During the time of captivity and oppression which lasted with a short intermission for almost 200 years, language, culture and literature were the only forms of showing the Polish national being, and they had to replace the sovereign administration, and the Polish army, its trenches, bunkers and fortifications. From the independent domain of the Polish language came our possibility of defense against invaders and oppressors who wanted to denationalize us and seize our land from us.
Literature became the army of the nation, and the writers became the soldiers of the words. We in Poland were cut off for so many years, especially for a half of the 20th century, from our vital world-the Roman and Latin culture. We were in a prison of which the walls were the tenaciously closed borders.
When the West became more and more indifferent to Poland's fate we engulfed ourselves in the pondering of our destiny. In nobleness full of pain and overbearing isolation, some of us started saying: "Nobody can understand this but Poles." The writers formed a specific language full of expressions: codes, allusions, allegories and metaphors. There were created three almost different kinds of literature: some from those writers who wrote in exile, some from those who went underground, and, finally, from others who served alien tyrants and rulers.
In Poland roughly everything was underground. In the year 1863 the assets of a battalion which fought in the January uprising were buried in the garden of my grandparents' home, and in 1915 in fear of a police search a set of our family letters was buried; and since the end of World War II weapons have been illegally hidden in the garden again. And still those things are hidden even from those who buried them. In Poland there is even a proverb: "Inside the soil everything is moving."
The communist totalitarian government wanted the people to see it as a firm protector of culture. We used to say that the communists loved culture so much that they embraced it in a deadly hug. They were very careful to choose for promotion in the West only the procommunist writers who collaborated with the communist regime. Also, they paid big sums of money to the Western translators who worked on the "right" translations. Often underhandedly they financed confidential Western publishers and paid for advertisement of books of the favored authors. And after some time it was much easier for them; the naive people of the West were already convinced that the communist government is really the independent sovereign of Poland, and takes appropriate care of culture and writers.
Those writers who did not want to write according to the actual version of "socialist realism" were cautiously omitted from any form of promotion. The party and the censors' office had the right to give the chosen writers special privileges. To make sure that nobody would differ from the official political line during the martial law the secret police organized special briefings for publishers and editors.
At the translators' convention held at the time of the so-called first Solidarity, shortly before martial law was imposed in Poland and Solidarity banned, the main speaker, when talking about Polish fiction warned that in Polish literature the contemporary literary movements require making language experiments, and because of that the books are untranslatable. The speaker, being himself a translator of nonfictional literature, mentioned the names of almost all writers and made a huge list, but scrupulously omitted the most important books which could easily be translated.
The movement toward freedom was born of the intelligentsia in close collaboration with the church, and later using the domain of language and the world of culture reached the working classes. Since 1964 writers have been engaged in a cultural fight against the communist oppressors and have suffered huge losses. They suffered not only because they were not allowed to write and publish, but also in a very physical sense. During the years 1968?1989 a few of them literally were hounded to death. We also had to suffer the treason of our colleagues who supported martial law.
When freedom had won, writers became the first victims of the new situation. The crisis struck into one of the most sensitive areas of our culture. Books were the first to appear on the free market even before the free market was really born. They became only one of the products of consumption like the washing detergents. In many cases those with very clear or not so clear totalitarian pasts became the first publishers and distributors of books. Their knowledge of the free market and capitalism was such that they were able to learn something at the communist party meetings. The "iron curtain" had not been demolished, it had just been raised.
Soon the literary press disappeared, and the mass media terminated its interest in literature. It has been said that nobody was interested in books, though it was not and is not true. The market is deformed by corporations which rule like oligarchies, and not always within the law. All of this creates a climate in which the publishing business is suffocating, unable to establish clear rules on the emerging new publishing market.
We are living in the second era of combativeness in literature. At first we had those writers-usually communist veterans or Stalinists-who wanted to "build socialism" in Poland through literature. They are still amid those protected, but some Solidarity activists are challenging them. Among those there are many excellent writers, but they sacrifice their work for the possibility of being politicians.
Who in the world can know and understand the current situation of aspiring writers in Poland? In the West the Polish language is understood by one person in a million-maybe even in ten millions. When visiting western universities one can see the broad advantages of Russian philology over other Slavic languages. And the knowledge of Polish literature is so deficient that it seems to be almost a secret for many scholars. But it must be said that Polish literature is very creative and resourceful. We have our great Christian traditions, but we do not forgot our ancient paganism. Poland is also soaked through with Jewish culture since we had for such a long time the largest Jewish population in the world; and they had their sages, rabbis and saddiks, poets, fiction writers and journalists. Those who survived the German holocaust continue the work of their ancestors.
Here in Poland the elements of our often tragic history are on every
side of our land. And so many stories tell themselves through unimaginable
lives and fates of many people. Poland still is a great, uncovered mine
of literary resources with its hidden deposits of books, which I think
far more valuable than even the deposits of Polish copper.
Translated from the Polish by Michal Kaszynski.
Reprinted from the monthly magazineMEGARON: biuletyn nowo?ci wydawniczych.
No. 10/93, October, 1993.