STANISLAW BARANCZAK, in his foreword to Czeslaw Milosz's novel The Seizure of Power, notes that "the political novel is a genre that dates quickly." Still, 30 years after its first publication, this novel is as relevant today as it was a generation ago. Milosz himself admits that the book was written for a literary competition, the Prix Litt,eraire Europ,een. It was jointly awarded first prize and achieved some commercial success, but it was the author's earlier work, the essay "The Captive Mind," which most eloquently interpreted for the Western reader the subtle workings of a totalitarian regime. The novel was neglected until the recent events in Poland, and Czeslaw Milosz's Nobel Prize, brought it back to the public consciousness.
It is a story of a time span between 1944 and 1945 when, in Poland, the Red Army offensive halted on the line of the Vistula, while the uprising against the Germans began in Warsaw. Street fighting in the city lasted for over two months, with the fighters short of arms, short of food, until the Germans encircled them and reduced them one by one. Andrzej Wajda immortalized this moment in history in his film classic, Kanal. After the surrender, the surviving remnants of the population were deported, and what was left of Warsaw was destroyed by German fire and explosives. Only three months later did the Russians continue their offensive and their final push toward Berlin.
The principal characters of the novel are fictitious, but the incidents of the fighting in the Old City are taken from an actual account. Milosz, however, identifies with several characters and their political attitudes. The agonizing decisions each has to make as he chooses sides are made even more agonizing by his awareness that there are no solutions and no victories. It is a period where life seems suspended, where a man's fate hinges on accidents and coincidences, where "he had to accept the absurd and not even call it by its proper name. . . . He could only look into the pitiless, burning sun and accept . . . the inevitable." Even after the Allied victory this period of suspension and fear persists. "The villages were drenched with warm spring rain. They were full of whispers, rumors, frightening and contradictory news. . . . Everything was uncertain. People said that nothing mattered because another war would break out soon; or that a new government would take over, not the Russian-sponsored one; but no one could tell how. There was a general feeling that things could not go on as they were." In the fiery heat of the first summer days, "so great was the power of silence about certain matters . . . that it was a relief to hear certain of one's own thoughts actually formulated. . . . Offical language deprived experience of reality."
Using the specific vision of the novel, and expressing things by details, by individual histories randomly viewed as if through a film, Milosz gives us here an amazing and shattering evocation of a whole nation's agony. Its echoes keep throbbing and still resound today. Poland is fortunate to have a chronicler of Milosz's stature and sensitivity to register its pain..
Milosz, like his novel's skeptical hero, Peter Kwinto, entered his country's diplomatic service after the war and served in Paris. When, in 1951, he could no longer reconcile his official function with his political views, he turned his whole attention to literature. Since the early 1960s he has lived and taught Polish literature at the University of California at Berkeley. From there now comes his collection of 32 essays, Visions from San Francisco Bay, first published in Polish in Paris in 1969. The inter- related essays are an exile's vision, a vision of a man who has lived his life among many people and many landscapes. The lyrical prose which in his earlier work The Issa Valley so vividly described the gentle flow of a placid river, has given way to an effort to come to terms with his new home. California, to Milosz, is the place which most blatantly demonstrates man's change in priorities. Like Joan Didion, he sees Western man's crisis as a loss of order and tradition. In the excellent essay "I, Motor, Earth" he notes: "The owner of an automobile is actively passive, with a constant desire for activity, for an activity other than holding the wheel, but he is continually being cast into passivity again . . . . But our active passivity is also felt in relation to people. We pass them, busy with their daily work, immersed in their houses and little towns. We converse with them when we stop . . . but differently from the way people did when they traveled by camel, horse, or stagecoach. They do not bring us into their tents, they don't set out feasts. . . . The banal ritual of greetings and goodbyes, so smooth that we pass each other like pebbles rounded by a stream, puts a distance between us and them, and so their eyes, mouths, movements are all the more disturbing to us. They are enigmatically self-enclosed, and haunt our minds as if we were from another planet, staring at humans."
Milosz, both an admirer of Robinson Jeffers and his Polish translator, expresses his admiration in his essay "Carmel"; "In the hollows shielded by the dunes, vacationers built fires, grilled frankfurters on sticks, took snapshots. Nearly all of them were unaware that Jeffers's house was nearby . . . . There was something paradoxical in my fascination with him; I was surprised that I, a newcomer from landsswhere everyone is burdened with history, where history is written with a capital H, was conducting a dialogue with his spirit though, had we met, we would not have beeen able to understand one another. . . . He was courageous, and so he broke through the spiderweb of invisible censorship as best he could, and compared with him, others were like dying flies utterly tangled in that web. They had lost the ability to be simple."
But the fact that Milosz is an ",emigr,e writer in exile" (the Swedish Academy's term), is not a weakness, it is his strength. It gives him a point of view which transcends nationalism and is unobscured by bourgeois complacency. It is this which makes him wise and distanced enough to sense the possibility of the positive, which he describes in the essay "The Formless and the New": "Along with inducements to travel into the depths of one's soul, there also developed an enormous underground market for 'consciousness-expanding' substances; the church and synagogue were equated with the mental inertia of the older generation. . . . But it should also not be forgotten that all this occurred simultaneously with a very swift increase in poets, sculptors, painters, potters, etc.; in any case, people proclaiming that they wanted to devote themselves to contemplation and creativity, not to making money. For my parents' generation, America was the land of the Golden Calf, while today it is clearly becoming the most poetic and artistic country in the world."
It is not only a wise but also a very kind man who speaks to us in these essays, who makes us look into his mirror in an utterly engaging way. He leaves us with a sense that we would like to know him, have him in our house for tea, to tell him that we also very often feel this amazement which he so well puts into words: "Amazement that something like America still exists, and that humanity still exists, though it should have exterminated itself long ago or perished from starvation, from epidemics, or from the poisons it excretes. But amazement induces silent contemplation, and whenever I take up my pen . . .ays, Visi I treat that act only as the exorcism of the evil spirits of the present.