Leszek Szaruga follows a trail leading in the same direction as The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann and echoes him by saying that to see past history, we have to step out of its course for a while and stand still; reflections on it also have to be expressed by people of very different views.
Szaruga has adopted Mann’s idea. He has set the action of his novel at the beginning of the twenty-first century, and the people he has invited to the debate represent various political options and generations. As they talk for days at a stretch, the gentlemen discuss the key experiences of Polish society from the end of the First World War to the present day. They try to discover a heritage that could be the foundation for today’s community. They also seek an answer to the question of whether it is possible to achieve catharsis after everything that happened in the twentieth century.
In these conversations the representatives of two different viewpoints clash. One group says that purging the collaborators is necessary, though it should be applied as specifically as possible. The others, in keeping with a view that runs through the entire novel like a leitmotif, say that “any form of existence is blame,” so the only purging a person can achieve involves purging himself of the desire for purity. By juxtaposing these two options, Szaruga has placed any kind of political attitude on one side, and a Gnostic solution on the other. On finishing the novel, we realise that he has come down on the side of life, and against politics. Now we are in a period when the nation is going through a phase of disintegration and the disappearance of communal affairs, and thus any sort of community activity is usurpation. Generalisation has become impossible, and in reckoning with the past or judging traitors, as The Photograph wants to tell us, each one of us should start with himself, with his own family and closest friends. We should examine the historical details we find there as closely as Szaruga’s hero does, spending hours on end in a photographic darkroom – long enough for the detail to stop being the grounds for judgement, and to become a small part of life.
Leszek Szaruga (born 1946) is a poet, essayist, novelist, translator of German poetry, and university lecturer.
Only now, during the long, endless conversations with his mother, was he discovering the truth about his father, including the most terrible fact for which he was not prepared, and with which he could not come to terms. It all went back to the POW camp, where during his five years’ imprisonment his father was recruited by intelligence officers. He was a particularly tasty morsel because he spoke both German and Russian fluently and with no accent. Russian was the language he spoke at home. His mother, a Greek from Odessa, had never learned to speak Polish.
He knew the story of his grandmother. His father’s family had been exiled to Siberia following the January uprising, to Tobolsk, and had returned to Poland after the Bolshevik revolution. The journey took them through Odessa, where his grandfather had fallen in love with the daughter of a Greek merchant, a romantic episode that had ended in them leaving for Poland and settling in the Free City of Danzig. He was sorry he didn’t have grandparents, like most of his contemporaries; they had died before he was born. It would have been especially interesting to have known the Greek grandmother, he thought. It was awful, it suddenly occurred to him, but to the very end of her life in that Polish family she couldn’t talk in her native language. Though maybe it wasn’t quite so bad – after all, Greeks could have turned up in Danzig in those days, Greek businessmen or seafarers.
But thanks to this very fact his father knew Russian, which in his generation was quite rare. And it was knowing Russian that was the reason for his life’s great drama. The Polish counter-intelligence officers imprisoned in the camp, watching how events were developing and maintaining contact with the outside world through channels known only to themselves, were getting ready for the future fight against the Soviets. For these very purposes, for intelligence work someone with such superb knowledge of Russian seemed an ideal find. Naturally his father had agreed, in which a large part was played by the patriotic emotions that the prisoners-of-war fuelled in each other. Then came the liberation, the march to Berlin and the return to Poland. In the rapid pace of post-war life he all but forgot about prison-camp matters. He was one of the editors of a music publishing firm that was just being set up. And then one day an envoy turned up from the intelligence to remind him of the commitments he had taken on.
“And he got caught,” said his mother. “He got caught, but he wasn’t locked up. That was still in Krakow, and a then-famous journalist came to his defence, a bit of a literary type, a very ideological communist even before the war. But they already had something on him, and they caught up with him in Szczecin. It wasn’t just about joining the party, I even think the party was meant to be a sort of protective manoeuvre, a façade, a sort of camouflage. They would certainly have preferred to have him be non-party. But it doesn’t matter. Suffice it to say they caught him and forced him to cooperate. In fact it was done very subtly, with kid gloves on. There was this security service major, extremely intelligent, brilliant, he even came to our house several times. He didn’t even put any special pressure on him, it was just as if he were making light of the whole situation. And then suddenly he became... how can I put it? No, not brutal, that’s not the right word. Firm – that’s not it either. Maybe inflexible. It was about a man perhaps a little older than us, who had just come out of prison, but who, just like your father, had worked at the local administration earlier on, though in a different department. This matter must have had special significance for them. It was impossible to wriggle out of it. And do you know what he did? Of course, he played out the entire scene as if it were a chance encounter in the street and invited the man home, but he also almost immediately revealed his own part in it to him. I don’t think I need to explain to you how risky it was to do that. What happened to the man afterwards I simply don’t know. He stayed with us for about a fortnight, and then he disappeared. And they just about left us alone after that, maybe two or three times your father wrote a report on the matter, but it no longer had much significance.”
He listened to all this in horror. The thought that for whole years, decades even, his own father had been a secret police informer shocked him. He had come back to the matter over and over again, but either his mother didn’t know any more, or else she felt she shouldn’t say any more. One day, however, when they were talking about the post-war years, she went back to the subject once again.
“Those were terrible times. Even today it’s hard to understand. Sometimes people even disappeared literally from one moment to the next, and no one dared ask where they had gone. To this day no one knows what happened to them. Yet at the same time among the communists you met people whose acquaintance you could regard as an honour, honest people, morally unblemished, genuinely concerned with helping others, weaker, endangered people. In those days they were afraid too, and it was so terrifying that they were afraid of their own people. They spoke in a sort of code, they communicated in a bizarre language whose meaning no one would be able to decipher nowadays.”
He knew how the story continued but he didn’t know how the continuation continued. He already knew, or to be precise he already knew a while earlier, that the conversation was about his father, the father who had been a secret informer for the security service. It was not clear to him whether his father had signed some document, a declaration of cooperation or something of the kind, but it was obvious that he hadn’t taken any money for it, and it was just about certain he had wriggled out of it rather than actually informed. So it was this time too, as confirmed by the story he heard:
“So I took the risk, and it turned out I did the right thing. I was right too, to be wary of a trap. It was meant to be a trap, except that the man used for it turned out to be my ally. Once we were at his house, almost as soon as we arrived he told me his situation. The secret police had blackmailed him to force him to cooperate. He warned me that he’d have to file a report on our meeting, and so together, really, we worked out what should be in the report. I admit I felt pleasantly at home in that flat. Not for long, though, just under two weeks. A nice, typical intellectual atmosphere, as if still before the war, lots of books, including lots of old German ones. I even found Heine among them.”
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones