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What Remains Is Silence : Nobel Prize-winner Czeslaw Milosz meditates on the human desire to leave behind a mark of our existence : A YEAR OF THE HUNTER, By Czeslaw Milosz Translated from the Polish by Madeline G. Levine (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $25; 288 pp.)

August 14, 1994|Ian Buruma | Ian Buruma's latest book, "The Wages of Guilt," is about memories of World War II in Germany and Japan

The first thing one should know about the poet Czeslaw Milosz is that he was born in a country that no longer exists. Milosz's Wilno (Vilnius) is, as he puts it, "Atlantis." He saw the end of two countries, first czarist Russia, then independent Lithuania. And although the latter nation has been reborn, it is not the country Milosz knew: The Jews are gone, and so, by and large, are the Poles. All that is left are scattered memories, in the minds of old women and men, and books.

Like Isaac Bashevis Singer's stories of prewar Poland, Milosz's literature is an attempt to recreate Atlantis, as it were, in poetry and memoirs. The book at hand, written in the form of a diary kept between August, 1987, and August, 1988, is a wonderful addition to his other autobiographical writing. The diary form, free-floating, wide-ranging, but at the same time condensed and disciplined, is suited to a poet, especially an intellectual poet, like Milosz. He refers to his kinship with Singer at the beginning. Both are writers from lost worlds, and both have seen too much of the devil's work to feel comfortable with God's words. Milosz says he feels more akin to Singer than to any other writer: "Nobel prizes for two alienated men."

Loss, displacement and alienation mark almost every sentence in Milosz's diary. It seems right that many of the notes were written on board airplanes, bound for such places as Boise or Cedar Rapids.

They were written nowhere, en route to somewhere. Some of the notes, on the other hand, are written at home, in the Berkeley Hills. Even then, the sense of uprootedness creeps in. On Aug. 12, 1987, he plants bougainvillea in his garden: "It is delicate and doesn't transplant easily. The one I bought . . . last year in the old city of Menton was sickly for a long time; it lost its leaves."

"A Year of the Hunter" is not just the diary of an uprooted man, but also of an old man. Much of the book is taken up by reflections on mortality and immortality: What will last? Which poems will still be read by future generations? What happens to memories when their keepers die? Even though he does not hide his vanity--the Nobel prize looms largely in his pages--his memoirs are not at all self-obsessed. Milosz's autobiography consists largely of the biography of others. He writes beautifully about absent friends. Like the recreation of his Lithuanian Atlantis, these biographies are an attempt to preserve life before it is gone: "One after the other, those with whom one can speak about the absent die, and what remains is silence."

In a sense, all art is an attempt to leave footprints in the flow of time. Milosz's art is also an attempt to fill the silence left by the dead. Several times he refers to "some realm that stores everything that has ever been experienced." He feels the need to be "somehow a part of God's thoughts when he observes the world, a need for perfect objectivity, for a sphere that endures independently of people's fleeting interconnections." If he were a simple believer, in God, and Heaven, this would not be a problem. The problem is that he cannot be a simple believer.

Instead, he quotes a Polish skeptic, Karol Ludwik Koninski, who exemplified the strivings of "metaphysical not-quite-believers." Milosz is a metaphysical not-quite-believer. He would like to believe that the present Pope is a spiritual Polish king, who lifted his people "out of their collective degradation." And yet he distrusts the bearer of messianic messages. Milosz grew up as a Polish Lithuanian. He was nurtured by the language of Polish poets. Yet he distrusts the "elevated spiritual rhetoric" of Polish nationalism. This is the rhetoric of the great national poets, Adam Mickiewicz and Cyprian Norwid, and also of Pope John Paul II.

A secularist, a skeptic, a humanist, Milosz can find common ground only with "demonized Poles": Jews, Marxists, atheists and so on. Milosz himself was a Marxist once. He represented Communist Poland after the war as a diplomat in Paris. He gives several reasons for serving a cause he came to detest. The need for belonging, for recognition inside a national community, was one reason. Perhaps his stated desire for a code of discipline, a "higher order," rules that "exist in order to exist," offers another explanation. But the main reason he supported Marxist internationalism was that it appeared to be the only alternative to narrow Polish nationalism. As he observes about the typical nationalist Polish writer: "It is curious that when he wants to serve his nation with his mind, his pen, his art, his achievements are flawed in direct proportion to his national fervor."

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