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

Bronski House by Philip Marsden-Smedley is a sympathetic portrayal of eastern European patriotism and the pain of exile. Both patriotism and nationalism have unpleasant connotations in the West. But the patriotism described here is benign, with its roots in history and its passion born from a visceral love for the land.

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.

Arts and Entertainment
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
    Compton Cricket Club

    Compton Cricket Club

    Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
    London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

    Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

    'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

    It helps a winner keep on winning
    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'