Tuesday, July 3, 2012
Poland - James Michener
1983; 616 pages. Genre : Epic Historical Fiction. Laurels : New York Times #1 Best Seller. New Author? : Yes. Overall Rating : 8*/10.
Three families. 7½ centuries. There are the aristocratic Lubonskis, striving to preserve the power of the Polish magnates. There are the Bukowskis, petty gentry. Forever striving to move up the social/political ladder. And there are the Buks. Eternal peasants, trying mostly to keep from starving.
The three clans are tied together. They are bound by the land itself around the (fictional) village of Bukowo; by the need to resist the hordes of foreign invaders that come in from every direction, and most of all, by a deep-rooted love of the Polish nation.
What's To Like...
Poland is actually nine separate stories, each from a trying time in Polish history. The oldest one starts with the Tatars storming through ca. 1240 AD. They are followed by Teutonic Knights, Swedes, Turks, Austrians, Nazis and Russians, all invaders, all more-or-less successful. Throughout it all, Poland endures.
The characters, who change from one story to the next, are deeply developed and complex. They are always heroes, but rarely saints. The Lubonskis and Bukowskis depend on peasants like the Buks to ride with them in defense of the nation, then afterwards often hang them for minor offenses.
The nation of Poland is both internally and externally cursed. It has no natural barriers (mountains, lakes, seas, etc.) to slow down the hordes of conquerors. And its magnates fear the centralized power of a king, so they elect weak ones, usually foreigners, and allow him to have no standing national army.
Michener pulls no punches. He paints gruesome scenes, with the Nazi occupation being particularly harrowing. But he also pens touching moments, and you will end up fervently pro-Polish, even if you have no such blood in your veins.
Kewlest New Word...
Orotund (adj.) : pompous; pretentious; bombastic. Here, an "orotund name" (the "Teutonic Knights").
(The Tatars) brought with them from the steppes no new ways of doing things, no inventions, no concepts which would revolutionize life within the lands they conquered. And they took back with them no tangible artifacts which they could use to make their own life better: no process for weaving cloth or putting ideas into written words or building a better wooden plow. They brought nothing and they took nothing.
Yet in exactly this same year Crusaders from Europe were fighting in the Holy Land about Jerusalem, and from that experience they would bring back ideas and artifacts which would revolutionize Europe, and the Saracens among whom they lived and fought would borrow from them concepts innumerable. It was Poland's grief that her visitors were Tatars and not Saracens, that her intercourse was not with cultivated Arabs but with explosive barbarians from the vast Asian deserts. (pg. 55)
Since the year 830 the men and women of the Buk line had belongd to other men and women of the Bukowski line, who in turn had been subservient to the men and women of the Lubonski line, who were subservient, by God, to no one, except that they had mismanaged things so sorely that they were now subservient to the Emperor Franz Josef, and you better keep that firmly in mind. Things changed for the Lubonskis and to a lesser degree for the Bukowskis, but for the Buks they never changed. (pg. 353)
"A Pole is a man born with a sword in his right hand , a brick in his left. When the battle is over, he starts to rebuild." (pg. 149)
James Michener started writing Poland in 1979, finished it in 1981, and it was published in 1983. It coincided with the unimaginable rise of Lech Walesa's Solidarity Trade Unions, which reached the zenith of their vigor and membership in 1981, with 9½ million members. Michener works this into his "present day" story, but without a resolution, since no one in 1981 could predict whether the Solidarity movement would be victorious, or whether Russian tanks would yet again brutally stamp out the flames of reform.
Poland is an epic novel, masterfully written and carefully structured to keep you from getting bored. At 600+ pages, it is not a quick read. Ironically it is one of Michener's shorter novels. Many of his books weigh in at 900-1,000 pages. If you're looking for "pure" historical fiction and want to delve into some fascinating history. this book's for you. 8 Stars, and add two more if you happen to be Polish.