To the sound of wails rather than rolling drums, "The March" opens with the subjugation of eastern Poland by the army of the Soviet Union, an event that took place 40 years ago last month.
Abel Abramowski, with whom this novel begins and ends, is a solider in a Polish unit that has been decimated by Stalin's men. Straggling home to the village of Lwow, he finds his two grandfathers, cutodians of his dual gentile and Jewish heritage, hanging from a tree in the brilliant autumn sunshine. Their ancestral estate is in the hands of Bolshevik louts.
The outrage is only beginning. The Soviets' massive deportation of Poles sweeps up Abel's finance, Catherine, 250,000 of his former comrades-in-arms, and more than a million of his countrymen. Through one of Europes' bitterest winters in modern times, they are transported aboard vast prison trains to labor camps throughout East Asia and the Arctic Circle.
The villagers of Lwow prove infinitely adaptable to circumstance. Catherine, whose child by Abel is doomed by its birth aboard an icebound boxcar, summons up a will to live that is remarkable: plaintive and raging, dignified and pathetic.
Jan Poremba, a literary critic, becomes a shaman and then a freedom fighter who eventually liberates a prison camp. Kobza, formely a janitor from the village, leads the ragged band across the ice fields toward home. Small acts of self-sacrifice make the intolerable life possible; large acts of brutality offer the death that seems preferable to the misery the prisoners suffer.
In the Lubyanka, where Abel is thrown by the Russian dragnet, he gives up an eye and fingernails to his torturers rather than betray his uncle, the Zionist Avrum Mendeltort. But Mendeitort himself eagerly cooperates with his father's murderers when, as part of the Soviet defense against the German invasion, they reconstitute a Polish army.
Abel's imprisonment, like Catherine's, proves to be a descent into self. Turned out of the Lubyanka as the Germans approach Moscow, he decides to "create a whole new set of definitions for life." In time, these admit of his Jewish heritage and its impulse toward a homeland. But the terror he has suffered leaves him incapable of practicing terror. He joins his Uncle Avrum's toast "L'chain" while refusing his madness.
Catherine is likewise made stronger by captivity. If every generation of Polish youth is to be tested to such extremes, she decides, then let it be for a cause. Thus she and Abel are brought together in the shadow of the Golan to ask themselves again what part of the future they may share.
The 14,000 officers of the prewar Polish army never get the chance for such happy choices. Their fate, dealt out by the Russian police among the black birch trees of the Katyn forest and on the ice-strewn White Sea, yields Kuniczak his most horrifying scenes. He depicts best such elemental things: the adventitious beauty of the autumn of Poland's humiliation; the death-dealing Russian winter; lamp-lit burrows of conspirators' quarters; the squalor of prison; life shorn, denied, or draining away; life on the edge.
When Kuniczak remains close to the earth -- the manor, the ice, the Sinai -- he writes vividly and with power. When he attempts scenes of intimacy (between lovers, among oppressors and victims), he often falters, and his comic sense is waylaid by hapless cliche and anachronistic phrases. Passages of affirmation sink under the weight of indifferent diction and predictable thought. The massive insult experienced by Kuniczak's characters justifies his elaboration. The justice that Abel, Catherine and others eventually achieve is, by comparison, abbreviated and dull.
The result, in "the March" is a sublimity that is arduously sought but not achieved, a triumph that is merely told and not shown. Kuniczak renders the broken -- and that is most of his story -- but not the whole, which is the reason for the telling.