His neutral tone is also important, helping create a certain sense of nostalgia and sadness, as well as inevitability, and giving a dream-like quality to the lost world. There is an unreal, even surreal quality to many characters’ thoughts and actions, which unnervingly leads the reader at times to attribute innocence to them; yet there are chilling hints of their knowledge of the horrors perpetrated by the regime which acts in their name. The moral complexity is both challenging and necessary.

The book has been translated very well, I feel, and the novelist Jenny Erpenbeck’s introduction to this edition, in which she writes about Kempowski’s research, is also very useful background.

Not a very intelligent species…

November 11, 2018

Ten million soldiers killed; millions more civilians still to die from Spanish flu, part of a population physically weakened by four and a half years of conflict. And were any lessons learned? It is hard to think so, for the ‘peace conference’ at Versailles set in motion the seeds of an action replay twenty years later, in which far more were to die, and further unspeakable horrors were to be perpetrated.

Having visited various areas of France where the Western war took place, I can understand why the French sought to exact reparations from a defeated Germany, an approach which was to contribute to resentment, economic collapse and the eventual rise of Hitler. Numerous peoples who had suffered under foreign yoke for years achieved independence, (including Poland, my father’s country), but as multi-racial countries which could not easily learn how to deal with their new-found freedoms; again this contributed to weak democracies collapsing into dictatorships and feeding the rise of fascism. I only have to look at what happened in Poland, where my father grew up in those inter-war years, to see the problems that had to be faced. And the ‘victorious’ powers, the British and the French, presumed to impose on the Middle East a ‘settlement’ the consequences of whose idiocies are still being visited on the entire world today. Finally, the United States emerged onto the world stage as a superpower, relatively stronger because of its much shorter participation in the conflict.

I watched a series of BBC documentaries this week, with testimonies from participants in the Great War, who spoke about the effects on themselves, families and friends. And I was shocked at the anger I felt: all these people endured all this suffering and death at the behest of their masters who themselves went through very little of it: had there been any need for the build-up to and outbreak of the war other than competitiveness between nations and futile ideas of national pride?

Hindsight is a wonderful thing… but in a world where ordinary people are asked to put their trust in politicians through a ballot-box, one ought to be able to expect intelligence from rulers, the ability to think through the consequences of their actions and decisions, otherwise what is the point? Having sown the seeds of 1939, those politicians then bowed to the common people who had no wish to see a repeat of the Great War, appeased fascism until it was too late, and we know what the end result was.

As I grow older I am torn between two competing views of humanity: collectively we are capable of astonishing achievements, and individual genius testifies to our capabilities, and yet we really do not seem to be a terribly intelligent species, for all that. We allow greed, violence and inequality to lord it over us, and allow ourselves to be diverted from reality by lies, bread and circuses… I have long been convinced that violence and war do not solve anything. I will acknowledge that the Second World War had to happen, but a truly intelligent species would never have allowed the causes of it to develop and flourish in the first place.

For me, today is a day for sober reflection, and respect for the memory of those who were killed.

Peter Mundy, Merchant Adventurer

November 9, 2018

51HCMjvr2OL._AC_US160_My interest in travellers from centuries past led me, a few years ago, via the Hakluyt Society, to Peter Mundy, a merchant whose travels in the first half of the seventeenth century they published in five volumes. These I duly downloaded, intending to read them one day… which day hadn’t arrived by the time I saw this edited and commented abridgement by R E Pritchard, and came to my senses, accepting that I would never find the time – in this existence, at least – to read the real thing.

Mundy was an English merchant adventurer who travelled both for business and personal reasons, mainly quite widely in the Levant, the Middle East, India and the Chinese coast. His adventures and misadventures were no doubt all new and exciting at the time but are now often rather tiresome and repetitive, particularly as all was done in the cause of trade and money-making, rather than with the search for knowledge as the primary driving force. What is new is accidental, though Mundy nevertheless describes well, in detail, and charmingly also illustrated his diaries with sketches and drawings.

He was interested in all curiosities, creatures – especially birds, women’s attire and also unusual punishments and tortures, which are illustrated. If you want to know what being impaled actually involved, or the specific stages of being broken on the wheel, then Mundy’s your man, with the pictures to show for it.

He also travelled through southern parts of our own kingdom, and parts of Europe, including Prussia, Poland and Russia, and settled down to live in Danzig (Gdansk) for some six years or so, even though the coldness of the winters initially shocked him. I found this section particularly interesting, as there were apparently sizeable English and Scottish contingents in Danzig at the time, and he refers to travelling players coming from England, which ties in with stories of Shakespeare’s company visiting – through the man himself is not recorded as having been with them – and the contemporary Shakespeare festival in Gdansk, and its new Shakespeare theatre.

We are also reminded of the perils and difficulties of travel in those times; I was not aware of just how many men were lost on long sailing voyages in those days.

So, the shorter volume is worth a look; if I have time I’ll read volume four of his travels which deals with Poland in more detail

On another centenary…

November 2, 2018

My father was born a subject of the last Tsar, of a nationality without a nation. My researches have shown me that he will have spent the early years of his life pretty close to the lines of the Eastern Front during the Great War. And then came November 1918, the end of the war, and the re-establishment of an independent Poland, after well over a century of non-existence. The Second Republic was born.

You can read about Polish history elsewhere; if you need a recommendation, the excellent books by Norman Davies are the best I know in English. Although only half-Polish, I do feel some pride in the history of the nation, once the largest on the European continent, in the form of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Somewhere I read, the first country to abolish corporal punishment for children; not quite sure how that actually worked. But a nation which elected its monarch? A great idea in theory, perhaps, but which was one of the factors leading to its downfall. A country with a nobility where membership went with your name, not your status and wealth and importance: though my origins are in the peasantry in the middle of nowhere, our name is in the book, the Index of Polish Nobility. It doesn’t do me any good; the Second Republic abolished the nobility in 1919, I think.

Re-creating a nation after over a century is a pretty impossible task, and the Second Republic didn’t do terribly well, torn between those who wanted Poland to be for the Poles and those who hankered after the old, vast commonwealth encompassing many peoples, and much wider territory. It didn’t take long before Poland was another of the fairly grubby semi-dictatorships that spread over much of central Europe. And then there were the Jews, getting on for a quarter of the population, and not always popular, in a country full of poor peasants who saw some prosperous Jews. Because they couldn’t own land, Jews turned to trade and property to make their living; my father said they sometimes taunted poorer Poles: “You may own the land, but we own what is built on it.”

My father was called up in August 1939; living in the eastern part of the country, his section of the army was not involved in trying to hold back the Germans. On 17 September he and his mates were taken by the invading Russians before they could leave their barracks, and shortly after, Poland once again ceased to exist. He and his fellow-soldiers were marched off to Siberia like many thousands of other Poles, where they endured appalling conditions in various camps for more than two years. Enough has been written about the bestiality of the German occupation; what the Soviets did is less well-known. Once Hitler invaded Russia, Poles were grudgingly allowed to leave and make their way to the West to join Allied forces for the struggle against the Nazis. It wasn’t easy; disease and semi-starvation took their toll. But my father ended up in England, joined the 1st Independent Polish Parachute Brigade and was trained to be dropped as part of the liberation of his country – which never happened. He was part of the abortive Arnhem operation, and then Poland was sold down the river by the Western allies.

Newly ‘liberated’ Poland shifted a hundred miles or so to the West and my father’s homeland became part of the Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic, which meant that technically, were he to return home, he would be a Soviet citizen. But Soviet citizens who had been in the West were dangerously suspect, so he did not return, one of many thousands in that plight. He knew some who did return, and who then vanished.

Under the Soviet umbrella, Poland attempted to become a nation again, with a certain amount of success, in the sense that there was stability of a kind for the next forty years or so, and also an ethnically homogeneous nation, almost entirely Polish. However, as recent events have begun to show, that has not been a wholly good thing: Poland does not welcome refugees which, given its own past, is rather sad. And the fact that opposition to the Soviet-imposed regime was centred on the Catholic church has created other difficulties, too, for a nation now free of one set of shackles but seemingly unsure of its future direction…

I’ll not apologise for that personal take on Polish and family history. I’ve wrestled with my origins for over sixty years now, and in many ways I’m as English as they come; I was an English teacher for my entire career. I’ve visited Poland five times, and I would not want to live there, not because I don’t like it – I do – but because I’m English too. I’m entitled to Polish citizenship and a Polish passport if I stump up about €1000, and I’ve been briefly tempted, because of all the Brexit insanity. But I think that currently Poland is in a different kind of mess because of its past. Collectively, though Poles are justifiably proud of their record in the Second World War, they seem as yet unable to come to terms with the fact that not every Pole behaved with honour or decency towards his Jewish fellow-citizens. And I’m not casting any stones here, because the English have not a clue as to what life under Nazi occupation for Poles, whom the Nazis also regarded as an inferior race, was like. Poles have yet to face up to the anti-semitism fostered and fanned by the Catholic church in the inter-war years.

But Poland is a free and independent nation, and has been free of the Soviet shackles for nearly thirty years, even if it has found others instead. I try to imagine what my father would have made of it all. Though he saw the successes of the Solidarity movement, and eventually free elections in Poland, he died a month before the coup against Mikhail Gorbachev, six months before the collapse and disappearance of the Soviet Union, which had so radically altered his life…

On the centenary

November 1, 2018

It’s coming up to a century since the Great War – ‘the war to end all wars’ – ended; I’ll be writing one or two specific posts about that closer to the time. But I’m very conscious of how my life has been shaped by war, and also that I spend rather more time than many people reading about war, thinking about it, and visiting places that have been at the heart of conflict. Some of you may have read some of my posts about visiting Verdun and the Somme battlefields.

Why do I think it’s so important to remember war, and its effects on us? I first visited the city of Gdansk – formerly Danzig, and where the Second World War began – in 1970 as a teenager. There were plenty of ruins left over from that war then; there are still some. I recall being intrigued by some graffiti painted somewhere on the waterfront, and asked my father to translate. “We have not forgotten. And we shall not forgive.’ I was shocked.

There is the truism that those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it; we forget at our peril the horrors of the twentieth century, and the further away we get from those times, as we lose those generations who were actually alive through those events, the greater the dangers become, it seems to me: there are figures in public life whose comments are far too glib and cavalier. My mother remembers the Second World War as a primary school child, hiding under the kitchen table during air raids and knitting scarves for convoy sailors at school, but she is now 88; my father was taken prisoner by the Soviets in the first weeks of that war, and without his and his comrades sufferings and adventures on their perilous journey to freedom and England, I would not exist… his home village was burnt to the ground and the rest of his family taken off to be forced labourers by the Nazis. So I suppose I personally have plenty of grounds for my preoccupation with that war. And I have since discovered how close to the Eastern Front his home was during the Great War.

But the issue is broader. I’m also interested in human progress; I’ve read many utopias and know that there are many people who dream of a better world, and the disappearance of war from it would be a start. Yet, we never seem to be that far from war. Although, mercifully, mainland Britain has been spared during my lifetime – apart from acts of terrorism connected with wars elsewhere — there is warfare all around the world, and aided and abetted by Britain which makes so much money selling weapons to anyone who has the money to buy them… I’m truly sickened both by those who wring their hands about the terrible plight of refugees while ignorant of how we contribute to turning people into refugees, and by those who would turn them away on the grounds they are nothing to do with us.

From both political and religious conviction, I firmly believe that wars solve nothing, but make existing situations even worse. They serve the interests of the rich and the powerful, who generally do not suffer, and indeed often make tidy profits. I know some would say that mine is a simplistic attitude, but when I look at the interconnectedness of everywhere and everyone, I am ever more convinced that wars and armaments are an inevitable part of the capitalist system. I also find it sickening that there are many people who earn their daily bread from the manufacture and sale of the machinery of death.

The centenary of the end of the Great War ought to be a time for serious reflection on how the coming century might be made more peaceful; there is no place for jingoistic pride or for appropriating the deaths of millions as some kind of patriotic sacrifice – it was all an unspeakable waste of life and potential, as well as a prelude to even worse things.

 

August favourites #9: history books

August 9, 2018

I read a lot of history, partly to make up for giving up my study of it after O level, and partly because I feel that understanding the present and then trying to imagine a better future world depend on understanding the past. There are three historians currently writing whose work I respect immensely. Eamon Duffy writes carefully and thoughtfully about the Reformation in England, and what was lost during those turbulent times, and his detailed picture of Catholic England goes some way to countering the strident Protestant accounts that had corruption and idolatry at the heart of it all; it was far more complicated than that, as were the political and social reasons for the English Reformation. Then there is Diarmaid MacCulloch, a historian of religion, the scope of whose work astonishes me: a three-thousand year history of Christianity which I shall shortly go back to, and a weighty tome on the entire European Reformation, covering two centuries, as well as some excellent TV programmes on religion. Finally, and I think I will name him as my favourite, is Norman Davies, a scholar whose work on the history of Poland has earned him a mighty reputation even in that country. He has written the only complete history in English of that nation, as well as histories of more specific episodes such as the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, the Polish-Soviet war of 1920 and various others. That’s before you turn to his history of Europe, and his history of the Atlantic Isles.

I’m doing something different for the holiday month of August, writing about some of my favourites: poems, plays, music, art and other things, a short piece on a different topic each day. The categories are random, as are the choices within them, meaning that’s my favourite that day, and is subject to change… And I will try and explain why each choice is special for me. As always, I look forward to your comments.

Writers in exile

August 4, 2017

I’ve picked up one of my all-time favourite novels to re-read (for the fourth time, according to my reading log) and I’ll write about it here in due course, but it has prompted me to think about the question of exile, and more specifically about its effect on a writer.

There are two kinds of exile, it seems to me, the voluntary and the enforced. A person can choose to leave their country of birth for many different reasons, to go and settle elsewhere; having made this choice, they can eventually also choose to return to their native land if they so wish. Or, someone can be forced to leave, by war or persecution. Such an exile does not always have the prospect of returning home at some point in the future. Or their home can actually disappear, as, for example in the case of those living in the eastern areas of the Second Polish Republic, which were annexed by the Soviet Union in 1939. Where do you actually go back to, assuming you are allowed?

I have the impression that exile is largely a twentieth century phenomenon, a feature of powerful and totalitarian states able to exert control over people’s lives in ever-increasing depth and detail; I know that this may be an oversimplification, but it will nevertheless allow me to explore the idea.

Reading James Joyce‘s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which I studied for A level, I remember being struck by how Stephen Dedalus becomes increasingly aware of the stifling nature of the church and its stranglehold over his country, most particularly over the minds and mentalities of its inhabitants: how does a free and questing mind survive, develop and flower in such a setting, where everything contrives to crush it at every turn, where things perhaps may be said, even written down, but never published or widely disseminated, where one is therefore likely to be rejected at every turn? So Joyce realised he had to leave; I don’t know whether he intended never to return, but he chose to go, and lived out the remainder of his life in continental Europe – France, Switzerland and Italy.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was a cause celebre during my student days; ex-gulag inmate, his astonishing novella One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch was actually published during a brief thaw in the Soviet Union, but subsequent works were not: the excellent Cancer Ward and The First Circle appeared only in samizdat (works self-published, ie typed in carbon copies and illegally circulated from hand to had at considerable risk) in the Soviet Union and were regarded as provocation when printed abroad. And when he researched and delved into the entire Stalinist slave labour system in the several volumes of The Gulag Archipelago, the authorities had had enough; along with the Western provocation of awarding him the Nobel Prize for Literature, that was sufficient for forcing him into exile. Cut off from his Russian roots, he seemed to become evermore eccentric and extremist, playing into the hands of cold-warriors in the USA, where he eventually settled; this did his reputation no good at all, and he does now seem to be falling off the radar, although the same is probably true of a great deal of the powerful literature that managed to emerge despite the efforts of the KGB…

Another epochal event of my younger years was the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1969; I can still remember my father whispering the news to me very early one morning just as he left for work… it was unacceptable for one country in the Pact to pursue an independent line which the Soviets did not approve of, and the Czechs had to be brought back into line, which happened, and many of its writers left. Milan Kundera ended up in Paris, where he has lived and written for most of his life, and Josef Skvorecky, whose amazing The Engineer of Human Souls is the book I’m currently re-reading, fetched up in Canada, where he taught English literature in Toronto as well as writing until he died a few years ago. It’s Skvorecky who, more than anyone else, conveys to me a powerful sense of what it means to be an exile…

I can’t conclude this post without a mention of the Polish writer Czeslaw Milosz, who came from my father’s part of Poland, survived the Nazi occupation of the country, initially threw in his lot with the People’s Republic after the liberation, but eventually found its thought control too stifling and chose to leave. His exploration of the effect of totalitarianism on the way people think, The Captive Mind, is still powerful sixty years after it was written, and nearly thirty years after the end of the Soviet Union.

In terms of my initial taxonomy, Joyce left Ireland freely, Solzhenitsyn was forcibly expelled and stripped of his Soviet citizenship, and the other three writers I’ve used as examples didn’t actually have to leave – but what else could they have done? Writing for the bottom drawer was a possible activity, but writers usually write because they feel they have something worthwhile to say. How much do they lose by not being in their homeland?

to be continued…

On honour, duty, loyalty and patriotism

July 9, 2017

I’ve been thinking about these topics as a result of the previous book I read, about Major-General Sosabowski’s loyalty to his country, and where it got him. I’ve never felt in the least bit patriotic, shocking as this may sound, and I’m aware that some of this lack of feeling may come from being neither fish nor fowl, half-English and half-Polish. But somewhere I’ve always agreed with Johnson’s adage that patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.

Looking rather more seriously at the issue, I have always found it almost impossible to understand why men marched to their deaths in the Great War in the way they did. I have stood at various places on the former western front, where the British climbed out into no-man’s-land on the first day of the battle of the Somme and looked into the distance at the crest of the hill some hundreds of yards away where the Germans were entrenched, and thought, my God how could anyone bring themselves to do that? And, when teaching the A level English Literature paper on Literature and the First World War, students and I would agree that we could not behave like that now, we would not be prepared to die like that…

Writers and poets of the time were clearly doing what they felt to be their duty, including rebels like Sassoon who threw his medals into the Mersey and brought much opprobrium on himself by writing in protest against the way the war was being conducted. He felt loyalty and a duty of care to the men under his command, as did Wilfred Owen, who also protested against incompetent leadership in his poems, and who ultimately gave his life.

I’ve also wondered about what creates and fosters a sense of loyalty to one’s country. Shakespeare creates a marvellous picture of ‘this sceptred isle’ in the famous speech in Richard II, and I agree that England is a beautiful country that is very fortunately situated… but to die for? And because we are an island, unconquered for nearly a thousand years, we do not perhaps understand what happens in the thoughts of others. French casualties in the Great War were horrendous, and a huge proportion of the deaths came in the first months of the war as the French strove desperately to drive the marauding German invaders from their country. I can see that men like Sosabowski felt great loyalty to their nation which, having only regained independence in 1918 after over a century of non-existence, was snuffed out a mere twenty years later by the combined treachery of Nazis and Soviets, and why thousands of men like my father volunteered for the 1st Polish Independent Parachute Brigade that Sosabowski set up in order to train men for the liberation of Warsaw (which never happened). And having read his book, I am now clearer about the enormous sense of betrayal all those men felt as a result of Churchill’s machinations after Arnhem and in the closing months of the war.

Similarly, it’s quite clear the sense of pride in their country, in the motherland, in defending their socialist homeland, that the millions of Soviet men and women who died in the Great Patriotic War felt, even in spite of the horrors of Stalinism which they had also lived through. Reading novels like Vassily Grossman’s epic Life and Fate, or the last part of Anatoly Rybakov’s Arbat trilogy, Dust and Ashes, is incredibly moving, and, for me, a learning experience about the meaning of loyalty and patriotism. And Svetlana Alexievich’s book of Soviet women at war was even more powerful, because true…

Sadly, I have to say that very little about the current nation of England (or Great Britain, or the United Kingdom) makes me feel proud, other than our National Health Service, which the current government is doing its best to wreck. And throughout the Cold War I was aware that any conflict with the Warsaw Pact would mean that ‘my’ country would be attacking the country where half my family lived, while ‘their’ country would be trying to kill us… I wasn’t looking forward to the consequences of being a conscientious objector, but mentally prepared myself. And then I discovered that I would have been a ‘security risk’ because of my family on the ‘other side’ and thus probably not liable to service anyway.

Somewhere on the other side of the scales, before I get too serious, I have to put Jaroslav Hasek’s The Good Soldier Svejk, the story of a congenital idiot who volunteers to do his patriotic duty at the start of the Great War, for the Austro-Hungarian Empire… one of only two humorous books I know of about war (Catch-22 is the other) and remind myself that, like the Irishman asked for directions, if I were you, I wouldn’t start from here. In other words, like Johnson, we ought to be stepping back from the issues of patriotism, loyalty and duty to ask ourselves why we got into the mess in the first place, and aren’t there rather better ways of dealing with our problems?

Beware those who offer you easy answers (especially if their names begin with ‘T’)!

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