29.3.14

Ryszard Kapuściński - Another Day of Life (Jeszcze dzień życia)

Rating 7.2

A few years ago I listened in awe to an excerpt from Another Day of Life on an Italian online radio focused on books.
As those pages revolving around a sieged Luanda were beautiful and poignant, I got interested in adding up another Kapuscinski to my increasing lot.

Then I moved abroad and as I had read all of my Kapuscinskis in Italian translation purchasing one of his books in English didn't seem quite right. Back to Italy for a stopover inbetween the UK and Poland I've finally bought the long-awaited book and promptly started to read it.

Now that I'm done with Another Day of Life, I must confess that I'm slightly disappointed by it. Unlike what happens in most of the reportage books by Kapuscinski, here I felt like something crucial was missing: clarity.

The reasons and the main forces behind the Civil War (following a long Independence War) in Angola the great Polish reporter followed and lived in during the 1970s are - to say the least - blurred and confusing for the readers of today. In this respect I feel very much like your average Mr Brown / Kowalski / Rossi here.

I know where Angola is. I know the country used to be a Portuguese 'colony' and that was shamelessly used for centuries as a slave market. I've even heard that Luanda today is one of the most expensive cities in the world with the greatest gap you can imagine between wealthy nababs and poor locals. A Portuguese friend of mine told me that to many unemployed compatriots of his, Angola looks like the promised land, an Eldorado of easy (and often dirty) money. This way, scores of Portuguese people migrated to the former colony looking for a job they cannot find at home.
So much for the ups and downs of history!

This is what an average reader buying Another Day of Life by Kapuscinski might already know about Angola. The problem is that chances are the same Mr Brown / Kowalski / Rossi doesn't know anything at all about Angola between the 1960s and the 1970s.
That's why I would have liked more explanations from dear old Ryszard concerning the purpose of and the difference between combatants belonging to MPLA, UNITA, FNLA and FLEC.

Unluckily, Kapuscinsky - unlike what he did when writing about, say, Rwanda or Iran - relies too much on what his readers know about the whole bloody conflict in this book. This is the chief reason that led me to struggle with some parts of this book especially those in which the reporter goes to 'the front' where he meets up with Cuban soldiers dispatched to Angola by the Castro regime to give military support to one of the sides involved and faces South African forces deployed there for the same reason.

This criticism of mine doesn't affect the fact that Kapuscinski is always fantastic to read and that the pages about life in Luanda are magnificent and cliffhanging.
There is also an interesting and heartbraking insight on a supposedly minor character like the young female soldier Carlotta whose death makes the Polish reporter wonder about the foolishness of a war where there cannot ultimately be any actual winner.

25.3.14

Andrzej Szczypiorski - The Beautiful Mrs Seidenman (Początek)

Rating 7.5

The chief problem with Andrzej Szczypiorski for foreign readers is that tonguetwister of a surname he bore.

I wonder how many readers out of Poland have heard of Szczypiorski by word of mouth but cannot spell the author right. And how many non-Polish speaking librarians and booksellers might have been engaged in surreal conversations such as the following one:

Reader - Good morning, I'm looking for a book by this guy Sshz…Tzip…something like that. You got it?
Librarian - Morning. Well, I'm glad to help you, but it's a bit vague as a hint. Still let me try…Shteyngart?
R - What? That guy who wrote that weird stuff about Azer-something and called it Absurdistan? No, no. The author I'm interested in is someone else.
L - Spiegelman, maybe?
R - Hey, wait for a second? Do I look like I'm interested in comics?
L - Well, actually, Maus is more of a graphic novel and it's rather goo…
R - Whatever. I don't read comics. And Spiegelman is not whom I'm looking for.
L - Ok, then. Fair enough. I had a couple of shots in the dark. Could you be please be more specific? Do you remember the nationality of the author, by any chance?
R - Polish, I guess. The friend of mine who told me about the book hails from Poland.
L - Mmh, let me think about that…Ah! Right. Sienkewicz, perhaps?
R - Not quite. The author's name did start with an S, but then there were plenty of consonants straight after that letter...
L - Szymborska?
R - No, no. Look here, I like Jimb…Zimb…whatever -ska a lot. But the author I'm looking for doesn't write poetry, as far as I know.
L - Szpilman?
R - The Pianist, you mean? No. I read that one.
L (looking tired) - It could be Sczygiel, then.
R (pleasantly surprised) - Say that again?
L - Szczygieł. Mariusz Szczygiel.
R - Oh! Shee-gye-aw! Sheegyeaw... Could be the right guy, you know. At any rate, he does sound familiar. Did he write a book with an elegant lady portrayed on the cover?
L (sighing softly) - I don't think so, but let me check for a second (looks into an online catalogue). Socialist monuments, Prague's skyline, lions, crosses. No, I'm afraid there are no elegant ladies here.
R - Pity. I'm afraid I have to give it up, then. Goodbye.
L - (hiding his relief) Goodbye. But please come back once you get more information!

And this is how Andrzej Szczypiorski lost another potential reader.

I was luckier than the unbearable and confused reader above. I've found the Italian edition of The Beautiful Mrs Seidenman midprice and by myself without testing the patience of any bookseller. It was a good and unexpected catch that happened a few days before relocating to Poland.

What did I expect from this novel? I had no idea. But the reputation of its Italian publisher (Adelphi), the synopsis on the inside cover and the somewhat alluring title of the book bought me.

In fact, the title of this novel on the Italian, German, English and French translations doesn't have any resemblance with its original one Początek that means Beginning (or so I was told) thus not mentioning the beauty of Mrs Seidenman at all.
Now, is this a stratagem thought up by foreign publishers to win over Szczypiorski's tonguetwisting surname? It might well be. Still, I'd have preferred a better rendition of the Polish title.

For Mrs Seidenman part in this novel is not that relevant as you might expect given its foreign title. Well, to some extent. Irma Seidenman is only one of a cast of well-chiselled and convincing characters created by the author and getting by in their own ways in an already Nazi-occupied but not yet Nazi-destroyed Warsaw.

It's the Spring of 1943 and the pre-war state of things has changed dramatically. Thousands of Warsaw born and bred Jews are either confined in the ghetto or hiding somewhere in town. The Polish population is oppressed by the occupying Germans and gets by day after day. Fortunes are made in a week by cold blooded informers, traffickers and art traders who were good for nothings for years. Fortunes which were made over years by doctors, lawyers and entrepeneurs are lost in a week.
And yet, life goes on.

Szczypiorski - who wrote this novel in 1986 - took part in the Warsaw Uprising as a youngster and knew the hard times he depicts here. It's a tough choice writing a work of fiction inspired by events you witnessed forty years earlier, but the author does show plenty of talent and sensibility in doing that.
The characters here are faced with moral dilemmas and have to make important choices in the span of a few minutes. They all have either a strengthful motivation (for good or for bad) or a carefully pondered resignation which makes their decisions believable to me.
Furthermore, Andrzej Szczypiorski knew when and how to use a subtle bitter irony and is able to give an out of time grace to this novel by the means of a refined language.

At a first glance The Beautiful Mrs Seidenman could look like a belated novel dealing with places and people which are no more. But the fact that Mr Szczypiorski discloses what will happen to each character of the novel in the following years stretching as far as the 1970s tells you something about how modern and innovative this book is.
What you find here are indeed beginnings. Beginnings of fictionalised individual lives which - just like the ones of millions of actual people - were very much influenced by the choices and the decisions made in that crucial Spring of 1943.

18.3.14

Anne Applebaum - Iron Curtain

Rating 7.4

First things first. The title of the latest book by Anne Applebaum is slightly misleading. Iron Curtain - it reads - The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956.

Very well, then. Be prepared to walk hand in hand with Mrs Applebaum to former East Germany, Poland, former Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria. Save that you won't.

Anne Applebaum's Eastern Europe has interesting and somewhat limited borders. The American journalist focuses her book on only three countries: East Germany, Poland, and Hungary. The reason why Applebaum feared to tread on Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Bulgaria are not explained here. And that's a pity.

Given that the author is such a brilliant historian and an engaging (hi)storyteller who does know something on Soviet Union and the nations formerly grouped under the 'Iron Curtain' label, the omission of three countries is a puzzle.
I reckon how including thirteen years of political and cultural vicissitudes of the aforementioned troika would have doubled the size of this 613 paged book, but still.

Having said that, Iron Curtain is in many ways another significant accomplishment by Mrs Applebaum handling three nations which shared a good deal of things between 1944 and 1956 falling under the influence of Moscow.
The book is divided into two parts titled False Dawn (1944-1947) and High Stalinism (1948-1956) and subdivided into eighteen chapters. Each chapter delves into a specific aspect of social, cultural, and political life in East Germany, Poland and Hungary finding differences and similarities.

No matter Bierut and his footmen, the Polish jazz scene kept going 
Personally, I've found the first part more interesting than the second one chiefly thanks to the compelling depictions of life in Berlin, Warsaw and Budapest inbetween the end of World War II and the establishment of new Communist-led governments by means of Soviet interference. Those where the brief chaotic but dynamic years when Eastern Germans, Poles and Hungarians had hope and creativity soon to be crushed by disillusion and uniformity.

Mrs Applebaum is certainly a strong backer of economic liberalism and cultural diversity and she might be accused of being partial to some of the topics she writes about (the YMCA, scoutism), but nobody could ever accuse her of not knowing how to make her own research. And it's from an effective mix of documents, interviews and quotes from authors (Gyorgy Faludy, Arthur Koestler, Tadeusz Konwicki, William Shirer, Leopold Tyrmand) who lived and witnessed the period that comes out a brilliant book.

The romantic side of socialism staring in proud awe at the Iron Works in Sztalinvaros
The problem here is that some chapters of High Stalinism read more like a chronicle of the local Communist parties' feuds in a blooming of cadres and apparatchiks which I couldn't always follow as I wanted. Nevertheless,  Ideal Cities - one of the chapters in the second part of the book - is particularly good by comparing the unfulfilled utopias behind the construction of three new socialist towns: Nowa Huta (Poland), Stalinstadt (East Germany) and Sztalinvaros (Hungary).

Where the American journalist shines and excels is in writing about Poland, but this doesn't mean that the East Germany as well as the Hungary bits here are not well-crafted. It's just that Mrs Applebaum (who has just become a Polish citizen) must have had access to more personal first hand accounts on the Polish side and it shows.

Peeping at a scale model of Nowa Huta must have been so exciting
What I missed here is more contextualization on the situation of the USSR between 1944-1956. This aspect would have been particularly important in order to understand why the Soviet Union played such a role in determining the political, cultural and social life of three sovereign states which were treated by Moscow as three satellites (an extremely topical subject, I reckon).

What I liked is how Mrs Applebaum went behind the curtains of the Iron Curtain casting a spotlight on the peculiar rise of puppets and puppeteers such as Bierut, Ulbricht, and Rakosi who embodied the apparent banality of power in those postwar years.  

Good stuff, then. And yet, to be honest with you, Iron Curtain turned out to be not as engaging a book as I expected. Still, I learned a lot and will go back to these pages for further references in the future.

In praise of the dear leader Rakosi Matyas

10.3.14

Stanisław Lem - Highcastle (Wysoki zamek)


Rating 6.8

I might be the only reader of this book who bought Highcastle without having ever read anything by Lem before.

Sure, I heard wonders about Solaris and The Cyberiad, written by the undisputed Polish master of sci-fi, but never had the chance to get them. To be honest then, the chief reason why I bought the (Italian) translation of Highcastle is that I was interested in its setting, the former Polish and now Ukrainian city of Lviv / Lwòw.

As the story goes, a few years ago, my girlfriend and I were supposed to visit Lviv. A friend of mine living there had already confirmed me that she would have been happy to host us and show us around. In fact, we had already booked two return tickets to reach the city from Krakow by bus.

Unfortunately, we were right in the middle of a particularly harsh winter. The temperatures plummeted down to -25° between Poland and Ukraine so that the railway lines leading us to Krakow got frozen, local coaches got stuck in the icy snow and we were eventually forced to cancel our weekend trip. Which was just a pity.

Even though I didn't visit Lviv at that time, my interest for that place never ceased. Lviv is that sort of once multicultural and multilingual place that was badly treaten by history due to wars, destructions, people displacement, dictatorship and, in recent times, inequality.
Suffice is to say that while most of the Jewish population of the town formerly known as Lwòw got deported and killed, thousands of Poles living there were forced to move to Wroclaw (once a German town named Breslau) after WWII when the renamed city of Lviv was annexed to the Soviet Union.


In this respect, Stanisław Lem childhood memoirs are interesting but not fully satisfying. Lem was born and raised in Lwòw and lived there til 1945, when his family had to be relocated to Krakow. He survived the war thanks to false papers and playing a part in the local underground resistance, but you won't find anything about that period in Highcastle.

What Lem does through the pages of this book is narrating episodes of his early and young adult years before the conflict by focusing on objects rather than people. Those who love Proust, might find plenty of exquisite madeleine here, those who find the lack of a plot unbearable, are likely to get bored. I'm somewhat inbetween.

As much as I enjoyed the bits and pieces regarding young Stanisław tyrannizing his parents, destroying carillons and avidly perousing through the illustrations of his father's medical books, I found several pages redundant and repetitive. Lem is not partial to himself, but admits more than once (actually more than necessary) that he was spoiled and lonesome, a dreamy vicious kid without any close friends.

The few lines about life in Lwòw in the late 1930s popping up here and there are excellent and portray a town of great beauty with its hills, its trams, its majestic theatre, its petty bourgeois inhabitants collecting expensive trinkets and sending their sons to study Latin at the Gymnasium.
Now, I like this stuff becuase it reminds me of a lovely bygone age where a Middle European life of that sort could be found as far as contemporary Lithuania (see Miłosz memoirs), Bulgaria (see Canetti's) and Romania (see von Rezzori's).


But Lem is well aware of not being Miłosz, Canetti or von Rezzori thus he doesn't even try to dig deeper into this old world of his ultimately leaving me disappointed. Highcastle is a thin book with some frankly superfluos pages of clumsy introspection and gives you the impression of not having been finished and certainly not developed as much as it deserved.

While the first and the final 'chapters' are very good, I must confess that I resisted to the temptation of skipping a few pages in the central part of the book; doing that would have not been fair to Stanisław Lem who never pretended to fly higher than he could here.
And yet from an author who was that creative and innovative in writing science-fiction making up wonderful stories I would have expected much more in telling us about the day to day reality which influenced him.