Closing the circle; Bronski House: A Return to the Border Lands by Philip Marsden-Smedley HarperCollins, pounds 16.99
'Konin' meets 'The Wild Swans' in a passionate search for a 'posthumous Europe'. By AL Foreman
Marsden-Smedley has written a book which is an unusual mix of epic history and contemporary travelogue. In 1992, he accompanied the exiled poet, Zofia Illinska, to her family estate in Belorussia. Bronski House is partly an account of their journey, and partly the novelised diary of Helena Bronska, Zofia's mother. The result is a sweeping chronicle of two female generations spanning several wars and thousands of miles.
The Bronskis fled Belorussia in front of the Soviet tanks in 1939, when Zofia was 15. Before the war, the family were owners of a large estate, Mantuski, now in western Russia. The American journalist John Reed visited the country in 1915, and was overawed by the intense passion the land inspired in its inhabitants. The Bronskis shared this passion. Years later, living in Surrey, Helena wished she had stayed to face the Russians.
The Bronskis attachment to their lost homeland is not unlike that of other exiled communities. But there are also aspects of it which are unique. Zofia's passion is mixed with pain for a country she cannot recognise and a border which no longer exists. Between 1914 and 1939, the geography of Belorussia changed three times: first being a part of the Russian Empire, then Poland, then the Soviet Union. Zofia's return was an anguished attempt to end the empty longing which had begun over half a century ago.
She was 70 years old when they made the journey, more than twice Marsden- Smedley's age, yet it appears to have been a remarkable friendship. What is even more remarkable is Marsden-Smedley's self-restraint in keeping his presence in the narrative to a minimum, allowing Helena's and Zofia's personalities to dominate the book. Although he re-wrote most of Helena's diary, Marsden-Smedley includes excerpts of her own writing which reveal her quite considerable talents.
Helena's father was Count O'Breifne, a descendant of General O'Breifne, an Irish Catholic, who emigrated to Russia after the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. During the Revolution, the teenage Helena was a refugee, travelling with her family around south-west Russia to escape the Germans and the Bolsheviks. She was in St Petersburg during the riots and after the Revolution survived the famine by living off cubes of horseflesh. She married Adam Bronski at the end of the war and together they rebuilt his family estate before he died prematurely in 1937.
Zofia and Marsden-Smedley set out on a mission to locate the missing past within a ravaged present, to experience a "posthumous Europe". They saw little evidence of the world described in Helena's diaries. All the extremes of pre-war Belorussia had disappeared, and in their place they found a people and culture inhabiting a half-empty stage. At Mantuski, Zofia found her father's grave desecrated and the Bronski House razed to the ground. They travelled to the O'Breifne estate further east and discovered a Soviet collective farm in its place. It was as if the Bronski family had been erased from everywhere except memory.
But there is no hint of regret; Marsden-Smedley refuses to ascribe a purpose to the journey other than Zofia's wish "to close the circle". Despite this modest claim, The Bronski House is more than a picaresque journey. It is the successful amalgamation of two genres, combining the imaginative historical touch of Wild Swans with the contemporary edge of Konin: A Quest, Theo Richmond's recent attempt to trace a lost Jewish village. Zofia left Mantuski having restored the family mausoleum as a monument to the Bronskis' love for their country. This book is also a monument, both to the Bronskis and to the Belorussians and Poles, Orthodox and Catholic, whose lives remain forever entwined with the earth that bore them.
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