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
Saturday 30 September 1995
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.
elephant appealThe first 23 lots in our charity auction have now gone. But there are 22 more still up for grabs
Geoffrey Macnab reviews American Hustle, also starring Christian Bale and Bradley Cooper
newsFormer soldier taped 33 of the animals to the floor and then stamped on them one by one
Michelle Nijhuis' daughter insists (s)he is, and she learnt a valuable lesson on gender in books
news Opponents claim it would stop performers such as Beyonce and Madonna appearing on TV
It takes a platoon of chefs, litres of brandy and rum, and almost 100kg of dried fruit
newsThat most ancient of crimes is on the rise, threatening farmers' livelihoods, community trust – and human health
food + drink
sportIf you thought the London Olympics and Wiggins' Tour glory made last year best, don't forget Murray's Wimbledon win and Farah's double
Arts & Ents blogs
Christmas comes early: Justin Bieber is 'retiring from music'
Justin Bieber isn't retiring from music after all: Pop star says he was 'messing around'
American Hustle, review: 'Jennifer Lawrence is brilliant as the neurotic housewife'
Justin Bieber's mishaps and controversies
Is Bilbo Baggins a girl?
Exclusive: Young people ‘want UK to stay in Europe’: Four in 10 adults aged 18 to 24 are ‘firmly in favour’ of membership, poll shows
Tom Daley ‘is gay because his father died’ says UK evangelist
Iain Duncan Smith leaves Commons food banks debate early
Kiss and yell: Italian protester charged with sexual assault after kissing riot police officer
PM denies two child limit for benefits is part of Tory welfare policy
Anachronistic and iniquitous, grammar schools are a blot on the British education system
- 1 America's 'virgin births'? One in 200 mothers 'became pregnant without having sex'
- 2 North Koreans are gasping for the truth: Let's give it to them
- 3 Sun will 'flip upside down' within weeks, says Nasa
- 4 Christmas comes early: Justin Bieber is 'retiring from music'
- 5 Iain Duncan Smith leaves Commons food banks debate early
- < Previous
- Next >