At first glance, it might seem that Tadeusz Konwicki had an ax to grind with his Poland. In "Moonrise, Moonset," Konwicki's irreverent memoir of the fateful year 1981, the author spars with such sacred cows as Radio Free Europe, Solidarity followers and Czeslaw Milosz, the 1980 Nobel Prize laureate for literature. "I had an itch to give certain people a real thrashing," he writes, "but I lost the urge."
Don't believe him. In this alternately somber and zany ride through modern Polish history--with forays into the West, the East and the past--what the author states definitively one minute he contradicts the next. Just when you think you have a bead on the man, he'll zap you with the verbal equivalent of a stun gun.
"Yes, the German occupation was beautiful," writes Konwicki, who was born in 1926 in Wilno, Lithuania. "Beautiful because it was my youth, my one and only youth. There won't be any other."
In "Moonrise, Moonset"--set against the backdrop of the country's fling with freedom during Solidarity's heyday--Konwicki tackles such diverse themes as the need for the young to feel superior to the old, Poland's potential role in the undoing of the Soviet empire, the cost to an author of failing memory and the superiority of a fountain pen over ballpoint. Two novel fragments are folded into the narrative.
Spinning in all directions, a book without a central thematic thrust stands the risk of literary entropy. With the possible exception of the digressive novel fragments, this book manages to hold its center by force of Konwicki's engaging chivalry. He disarms you by confronting your doubts head-on. "An enormous number of readers are incapable of reading even seven pages of my prose," he writes. "My prose infuriates many people, it causes eyes to wander and sudden foaming at the mouth."
For any Polonophile, there is much juicy stuff here, well worth the trouble. Konwicki documents his 1981 effort to mount the film version of Milosz's 1955 novel, "The Issa Valley." Initially lukewarm to the project, Milosz later comes 'round with a vengeance and begins issuing "thousands of pointers. That (the lead character) Thomas will not be tall but, rather, squarely built, naive but not stupid, more male than angelic, and so forth and so on." Milosz becomes, in a word, precious with his literary darling, leaving Konwicki "not altogether sure that the laureate has ever been inside a movie theater." His creative hands tied, Konwicki makes a film that does not go over.
What makes Konwicki's confessions work--and rise above the self-serving--is his willingness to expose his own flaws. In the zealous atmosphere of truth-seeking Solidarity, younger writers held Konwicki's record--especially his card-carrying Communist phase--up for account. Finding he "couldn't satisfy" minds bent on indictment, Konwicki arrives at the universal conclusion that the strength of young writers "depends on their dissatisfaction with me. . . . With our criminal past held constantly up to us by the young, we would be more lenient in negotiating their place in literature with them."
Elsewhere in the book Konwicki chastises himself for similar misdeeds against his elders. After Poland's wrenching defeat in 1945, "I had turned my childish wrath" on Home Army leaders, he writes. "None of us knew that this was how the river of history had to flow, that our will was the will of a drop of water dissolved in that river."
Nevertheless protective of his war memories, Konwicki accuses "Ashes and Diamonds"--Andrzej Wadja's famous 1958 film depicting the last day of the war in Poland--of being derivative from American film and mores. "Home Army bumpkin that I am, it stuck in my throat," writes Konwicki. "Yes, we had our fashions, fads, modes. But our fashions did not include blue jeans, sunglasses, excessive drinking, neurotic kicks, hysterical sobbing and short-term love affairs. . . . We were coarse, common, we wore knickers; we were punctual, reliable, restrained, embarrassed, hungry for death."
Beneath his acerbic tongue--fired by that characteristic Polish mixture of pride, shame, rage, ambivalence, romanticism, stubbornness and frivolity--lies the heart of a Polish partisan. Konwicki relates the recent prophecy of an aging priest whose clairvoyance was awakened while in Nazi captivity. " 'Poland has 50 good years coming'--he held his thumb up--'Poland's time is coming and so is her enemies' decline.' "
"Moonrise, Moonset" comes to its natural conclusion in December, 1981, when martial law has been imposed and Konwicki is called into police headquarters to sign a loyalty oath. Making light of it all, Konwicki decides the questioning officer is a character he created in an earlier novel. Konwicki has been around the block too many times to be overwhelmed by the peaks and valleys in his or his country's life. Such is the privilege of age and seasoning.