BOOK REVIEW / Here and there, with pistols in windows: 'Beginning with my Street' - Czeslaw Milosz: I B Tauris, 19.95

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The Independent Culture
Czeslaw Milosz is one of the few survivors of a generation whose work was scorched by the war and then by communism. The recurring theme in these musings on literature and history is the tension between that life and art. Born in prewar Lithuania, he found his way to the hothouse of artistic Paris in the thirties, worked in the Polish Underground during the war and survived the Warsaw uprising of 1944. He lived through the founding of the socialist state in Poland and then escaped into the role of emigre in the West, first in Europe and then in the sunny climes of California. His finest poetry and fiction has almost exclusively cast back to the pre-war world of his youth across the abyss of 'an earth polluted by the crime of genocide'. 'For then 'humanity' was for me an abstraction, while now it has the shape of emaciated prisoners in their striped garb, of corpses in the streets of the Warsaw ghetto, of a hand with a pistol in a window that will be changed in a moment into a gaping hole by the fire of a tank'.

His are pained, often brutal reflections on how writers can deal with the horror that has been the twentieth century. He wrestles with the extent to which any artist, and he means himself, can be fully human if they can turn the inhumanity they lived through into art. He asks how much reality poetry is able to bear and talks of anti-Nazi works written between 1939 and 1945 in ghettos and prisons whose 'authors were merely human and to the extent they were human, they lost artistically'. Such work is a document but not art and the poems he wrote in the Warsaw underground which most moved his audiences 'seem weak to me, while those which then looked enigmafic, cruel and full of offensive mockery now seem strong'.

Milosz's experience of war in Poland gnaws away at the heart of all his writing - 'all art proves to be nothing compared to action'. Yet as other essays in this collection illustrate, his writing has proved the opposite. For Milosz is one of the writers from 'the other Europe' who sought during the years of Soviet oppression to preserve and develop the genuine cultures of their homelands. For Poles the heart of such labours was the magazine Kultura, published on a shoestring out of a suburban Paris house. Milosz's essay on one of its founders, Zygmunt Hertz, is a tribute to those who 'lived simultaneously both here and there', people often dismissed as the detritus of history and who are only now, often posthumously, being granted their victory laurels. Milosz was just one of a number of writers published by Kultura whose achievement was to preserve a cultural continuity which has provided post-communist Poland with a living tradition and identity. The cultural confusion that has overtaken Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union owes much to the lack of an equivalent emigre grouping of real authority.

And yet Milosz knows identity is essentially amorphous for anyone brought up in the borderland of cultures, religions and languages that was prewar Eastern Europe. Though he writes in Polish, Milosz's Lithuanian upbringing makes him 'someone from outside' even to other Poles. The Wilno streets refered to in the title of this volume pay testimony to a host of past influences - German, Russian, Jewish in a world where the experimental art of Paris was a close as the capital of Warsaw. But his remeniscences like his poetry while redolent of a lost world avoid any sense of nostalgia. He paints no rose-tinted picture of different ethnic groups living in harmony as have some Polish emigres but he is equally 'deeply offended and pained by Jewish hatred of Poles, despite their surprising forgiveness of Germans and Russians'. In his honest voice resonates the best of that lost world. 'Living as I did in such a city (with a vibrant Jewish culture) I ought to have acquired some knowledge but custom placed an obstacle in my path. Jewish and non-Jewish Wilno lived separate lives. I knew nothing about the history of the Jews in Poland . . . . only much later in America did I begin to learn.' He omits to mention that in 1938 he was sacked from his job on Wilno radio, apparently at the request of the Catholic Church, for inviting a Jewish rabbi to talk.

His 1979 dialogue with Tomas Venclova, the Lithuanian writer and thinker, on the status of Wilno (Polish name) or Vilnius (Lithuanian name) after forty years of Lithuanian-Soviet control is prophetic. He talks of the Polish and Lithuanian nations having gone through terrible experiences, 'defeated, humiliated, trampled upon. The new generations will talk to each other differently. We must reckon with the fact that in the ideological vacuum that has developed, nationalism will keep returning to its well-worn tracks.' Given the present state of Polish-Lithuanian relations (bad) and the furious flood of nationalisms that have engulfed us since the end of the Cold War, the reader would love to know what Milosz has to say today.

Sadly there is nothing so contemporary in this collection of what are essentially minor pieces from the seventies and eighties. The lack of any contemporary essays means this volume is very much for the specialist. Indeed many of the essays written with a Polish audience in mind, will be obscure to any lay reader. Those interested in exploring the delicacies of the Milosz world for the first time would be better advised to turn straight to the poetry, his novel The Issa Valley or his extraordinary dissection of Stalinism in The Captive Mind.