A Country in the Moon, by Michael Moran

Farce and romance in God's Polish playground
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The Independent Culture

Instilled with a love of the music of Chopin by his concert-pianist uncle, the Australian travel writer Michael Moran has long been fascinated with Poland and its history, with its beauty and its horror, and its Quixotic sense of honour born of heroic defeats. His title is taken from Edmund Burke's comment on the partition of 1795, which eerily foreshadows Neville Chamberlain's 1938 remark about neighbouring Czechoslovakia, and "a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing".

All that has changed with Poland's accession to the EU. The Polish language is widely heard in British shops, pubs and building sites. But when Moran arrived in Warsaw soon after the fall of communism, at the head of a motley crew of teachers charged with introducing the Poles to the joys of the free market, the country still held a lunar chill. The conference centre in which they are housed is semi-derelict; their pupils, Polish business people, are immured in the paranoid, nepotistic ways of the nomenklatura; among the sex-starved, vodka-crazed Brits, class resentments turn into open hostility in scenes resembling a campus farce by Tom Sharpe.

Having set the scene, Moran plunges swiftly into the terrifying history of the country. Between Russia and Germany, Poland was fated to be the cockpit of Europe or, in the words of the historian Norman Davies, God's playground. Too often in books of this kind one has the sense that the writer is somehow appropriating the great tragedies of history. Moran avoids this pitfall: a visit to Auschwitz is handled with exemplary tact and sensitivity.

Moran emerges from these pages as a romantic, a bon viveur, a music lover and a film buff, equally versed in the polonaises of Chopin, the novels of Joseph Conrad and the movies of Andrzej Wajda and Krzysztof Kieslowski. He conducts a clandestine affair with unhappily married Zosia, and together they explore the historic cities of her country. His sojourn comes to a premature end when the project's rackety finances expire. The last chapters briskly fast-forward up to the death of Pope John Paul II. As for his romance with Zosia, reader, I wouldn't dream of giving the game away.

After Moran's car is broken into in Gniezno, he bemoans the loss of his notebook and the "felicitous phrases" he will never be able to recreate. There are many felicitous phrases in this book; there are also many infelicitous ones. At its best, Moran's writing is richly atmospheric, with real depth and sparkle; too often, the prose is clunky and slapdash, the narrative jump-cuts confusing, while several passages of architectural description and historical anecdote read like something from a Lonely Planet guide.

This is a great pity, because there's a much better book in here trying to get out. Fortunately, Moran's deep knowledge of the country and genuine engagement with its people outweigh the deficiencies of this absorbing, exasperating and ultimately rewarding travelogue.