A Memoir of Poland and Rome

By James A. Michener

Rodale Press. 119 pp. $14.95

Here's a rarity: a thin book by a master of thick ones. With all the expected authorial graces, plus a storyteller's instinct for the pageantry of detail about events and personalities, James Michener salvages some leftovers from his travels to Poland and Rome and turns them into duty-free valuables on coming home.

With 119 large-print pages in "Pilgrimage," and figuring about 30 seconds for each, only about an hour or so of reading time is needed -- a rewarding hour of rumination. I can't remember the last occasion when I needed less time to read a book than to write about it.

Grateful for that small favor, I think the larger one involves Michener's openheartedness about the joys he felt on revisiting Poland and Rome in a 14-day trip in late autumn 1988. He writes that on leaving the United States, "I did not realize that I was engaged in what would become a spiritual and political pilgrimage."

One of the spiritual moments occurred in St. Peter's before Mass in the pope's private chapel. In the catholic -- small "c" -- group of worshipers that included four nuns from Vietnam, an Irish tenor who would sing "Ave Maria," and Stan Musial, the old first baseman and lay Cardinal, Michener was greeted by Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen of Seattle. At the time, the letter-of-the-law crowd that was, and is, in control of the Vatican had been pushing Hunthausen for his spirit-of-the-law decisions allowing participation in the liturgy by gays, altar girls and other previous left-outs.

Hunthausen was in Rome to see Pope John Paul II and calm the holier-than-the-pope enforcers around him. "I said in an explosion of emotion," Michener recalls, " 'Archbishop, it's providential that you and I should meet here in these circumstances. When I published my novel on Poland I was abused and excoriated, just as you were last year. But the other day the government invited me back, said their judgment had been hasty, and bestowed their highest honor on me in reward for the good work I had done for their country. They don't like me any more now than then, but they did welcome me as an honest man.'

" 'With you, it's obviously been the same. You took some hard knocks, were humiliated in public, practically defrocked, and today I meet you here at dawn. ... Father Hunthausen, I'm overwhelmed by the coincidences.' "

If it was divine providence that crossed the paths of the archbishop and the writer, Michener made the most of the blessing by turning it into an engaging story. Numerous others are here, some of them going nowhere but most showing a mastery for the details required for worthy and well-powered tales.

Michener, a Quaker, relished his access to the Vatican. This trip marked his third meeting with John Paul II, the first coming in the late 1970s after the Pole was elected to the papacy. At that time, Michener reports, the new Holy Father "asked me how to deal with the press." Michener, taking a vow of silence on this one, declines to reveal what tips he passed on. Apparently the pope did learn a trick or two about media relations in the 10 years that followed. In the 1988 meeting -- a meal in the papal dining room -- Michener writes that in addition to himself and three friends, including Stan the Man, the pope had two staff clerics on hand: "I assumed that the priests were present to protect him from any improper report of the off-the-record meeting that one of us might later give the press."

Not to worry. Michener, though consternated about the pope's "severe conservatism on doctrine," is neither a muckraker nor a blabber. About the only inside dope he dispenses is that the Holy Father "continues the old pattern" by celebrating Mass "with his back to the congregation." We'd have guessed.

In Warsaw, Michener, whose 1983 novel "Poland" sold 4 million copies, was honored with the government's highest civilian award, the Medal of Reconciliation. The novel had been banned originally by the Soviet-puppet dictators but now, five years and an upheaval later, Michener was receiving a literary lion's welcome: "This was the experience that writers sometimes know: to write as honestly as one can about a place, to pour into a manuscript all the love and understanding and respect and empathy one can, only to have it rejected. But then to watch, as the years pass, a subtle change take place: Readers from all parts of the world begin to stream into the country one has written about with testimonials as to how deeply the book had affected them and how it had generated an understanding which had not existed before."

Michener's two-week tap dance through Poland and Rome, interlaced with warm touches and breezily reported exchanges, produced a trim and crisp work, with nothing forced about it. Michener is now 83 but here he writes as a man who is exultantly young, with not a doddery line in sight. The reviewer is a syndicated columnist with The Washington Post Writers Group.