Subtlety in plot and complexity of character have never been among James Michener's attributes. But in "Poland," Michener's account of a thousand years of Polish history, that is probably just as well. Events over a millenium have provided Michener all the grist he needs for making his convincing case that Poland's unhappy present is directly related to its turbulent past.
The most successful feature of this typically ambitious panorama is how deftly it weaves the strands from Poland's difficult 20th century--the nation's re-creation after World War I, the Nazi torment that soon followed, the Soviet-led repression and the church's continuing challenge--with patterns of more distant years.
The main message conveyed again and again (and again) is that Poland's problems are irreversibly built into its make-up. The external powers that control Poland's destiny, Russia and Germany in particular, have been doing so for centuries. The internal contradictions that render Poland weak today are those which have always done so--mainly the clash between democratic and autocratic impulses.
For instance, 18th-century Poland, writes Michener, "had evolved no way to defend herself with a stable government, regular taxation and a dependable army; and in her weakness she had endeavored to initiate freedoms which threatened the autocracies which surrounded her. Had her neighbors been England, France and America instead of Russia, Prussia and Austria, she would surely have been permitted to exist for the innovations she was proposing were merely extensions of what the first trio had already accepted."
"To be both weak and daring is for a nation an impossibility," he concludes in what, alas, could be a Polish epitaph.
Moreover, in his inimitable (and uniquely marketable) way, Michener delivers this political homily as an engrossing entertainment. "Poland" is James Michener at his best, prodigiously researched, topically relevant and shamelessly intended for readers with neither will nor patience for more scholarly treatments.
The novel opens with a contemporary scene-setter and then quickly dissolves into ancient times, tracing three families, the peasant, the gentry and the nobility in one village, through many generations and adventures. The story ends, as this kind so often does, in the place where it began, deploying coincidences galore to assure that the plot wraps up with the necessary symmetry.
On the final pages, for instance, the Polish communist minister of agriculture announces to the world press his engagement to the fiery mother of a farmer seeking to establish a Solidarity-type union, the mother having provided food for the minister when he was an anti-Nazi partisan years before.
And, they are all distant cousins. There is far more to this denouement, but that may well be too much already.
What makes "Poland" compelling, though, is not Michener's depiction of the Buk, Bukowski and Lubonski families. It is the way he exploits them as symbols of the Polish people and their foreordained fate. Using real events and historic figures provides Michener all the natural drama he, or we, can handle.
"Whenever the people of Poland enjoy a better life than those in Russia, we are in mortal danger," Catherine the Great said in 1792 at the time Poland adopted its reformist constitution. "At such times Poland must be held down." Surround such chilling gems as that with a skillful portrait of Catherine, or others of her ilk, and the ingredients are there for a page-turner in the grand Michener tradition.
One of the best chapters--and the one that is most moving as docudrama--is about the Nazi terror in Poland, which was a reaction in part, Michener asserts, to yet another effort by the Poles to run things their own way. "How cruel are the repetitions of history," he writes, describing the Nazi-Soviet agreement to dismember newly independent Poland as Russia and Prussia had done in Catherine's time.
In 1939, after 20 years of nationhood, Poland had established itself as a viable state despite the continuing fractiousness of its internal politics and "there was reason to hope," according to Michener (reflecting a view held by many Poles), "that if this rate of progress could continue for another two decades, Poland might become one of the principal illuminations of Europe."
World War II ended that hope and it remains dead today. Poland, for all its virtues, is one of Europe's leading losers--or, at least, one of its most enduring victims.
In his introduction, Michener details his method of research and, given how prolific he is over so many subjects, that in itself is fascinating. He says he traveled to Poland eight times over three years and visited every locale he intended to use as a setting. He mobilized a group of Polish scholars to give him a bibliography and supply him with material especially tailored to his needs. But he does not name his sources because, he writes, "I cannot ascertain whether in the present climate this would hurt or help them."
The idea for the book began to gestate in 1977 because Michener foresaw that Poland would "become a focal point in the next decade." He was, of course, right. Making those sort of guesses and then turning them into guaranteed best-sellers is James Michener's genius.