BOHIN MANOR By Tadeusz Konwicki Translated from the Polish By Richard Lourie Farrar Straus Giroux. 240 pp. $19.95
BOHIN MANOR taps into the same powerful desire that made the first "Back to the Future" such a hit: that is, the impulse to delve beyond fragmented, "official" family history to recover the "true story" of one's own origins. Instead of a DeLorean, Tadeusz Konwicki uses a wry, first-person narrator as a vehicle to propel himself back to the late 19th century and into the life of his Lithuanian-Polish grandmother.
Helena Konwicka is in her thirties and unmarried. "No one's ever seen my body," says Helena, and that forlorn realization inclines her to accept the proposal of the foppish Mr. Plater. Then, a handsome Jew named Elias mysteriously appears in the village and stays just long enough to become Tadeusz Konwicki's grandfather. In reconstructing the emotional circumstances of his grandmother's "disgrace," Konwicki toys with the techniques of magical realism, history, biography, fairy tale and the Victorian novel of seduction. The result is a moody, sometimes suspenseful, apocalyptic fantasy in which Konwicki heralds not only the disaster of his own ancestry, but the gathering storm clouds of the 20th century that would bring people "space flight and the crematoria."
As Konwicki imagines it, his grandmother's life corresponds to the female experience of history that Virginia Woolf defines in A Room of One's Own. While men throw themselves into the public realms of politics and war, Woolf writes that women mark the passage of time by a daily round of numbing responsibilities: making sure that "all the dinners are cooked; the plates and cups washed; the children sent to school and gone out into the world." The daughter of an impoverished gentleman farmer, Helena is freed from even these chores. She spends her days roaming the hot, empty countryside, visiting her mother's grave, and wondering when life will begin.
But Helena's ennui is more than just a condition of her class and gender. The whole country seems drowsy, drained of energy and hope since the failed Polish uprising of 1863. Helena's father, Michal, has not spoken since that defeat; his only sounds are the cries of pain he can't suppress during his frequent sessions of self-flagellation. The local priest, Father Siemaszko, hides his loss of faith behind rituals and platitudes. Everyone is waiting for something to happen, for someone to rescue them from their torpor. In carrying the story forward to a future marked by personal and political catastrophe, Konwicki seems to be illustrating the old adage: Be careful of your dreams, for they might come true.
Konwicki startles his characters and readers out of our shared listlessness by introducing some disturbing strangers from beyond the claustrophic world of Bohin. When Elias appears, he brings some necessary tension and passion into the story. Exotic because he's a world traveler, a gifted storyteller and a Jew, Elias must compete for Helena's love with Mr. Plater's prior claim as well as Helena's own anti-Semitism. More sinister are two characters who seem to anticipate the brutal state of things to come. There's Schecklgruber -- a "Beezlebub" with a little black mustache who patrols the forest and is said to "eat human flesh" and to have "burned down a temple of Jews." The local police chief is a Russian-speaking Georgian by the name of Dzhugashvili who favors Stalinist tactics of law and order. Whenever these characters intrude, Bohin Manor transforms itself from a romance to a meditation on the approaching nightmare of history.
Of course, the most puzzling anachronistic presence in the novel is the narrator himself. What's really behind Konwicki's attempt to place himself in his grandmother's sad story? Does he hope to gain a greater understanding of his own and his country's past? Or, worse, does he have an egomaniacal urge to change the course of events -- to save Helena's future -- at least fictionally? Towards the end of the novel, Konwicki suggests that, as a post-modern narrator, his aims are more cynical:
"I am not seeking solace and I have no need of the truth, because I create my own truth. Inferior or superior, more believable or less, a truth that I compose myself out of memories, imagination, longings, and forebodings, so that I can leave behind a gravestone, a little monument made of fieldstone, which will turn to dust one autumn or spring and vanish forever like my father's grave; but I will hammer that fieldstone, carve letters and signs into it, press my lips to it, and try to breathe spirit into that dead matter, a spirit that could have been immortal but is, after all, mortal, only mortal."
The tombstone metaphor is appropriate here since "traditional" history -- the kind that promised morals and certitude -- pretty much died with the 19th century. Instead, Konwicki gives us the 20th-century substitute: a self-conscious narrative that brilliantly mingles history and fiction. Like its narrator, Bohin Manor is both haunted and redeemed by its own illegitimate background. Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University and is a regular commentator on the National Public Radio Program, Fresh Air.