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Evil, artfully done

The Noonday Cemetery: And Other Stories, Gustaw Herling, Translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston, New Directions: 282 pp., $25.95

September 07, 2003|Jaroslaw Anders | Jaroslaw Anders is a translator and critic.

The narrator of these 13 beautifully crafted, mysterious, often unsettling stories is an elderly Polish writer living in Naples, Italy. Ailing and an insomniac, he spends his semi-retirement as a metaphysical sleuth piecing together accounts of ancient and modern acts of unspeakable evil, outbreaks of cruelty and self-destruction, downfalls of illustrious families and cases of moral debasement of seemingly stalwart characters. Though hardly enjoying those spectacles of desolation -- they sometimes make him physically sick -- he seems to be on a personal mission to record some of the devil's more imaginative exploits.

The reason for this strange fascination, we are led to believe, is hidden somewhere in his own past. From scattered remarks we learn that he was a soldier in World War II, lived through a shattering personal tragedy and has intimate knowledge of the horrors of the 20th century.

In those respects, the narrator is a literary double of the book's author, Gustaw Herling, one of the finest Polish memoirists and fiction writers, who died in 2000 in Naples. Born in 1919 in the Polish town of Kielce, Herling moved eastward in 1939 searching for an opportunity to fight the Germans. He was arrested by the Soviets and sent to a labor camp on the White Sea. In 1941, when Hitler broke his pact with Stalin, Herling staged a hunger strike and was released in 1942 to join the Polish army that was being formed in the Soviet Union. Together with his Polish unit, he took part in the Allied campaign in Italy, for which he received the highest Polish military medal.

Herling spent his first years after the war in London, where he wrote his best known work, "A World Apart," a slightly fictionalized account of his two years in the Soviet gulag. It was one of the first such literary testimonies, preceding Solzhenitsyn's "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" by seven years.

It was also in London that Herling's first wife, Krystyna, committed suicide. In the only story set in that city, the narrator calls it his personal "heart of darkness," a place that gives him attacks of breathlessness and "indefinable fear." Soon after the tragedy, the author moved to Italy, where he married the daughter of the Italian philosopher and anti-fascist Benedetto Croce. He was one of the co-founders and co-editors of the legendary Paris-based Polish magazine Kultura, which, during the communist decades, served as a forum of Polish free intellectual life. Though equally at odds with Italian leftist elites and their conservative-Christian counterparts, Herling developed several lifelong friendships among Italy's more independent intellectuals, especially with Ignazio Silone and Nicola Chiaromonte.

After the fall of communism, Herling frequently visited his native country and became a regular contributor to one of its largest dailies. His feisty, uncompromising views, and his declared hostility toward former communists (he refused to call them "former"), who soon returned to power as "social democrats," estranged him even from some former democratic activists.

Yet Herling was equally pugnacious about the policies of the Polish Catholic Church and did not hesitate to criticize Pope John Paul II. "Beata, Santa," one of the stories in "The Noonday Cemetery," touched off a controversy in Poland because it was interpreted as an open attack on the church's antiabortion stance -- some people even took it for a report of real events.

"Beata, Santa" tells the story of Marianna, a young Polish girl who is captured by Bosnian Serbs on a visit to the former Yugoslavia and is placed in one of the "rape camps" for Bosnian women. She gets pregnant, but after her release she decides to follow the pope's appeal to raped women and not have an abortion. The church starts a propaganda campaign presenting Marianna as a model of Christian womanhood. What is more, the girl seems spiritually untouched by her terrifying experiences. She remains pure, innocent and full of love for God, people and the child she is carrying. A kindly Italian priest, who offers her shelter (she is reluctant to return to Poland), starts to spread rumors about her saintly qualities. When the girl dies in childbirth -- serene and acquiescent -- the church immediately begins her beatification process.

And then ... a horrifying discovery is made. In an exceptionally cruel way, fate seems to mock the young woman, the church zealots and all their naive attempts to turn the story of unparalleled evil into an edifying tale of triumphant Christian virtue.

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