I was the tender age of seventeen when I came across this wonderful novel by Polish novelist Tadeusz Konwicki while cutting school and browsing around Coliseum Books on W57th Street. It was 1983 and my mind was bursting with the immense possibilities of this world, feeling inspired and unwilling to deal with the boredom and the nonsense of high school - hence my “vacation day” and a trip to midtown to spend the day which was then my favorite bookstore. I didn’t go there that day to look for anything in particular - it was more a way to ‘feed the head’, to be surrounded by books rather than to be surrounded by idiots in the classroom. Coliseum was one of those bookstores where you could literally find just about anything and I was in the mood to read something that would make one think a little, something a little intelligent, and something that would go along with my then growing interest in what was going on in the world. It was a time in my life when I felt the urge to understand, explore and learn. It was Punk Rock and other politically/socially minded music I had been listening to at the time which furthered this desire to know more about the world around me.
In the news, the Solidarity movement in Poland was reaching fever pitch and the new Polish Pope was making headlines as well, supporting the movement in his native land. The Cold War was at its height and America’s new president, Ronald Reagan, was scaring the shit out of a lot of people with his tough talk against the Soviets. So it seemed appropriate that I happened upon this book when I did. It seemed to fit in with what was going on at the time and it looked like something quite different from the usual Stephen King or other Sci-Fi/Horror paperbacks I had been reading up until that time. This was the novel that opened the door to other literary possibilities to explore.
As for the story, in brief: a former Polish partisan awakens in his landlady’s living room after trying to poison himself. He is surrounded by a colorful cast of characters - including another former partisan with only one hand - each dealing with their day to day lives, problems, issues, each dealing with the effects of war and feeling trapped between the former horrors of the Nazi invasions and the current plight under the thumb of the Soviets. The narrator’s memories of hiding out in the forest and fighting off the Nazis become infused with the present day story: the concern of the townsfolk that their home would be destroyed by the construction of a dam. There are many “ghosts” in that forest which is threatened to be wiped out by the dam’s construction - sort of symbolizing the “burying” of the past - in essence wiping it out. It is a tricky narrative as well, with no separation between the present day story and the memories of the main character. A truly wonderful read, from what I remember.
Little did I know that this book would, in a few years time, have a more personal resonance for me (concerning an affair or sorts with a woman who’s family had dealt with the horrors this book speaks of) and it only made it that much more resonant. This was the book that opened the floodgates, the book that lead me towards discovering a whole new world out there and the literary possibilities that existed. I consider it a stepping stone to other great things: great novels, yes, but also a new way of looking at the world around me.