Posts Tagged ‘Polish People’s Republic’

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…

Walter Kempowski: Homeland

February 13, 2021

     Here is an unsettling, disturbing novel, cynical in tone, and verging on black comedy at times. A German writer with roots in former East Prussia is offered an assignment to visit the region, now part of Poland, and draw up a potential tourist itinerary. He know his mother died while fleeing the region in 1945, after giving birth to him, and that his father died in a coastal defence position close by.

Kempowski juxtaposes German incomprehension with Polish truculence. Our writer researches his trip before leaving, and meets and interviews a number of those who had to flee at the end of the war. There has always been a section of the German population who have refused to accept the loss of those territories to Poland and the Soviet Union, and hope that some day they may be able to reclaim them! And there are some pretty unsavoury characters among them.

The actual trip ends up with their being on the tail of a busload of German tourists ‘doing’ the sights of cities and towns that were formerly German, so our hero’s somewhat detached cynicism is juxtaposed with more open revanchism. Even though the story is set in the 1980s, there are still reminders of the former status of the territory, and increasingly the writer’s thoughts return to his parents’ deaths in the chaos at the end of the war.

The Poles do not emerge unscathed either: these are the days of shortages and the People’s Republic; while the Germans cannot understand the absences and the poor quality of what they are offered, they are targets for fleecing, deception and robbery by the locals, and the regime has its points to make to these necessary – for their foreign exchange – visitors, too. Mutual dislike, distrust and incomprehension abounds. The Germans can see lots of possibilities for exploiting the locals and the area… just as they did in the past.

The writer’s final, and accidental, visit to the village where his mother died and his father was killed, is very low-key, apart from his bitter repetition of ‘All for nothing!’ (incidentally, the title of another of Kempowski’s books, on a similar theme.

My familiarity with a number of the places visited and described in the novel was also rather jarring. I had visited some of them back in the 1970s, before the final peace treaty between Poland and the Federal Republic which acknowledged the irreversible loss of those eastern territories; one of the most shocking sights to this fifteen year-old was a bulldozed and demolished German cemetery, with smashed German gravestones piled in heaps. For me this novel is a reminder of the lasting effects of war: before 1933, Poles and Germans had co-existed reasonably peacefully for centuries in this region; after 1945 there was no way Germans could remain. Ethnic cleansing took place. My grandparents had been slave labourers in this part of former Germany. I can understand that some Germans are sad that the lands of their remote ancestors are now no longer German, but supporting evil warmongers has its consequences; nothing is fair in war.

It is a dark novel, and rightly so.

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.

Ryszard Kapuściński: Nobody Leaves

April 9, 2017

I’ve long been a fan of Kapuściński’s reportage and travel writing, and still am, even though his reputation has taken quite a serious knock in some quarters with the revelations in recent years of his somewhat cavalier and casual attitude to truth and accuracy, and his propensity for inventing; at times his writing does read a little like the magic realism of novelists like Marquez… I don’t necessarily see this as a flaw, as long as one is aware that it is happening: it seems to be part of his quest, his determination to create a full and clear impression of his subject-matter, to which he always displays a great sensitivity.

Context is important, too: although a citizen of the Polish People’s Republic, and a respected journalist with great freedom to travel, and benefitting from a light touch from the censor, he did nevertheless have to operate under certain constraints: perhaps his chosen approach allowed him to be published and read, rather than hide his manuscripts in the bottom drawer. Perhaps I’m making excuses for a writer whom I really like; I definitely think it’s easy for Westerners to be critical when they have never experienced similar condition themselves. It reminds me of the pontifications of those who criticised the late Gunter Grass for taking so long to come clean about his membership of the Waffen SS.

Kapuściński is best known in the West for his reporting from Africa in the 1960s and 1970s; The Shadow of the Sun is a beautiful book showing an understanding I’ve rarely encountered elsewhere. His book The Emperor, about the court of the emperor Haile Selassie, is fascinating, as is his account of the last Shah of Persia, Reza Pahlavi. Reflections gleaned from his travels around the Soviet Union, in Imperium, are enlightening, and his tribute to the man he regarded as the first reporter, Travels with Herodotus, is another good read.

Nobody Leaves is rather different, more magical, if anything, and this seems understandable as it’s about his own country in the 1950s and 60s – difficult times in many ways, although remembered by fewer and fewer people now. His style is more laconic, suffused with a touch of dry, wry humour; it reads like quite a lot of (translated) modern Polish fiction I’ve read. It’s an ideal style gradually to portray, in an accretive, impressionistic way, the dreams and hopes of those years, the terrible sense of loss and waste, now obliterated by the bright new capitalist future the country has embraced so wholeheartedly.

Kapuściński doesn’t intrude; he’s very much a reporter in the background, and so when, very occasionally, he foregrounds himself, or a question he has put to someone, there’s a deliberate reason for doing this, and an evident effect. The most painful and shocking piece, for me, was about two illiterate parents who sacrifice their lives and health to further their daughter’s education; their pride is unbounded when she becomes a teacher, but she rejects their sacrifices and her career to become a nun, and her order block contact between her and her dying parents. My father was a devout Catholic, but often scathing about the religious authorities in his homeland; now I understand why…

I suspect the pieces in this book meant more to Poles reading them half a century ago, but for me the man’s humaneness, his humanity, shine through. It’s well-translated and has a helpful introduction, too.

Slawomir Mrozek: The Elephant

February 15, 2014

9780141193045After my recent complaint about short stories, I’ve just read this slim volume of forty-two of them… as Walt Whitman once said (I paraphrase) I see no virtue in being consistent. The stories were all very short, and I really enjoyed them, laughing aloud quite frequently. Why did they work, for me? Each plays with a single idea, taken to absurd extremes, purely to mock something; there is no plot, no character, merely an idea to play with.

Although these stories are described as satirical, and I suppose they are, the absurdist angle struck me more forcefully. Mrozek wrote during the times of the Polish People’s Republic, and he mocks the bureaucracy of the times, the leaders and their pretensions, and the cravenness of their followers, the strange behaviours people often adopted in order to live and stay out of trouble. It was a strange world, one that has begun to pass into history, its absurdities now only in the memories of the older generations. I cannot forget the weirdness of once going into what was called a supermarket, and finding every shelf stacked with pasta, pasta of every kind and shape, but almost no other food of any kind on offer. Or of setting off with a cousin to visit another city and being asked by some one to look out for paint, and to buy some if any were available.

Mrozek’s stories are frivolous, light-hearted, very different from the moodier writings of Czech authors such as Kundera or Skvorecky, or the much more detailed satires of Russians such as Voinovich (The Adventures of Ivan Chonkin) or Zinoviev (The Yawning Heights). It’s as if the regime was so ridiculous that it could not be taken seriously, and in many ways this was true. Poland by and large had a more ‘liberal’ communist regime than any other Eastern European country during that period, and opposition made itself much more noticeable, perhaps because of the strength of the Catholic Church.

I have always found Eastern European literature from this period fascinating. Oppression seems to have stimulated creativity: writers strove to find ways to make their points in covert ways to elude censorship, and often succeeded. Their concerns seemed to have a vitality and an urgency which I found missing in western writers (sweeping statement, I know), but there was the impression that the regimes knew writers were important, could challenge, needed close supervision, that the written word had Power, whereas in the west writers could safely be allowed to write whatever they liked – a safety valve – because no-one really took them seriously and they would never pose a real threat to the system…

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