In his latest book in English translation, "Bohin Manor," Tadeusz Konwicki--one of Poland's most celebrated postwar writers--steps back in time to the 19th Century and in form to the conventional narrative.
With America's heightened interest in Poland during the 1980s, Konwicki managed to publish a stunning string of provocative, prophetic books here: "The Polish Complex" (1982), "A Minor Apocalypse" (1983) and "Moonrise, Moonset" (1987), each having appeared four to five years earlier in Poland.
Bouncing between reality and fantasy, optimism and lament, laced with the vagaries of contemporary Polish life and the deliberately intrusive presence of a narrator (often as not Konwicki himself), these imaginative pastiches are hard to characterize and even harder to put down. Each different yet somehow organically connected, they powerfully and painfully evoke Poland's turmoil as it lived up to and through the fitful Solidarity and martial-law periods, which hastened the collapse of the ailing Communist Soviet Empire.
In "Bohin Manor"--first published in Poland in late 1987--Konwicki makes a conscious departure from these weightier works and tries his hand at what he has called "a lighter book." "After I've struggled with a million things which surround me which I'm trying to work out, I tried to write a book, just a good read," Konwicki told me in Warsaw during a 1987 interview for the Los Angeles Times.
Konwicki sharpened the analogy William Styron has made in "Sophie's Choice" and elsewhere between Poland and the American South by comparing Polish Lithuania after the failed January, 1863, uprising to the post-Civil War American South. " 'Gone With the Wind' could have been written in this old historical Lithuania," Konwicki said.
So it was with keen anticipation that I approached "Bohin Manor," an expectation that made the sting of its failed promise all the more painful. Not that this book is poorly conceived or that his straying into a more conventional form should be held against him. The problem is this: Stripped of all the many portentous rumblings of troubles past and future among the Lithuanians and the Russians, the Poles and the Jews and the Germans, the peasants and the nobility, stripped of all the heavy-handed symbols about the impotent, imperiled state of the Polish-Lithuanian gentry in the last third of the last century, the romance feels forced and falls flat.
Set in 1875 in a Lithuania still smarting from the failure of its insurrection, the novel opens as Konwicki's fictional grandmother, Helena Konwicka, celebrates her 30th birthday, spotting outside her window an omen that signals her release from the emotional captivity of her widower father's home. "All of a sudden there was a flash of light--as if from summer lightning . . . Maybe it was a sign. A sign for me alone. But from whom?" Konwicki writes on the third page, none too subtly pointing the reader toward the locus of change.
Unfortunately, Helena's eminently eligible suitor, Count Alexander Broel-Plater--who is pressing to set a wedding date--leaves her cold, and whispers among the servants suggest that women do nothing for him, either, that this pampered mama's boy wants marriage in order to fulfill a codicil in his father's will.
Enter onto the scene--literally, he steps in front of her carriage in the middle of the road--Elias Szyra, a sexually magnetic, red-headed "Jew boy from Bujwidze" who has mysteriously carried the torch for Helena for 12 years while traveling the globe, and who served in the insurrection out of unrequited love for her.
The contest between Szyra and Plater is too facilely staged by Konwicki, negating tension and interest in what should be the novel's central drama. Almost every time Plater appears at Bohin, Szyra is there, too, providing Helena and the reader with only a black-and-white contrast. Where Plater is restrained and controlling, Szyra is wily and passionate. In one scene, Plater, who has broken his leg improbably by running into a pine stump, arrives for medical help at Bohin, where Szyra, also present, comes to the rescue as a self-appointed physician.
It could be argued that the drama was intended to be played out in Helena's mind; if so, her feelings can be too easily read from the start. "She made an effort to think about Plater and the distant past, so that crazy Jew from Bujwidze with the cold fire around him would not come slipping out from any nooks and crannies in the dark." Characteristically, Helena's choice is amply foreshadowed. Early on, for the first time, the virginal Helena strips and floats "shamelessly naked" in the river near her home. And, heaven help us, after the risky love affair is consummated, storks appear from the sky.