Books: Home sweet home

THE POLISH HOUSE by Radek Sikorski, Weidenfeld pounds 20
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The Independent Culture
In the summer of 1989 Radek Sikorski was deep in the Angolan bush with the Unita rebels, covering their war against the Cuban-backed Communist government in Luanda for the Western Press. At dawn on 4 June, he heard on BBC radio that Solidarity had won a landslide victory in the first free elections since the communist takeover of Poland nearly half a century before: "Suddenly I saw the world with new eyes. To me it meant one thing. I could go back home after eight years of exile."

Sikorski was an unusual war correspondent. Born in 1963, he was to become an ardent Solidarity activist until 1981 when General Jaruzelski crushed the movement and Sikorski found himself a political refugee in England. Granted political asylum, he went to Oxford, and became a freelance journalist. In 1987 he travelled with the Mujahedin in Afghanistan for a year and was twice nearly captured by the Russians. The Dust of Saints, his first book, was the result of this journey. Joining the anti-communist rebels in Angola was inspired by the same principle: "my enemy's enemy is my friend". Now suddenly the enemy was defeated, and he could return to a free country.

Home was Choliebin, a dilapidated dwarek his parents had acquired in the 1980s near his native city of Bydgoszcz, in Western Poland. "A dwarek is to a Pole what a Georgian country house is to an Englishman - an 18th- or 19th-century little manor house, with a white porch, pillars and at least a hint of park." Before the War the Polish countryside had been dotted with dwareks, but only a thousand survived communism. The owners were chased away, "neglect, sloth and greed did the rest".

To Sikorski, born and raised on a communist housing estate - "bastardised Le Corbusier, bad concrete" - owning and restoring a dwarek to its former glory became a vocation, a way of salvaging history from the ruins of communism and reclaiming the past, when Poland was in the mainstream of European civilisation. Choliebin became a metaphor for Poland itself, its renovation the symbol of the country's renewal. Everyone chipped in - roofers, brick-layers and plumbers all worked after hours. The process took ten years and the result, as illustrated in a photograph, is an elegant neo-classical white house surrounded by parkland.

In the course of the restoration, Sikorski discovered documents relating to successive owners over the centuries. The history of the house ran parallel to Poland's as it was partitioned and grabbed by its powerful neighbours, Germany and Russia. "Within a lifetime, say my maternal grandfather's, you could be born in Germany, get married in Poland, bring up children under Germany again, age under Russian domination and die in free Poland never having left the same town [Bydgoszcz]." Most members of the family who owned Chobielin before the War disappeared in the Gulag, while some of Sikorski's own relatives were deported to German concentration camps. Their spirits haunt the pages of this remarkable book: Uncle Clemens, the Gdansk gunsmith and amateur archaeologist; Great-uncle Roman, a priest who spent five years in Buchenwald and Dachau; Uncle Wladek who transcribed Cardinal Wyszynski's memoirs (to be released in 2002); Uncle Edek, a romantic rebel whose War diaries, quoted by Sikorski, read like a picaresque novel.

Sikorski returned to Poland in 1989 and became Deputy Defence Secretary in Lech Walesa's first government: it lasted only 100 days, not enough to produce real change. The Ministry was "stuck in a 1950s' timewarp, nothing worked, not even the telephone system". Yet Sikorski managed to introduce some Western efficiency and method into the administration as well as preventing a huge financial scam by the Russians.

Back in civilian life and journalism, he interviewed Lech Walesa for television in 1991; it was "the worst experience of my journalistic career ... I had to face the fact that my former hero was half Mahatma Gandhi, half village yokel ... The language in the Presidential Palace was that of a beer hall, the ambience that of a gang of racketeers in a third-rate thriller. His cronies pandered to him as if to some tribal African chief ."

Today Sikorski believes Poland "suffers from a post-communist hangover" and her choice is between the "honest, competitive capitalism" of England or America and the kleptocracy of Third World democracies. As in some other Eastern European countries, the old communists are back in power, under a different guise. "The nomenklatura is the new upper class, whereas those who made it possible for them - the workers who brought down communism - remain the proletariat." Plus ca change ...

History, autobiography, political memoir and philosophical musing, The Polish House is a meditation on identity - what it means to be a Pole at the end of the 20th century. Ironic, funny, passionate and lucid, it gives an insight into a period and a system about which, until recently, the West knew little. The romantic Sikorski deplores the "fantastic nouveau- rich vulgarity" of the new bourgeoisie, "the houses with more towers than a mediaeval castle, the courtesan-lookalike wives, the mobile phones ringing during dinner". He, a representative of the 19th-century gentry, has at least Choliebin, which now looks as if it had been untouched by history:

"I have cleared up a few acres of Poland. Bounded by a neat wall, the trees in the orchard stand in regular rows where once weeds grew taller than a man. The beehive among them gives us our own honey. Lawn spreads where once there were pigsties. A row of chestnuts, still small, has risen up along the cobbled alley. In the park, once dark and dusky as a primeval forest, shafts of light streak through and birds sing where once dead branches creaked ..."