THE TIME: December 1981. The places: Washington and Warsaw. The event: the ongoing tragedy of Poland, whose communist government, moving on Kremlin orders against the triumphant Solidarity revolution, declares martial law and turns its army upon its own nation, while its ambassador to the United States awakens to the hypocrisy of his entire life.

It is a drama worthy of the quill of Shakespeare, yet some shocking questions present themselves at once. Who are the heroes in this epic, literary autobiography in which Ambassador Spasowski, haunted by the ghost of his revered communist intellectual father, bares his soul and pleads for understanding and, perhaps, forgiveness? Who are the calculating villains, and who are the well-meaning misled idealists blinded to all truths but their own? And is it possible that they could all be one?

From the earliest pages of this ruthless personal and political confession, the reader finds himself struggling with disbelief, poised between rising horror and overwhelming pity, until a final Kafkaesque revelation arrives: all things are possible in a society whose moral values have been systematically destroyed, where nothing is ever as it seems, and where only paradox makes sense.

And these are some of the other questions that must trouble even the most sympathetic reader: why did it take this highly educated, widely-traveled man more than 50 years to see and comprehend what 40 million of his desperate countrymen could recognize daily at a glance? Why did he work so faithfully as a dedicated communist apparatchik to impose on Poland that same Marxist myth which he denounced before American TV cameras on Dec. 19, 1981, when he became the highest-ranking defector from a Sviet satellite country?

The answers are slow to come in this chilling but illuminating tale of an idealistic youth, brainwashed by his own father to atheism and the worship of Soviet-style socialism, who spends a lifetime violating his own intelligence and perceptions. Spasowski wasn't, after all, some trendy academic leftist making Greenwich Village revolutions over coffee cups. He had lived through both Nazi and Soviet invasions and occupations of his homeland in 1939. He was a witness to the premeditated, cold-blooded brutality of Soviet deportations, mass arrests and murder in the 1945-52 Polish Civil War, which passed with little notice in the West but which turned his nation into a helpless economic colony of the Soviet Union. He knew all the Polish Moscow-trained political mandarins and many of the world's leading communists like Gromyko and Castro, who had every reason to think of him as one of their own. As a deputy foreign minister and twice the trusted ambassador to the United States, he was privy to all the machinations that turned his father's dream of a "People's Poland" into an Orwellian nightmare, but not even the suicide of his own, idealistic 15-year-old son seemed powerful enough to open his eyes and awaken his conscience.

Then, with the quite incredible suddenness of Saul of Tarsus falling off his horse, comes illumination. The savage crushing of Solidarity by Spasowski's lifelong comrades and associates brings instant conversion, and the reader struggles to understand how half a century of deceit and self-induced delusion can end with one phone call to the State Department. There is something incredibly pathetic about the final pages of this huge, detailed public mea culpa in which a self-professed "Godless communist" feels finally at peace as Ronald Reagan waves to him from the White House steps and a Polish-American Roman Catholic cardinal welcomes him into the church. Perhaps one has to be a Pole living in Marxist Poland to understand that questions based on logic are absurd, that the impossible is an everyday occurrence, and that only the unbelievable can be fully trusted. YET for all of these troubling and unanswered questions, this is a searingly sincere and unsparing book. In page after page, which read as if they were written by a playwright in a madhouse, it shatters all the myths of Poland as an autonomous, independent nation able to make its own social, political or economic decisions. Granted political asylum when he asked for it, Spasowski tells his story with a convert's passion, and he is equally open about his own failings as husband and father as he is about the tragicomedy of Polish communism, which turned his life into a giant lie.

He shows us with persuasive authority how a comparatively small, self-serving clique of Warsaw bureaucrats, whose mandate comes from Soviet might and rests solely on its own police, controls a whole people with absolutely no regard for their nation's welfare. In that regard, The Liberation of One may be the most revealing public document to come out of the Soviet Union's empire in this generation.