BOOK REVIEW / Chronicle of history foretold: 'Bohin Manor' - Tadeusz Konwicki; Tr. Richard Lourie: Faber, 14.99 pounds
Saturday 26 September 1992
Motherless from birth, and without a fiance after her Piotrus was killed by a Tsarist bullet in the uprising of January 1863, Helena tries to drown politics with the weight of personal loss - as if the two can be separated. Old man Konwicki has not opened his mouth since the rebellion was put down, although he can sometimes be heard crying blasphemous prayers for deliverance from this life as he discreetly flagellates himself in his study.
As local governor in 1863, disgrace came quickly when the Russians regained control. He was dispossessed of his ancestral home, and Korsakov, the Russified satrap, took up residence. Korsakov makes noisome, drunken visits to Bohin, which are part social climbing, part spying, but mainly a search for absolution at the hands of the man he replaced.
Helena's desultory preparations for marriage to a local squire are thrown off course by the arrival of Elias, a Jewish vagrant. Feigning illiteracy, he seeks her company for reading lessons and affronts her with brazen declarations. But the real danger he brings, greater than the emotional anguish of an illicit affair, is the outside world: stories of Paris, Australia, even the South Pole. The mere mention of distant places disturbs the leaden blanket of thunderous summer days beneath which Helena tries to hide. In the end it is personal outrage, not national dishonour, which rouses her silent father to speech and even action.
As well as telling a love story, Bohin Manor offers a historical summary of the coming century. The local police chief, Dzhugashvili, is Stalin's father and Hitler lurks unseen in the forest as the ghoulish Schicklgruber, blamed for thefts and night-frights. But even in the backwoods of Lithuania, history cannot hold still for ever.
If set further east, in the provincial Russia of Chekhov or Tolstoy, Bujwidze would be a hole in the middle of nowhere which every heroine student or soldier longed to flee. Unsurprisingly, Konwicki feels differently about his Lithuania, and, instead of travel, Helena longs for a tranquillity she cannot define. Romantic agonising becomes a regular feature in long, self-contradictory asides. An engaging historical allusiveness relieves, to some extent, the symptoms of passion fatigue as Konwicki, simply by being alive, becomes his own happy ending.
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