Shelves: poland Its probably the best book Ive read over the past six months, and I have quite a lot of disparate thoughts to share, so Ill organize this review in bullet points, but will try to give it some semblance of order. Ive read this book in Polish, and what a pleasure it was! The teenage narrator plays a sleuth, trying to discover as much as possible about his French teacher and madame la directrice, and while doing so, learns the implication of being an adult in post-Stalinist Poland. The narrator and the convention in which the story is told might require getting used to. The narrator redefines precociousness — yet I found him scaringly easy to identify with. Interestingly, he seems to be completely uninterested in his parents, and is mentored by their friend, a fine specimen of Polish intelligentsia.
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For many years I used to think I had been born too late. In my early childhood, in the s, the "great epochs" for me were above all the s and the years of the war. I saw the latter as an age of heroic, almost titanic struggle when the fate of the world hung in the balance, the former as a golden age of carefree oblivion when the world, as if set aglow by the gentle light of a setting sun, gave itself up to pleasure and innocent folly.
Later, some time in the early s, I realized I had come to see the Stalinist period, only just over, as another such "great era. And I felt a strange regret that I had been denied the chance to experience it in full, had scarcely brushed against it, confined as I was then to a view from the stroller, the nursery, and the little garden on the edge of town.
My sense of late arrival was not limited to the sphere of history. It had occasion to emerge in a rich variety of contexts, on a smaller, almost miniature scale. Take, for example, my first piano lessons. My teacher was a dignified elderly lady, her family landed gentry, her own student days spent in Paris, London, and Vienna in the s.
And here I am, on day one, already listening to reminiscences about the glorious past, the days of great talents and great masters, the speed at which pupils used to learn, the delight taken in music, how splendid it all was then and now how hopeless. The day he came into the world should be celebrated like the birth of Christ. The twenty-seventh of January, remember that date!
There are no geniuses like that now. Waste of breath. A barren wasteland, a desert. The game caught my interest, and after a few years of solitary practice I joined a club to develop my skills. Our instructor, a degenerate pre-war intellectual partial to the bottle, had us practice various openings and endgames, and showed us how such-and-such a game should be played.
Sometimes, after making a move, he would suddenly interrupt his demonstration and ask, "Do you know who thought up this move? Who was the first to play like this?
This is just what the instructor has been waiting for, and he launches into a so-called educational digression: "Capablanca. In , at a tournament in London. I hope you all know who Capablanca was He was the Master, the absolute Master! A genius! One of the greatest chessplayers the world has ever known. A virtuoso of the positional game! Chess has gone to the dogs. Then he lapses into a gloomy reverie. They had the divine spark. In their day chess was still the game of kings!
But now Competitions between windup automatons. This time I was to stay in a real mountain shelter and climb real mountains. And here I was at last, with my experienced guide, in the very heart of the Tatras, in a hostel of almost legendary fame.
But the food situation was worse: queues for meals were endless. Trips to the bathroom involved similar difficulties. These obstacles and indignities overcome, we finally set off. There, ahead of us, is the trail, and there, at last, the long-awaited encounter with the majesty of silent peaks and vast empty spaces. So much for mountaineering!
Everywhere you go, you come up against these damn pests. It was different before the war. You feel as if you were alone in the world, in a place where earth meets sky, touching the heavens, the cosmos But just try and do that now, with these asses all over the place.
So when I took my place, at the age of fourteen, in the classroom where I was to spend my last four years of school, I was not surprised to hear variations on the same theme.
Now they took the form of paeans of praise to former pupils.