Review: Poland Under Black Light

Against the Current No. 4-5, September-December 1986

Ewa Wiosna

Poland Under Black Light
By Janusz Anderman
Translated by Nina Taylor and Andrew Short
Readers International, 1985, $12.50.

THE SIBERIAN COLD held Krakow in its grip the winter l lived then. It was mid­February. I’d been in the city about six months, and I thought. I’d grown accustomed to the hardships that were typical of life in this poor, po!itically­ravaged land.

That night, however, I learned I was wrong.

I was standing at the tram stop on Franciskanska Street, not far from the Main Square, waiting for the number one that would take me to the weekly Solidarity mass and meeting at Nowa Huta several miles outside the city. The church that sponsored these meetings made no secret of them. So the government knew when they were scheduled; they knew, as well, that nothing could be done overtly to stop them.

City officials in charge of transportation, however, had devised a covert plan to frustrate people who attended. On Thursday evenings when the Solidarity gatherings were held, trams that ran to Nowa Huta somehow got off schedule. They broke down, were delayed, or just didn’t show up. So we all knew that, in­ stead of the usual ten or fifteen minutes, we had to plan on waiting at least an hour at each end of the Krakow-Huta run.

I don’t know what made the wait so unbearable for me that February evening. Maybe I was just tired from standing in line for two hours that afternoon to buy a pound of meat. Or maybe the six-week stretch of temperature readings at 10 or 20 below zero had worn me down.

In any event, as I stood staring at the tram tracks, looking for some sign of the number one, I caught a glimpse of the air glowing in a gray mist around one of the street lamps. Thus the city subtly reminded me I’d been breathing frozen smog all day.

I shook my head over the whole scene. The bad air, the purposely-delayed tram and my own fatigue were more than I could bear. In that moment, I longed, more than anything, to be out of that city, out of the entire country where it was impossible to achieve anything that vaguely resembled a normal lifestyle.

Luckily, the number one arrived just as my spirits hit their nadir. Soon, I was in the chapel at Nowa Huta which was overflowing, as usual, with Solidarity supporters and secret service men. I was always moved by the sight of these worker-activists who carried on their struggle, no matter how the government tried to restrain them. Their level of commitment in the face of such odds shamed me out of my bad humor. And my spirits temporarily lifted.

Nonetheless, in the months that remained before I left Poland in late July, I occasionally experienced similar waves of extreme dejection. Eventually, I came to understand that those mood shifts were a sort of schooling. Through them, I was learning firsthand what it means to live in the shadow of an unfinished revolution. I was beginning to understand what the tip of the iceberg that my activist-friends called hopelessness looked like.

The despondency and disgust which members of the Polish opposition often feel toward their homeland figures largely in the tales of Janusz Anderman, collected in Poland Under Black Light. In these short stories, the author describes precisely the look, smell, and feel of his country in the aftermath of Solidarity’s uprising. After reading two or three pieces, however, it becomes obvious that Anderman’s purpose is much larger than description. By showing us how contemporary Poland functions (or more accurately, fails to function), he is illustrating how an unpopular regime, with only occasional forays into violence, has been able to suppress a popular political movement. He is explaining how the authorities dramatically altered Poland’s social fabric by carefully cultivating a sense of alienation-from the system, from one’s fellow man, and finally, from one’s self.

Movement Activist

Anderman himself has every right to claim frustration with Polish politics. Born in 1949, he has been involved in the opposition since his university days, when he was studying Slavic Literature at the Jagiellonian in Krakow. There he participated in the movement that finally culminated in the student protests of 1968 and drew a brutal government response.

Upon graduation, Anderman worked briefly as a reporter for the periodical, Student. But this monthly publication was considered too independent; the authorities subjected it to rigorous censorship. As a result, Anderman quickly grew disillusioned with the official Polish press. By 1976, he had already turned to the underground publishing movement, where he still works as the editor of a literary periodical called PULS.

From an intellectual’s perspective, then, Anderman knows the slow labor that was needed to bring Solidarity to its heyday in 1980 and ’81. He knows, too, the disappointment that followed with the declaration of martial law. For Anderman’s years­long political effort ended with a prison sentence that he served in Bialoleka.

The stories Anderman has included in Poland Under Black Light reflect the kind of thinking one would expect from an activist who’s just weathered an aborted revolution. He covers a wide range of sub&jects and settings from the contemporary Polish scene. The majority of them have one theme in common, however: They illustrate how social relationships have deteriorated since the declaration of martial law and how the solidarity that once bound people to each other across class lines has eroded.

Some of the changes Anderman has witnessed in Poland’s social fabric are encapsulated in brief interludes, called “Freeze-frames,” that precede each of his longer tales. One of these summarizes the dilemma of a psychiatrist who has serious misgivings about his effectiveness. “[A] patient tells me, I am under surveillance, nowhere can I be alone, they are everywhere.” he notes. “[A]nd I wish to reply to him, that I also have the same symptoms.”

This psychiatrist finally decides to abandon his profession when he realizes that he cannot help his patients, and that he is, in fact, helping the regime.

In another of the shorter pieces, Anderman considers the fate of personal, rather than professional relationships in post­Solidarity Poland. “Freeze-frame Thirteen” catalogs the difficulties married couples face when they set out to achieve some level of domestic stability. There is the “chance fat a flat in the year two thousand, before retirement, children, who come into the world as if anybody needed them, a moment later and the husband starts to crack and is more and more often returning drunk.”

Anderman concludes this chronicle of Poles’ marital miseries with his own analysis of the problem’s psychological source: “(W]omen would eat the carpet for a wee bit of love,” he suggests, “but usually they do not know the word; this exotic word which has been obliterated from our language.”

In sum, the picture Anderman creates of his homeland is a disheartening one. In­ deed, his tales prompt a reader to wonder how this country, which offered so much promise in 1980 and ’81, could look so bleak today. How did Poland deteriorate so quickly? And more importantly, how does its unpopular government hold the will of its frustrated citizenry in check?

Aborted Revolution

Some of the stories in Poland Under Black Light address these issues, too. In one especially moving piece called “Day of Mist and Cloud,” Anderman shows how the regime maneuvers vulnerable people into positions from which they will have difficulty denying their collusion with the government.

In this story, a young soldier finds himself patrolling Warsaw’s streets to enforce martial law just days before Christmas in 1981. With a few of his friends, he stands near a fire to keep the wintry chill from his body. While he rubs his hands above the hot coals, a minibus suddenly pulls up to the curb, depositing a cameraman, an officer, and an unusually well-dressed woman nearby.

Within moments, it becomes clear that the group is a television crew who have been assigned the task of shooting a propaganda piece to prove Polish women’s support for the regime’s recent military maneuver. To make their message more effective, the attractive woman-an actress who plays the “representative of Polish motherhood” in this shot approaches the soldiers and pulls the tallest one from their group to join her on the set.

With the young man beside her, she begins her declaration of loyality: “[W]e Polish women and Polish mothers,” she says, addressing herself partly to her television audience and partly to the bewildered soldier, “[W]e owe it to you that peace has prevailed … civil war … you have prevented.”

When she finishes her monologue, the actress thrusts a present into the soldier’s hands-something to pay him for his trouble. Anderman describes how he accepts the gift: “[T]he soldier lowers his head and finds that he is holding a record in a coloured sleeve; but they’ve made an ass of you, someone says from the sidelines.” And the soldier knows the accusation rings true. For the regime has compromised his character by casting him as a collaborator in their propaganda.

Anderman does not end his critique of the contemporary Polish situation with an expose of the regime’s awkward propaganda pranks or of young soldiers’ naiveté. He takes the opposition to task, as well, for its shortcomings.

In his last short story, “Empty. Sort Of,” he offers a painfully honest picture of his own political camp. This piece is essentially a conversation between two writers who have been called for interrogation, but have been left to wait because the secret service man assigned to them is occupied with some important paper work. One of the writers, like Anderman, spent time in prison under there.*

But like the narrator, he soon becomes disillusioned with his fellow-prisoners: “[H]e heard them grumbling to the Swiss doctors from the Red Cross who’ve already seen a prison or two in Asia and South America,” the writer notes; “he heard them complaining that the water in the baths was too hot or too cold … he saw politicals who treated the convicts with contempt; there were a couple of professional crooks in prison with us who went on hunger strike in sympathy, and it was entered in their personal files which would follow them through all the prisons of the land all their lives long.”

The narrator finishes these recollections about his term of imprisonment with a reflection upon his own response: Although he is a writer, he “ended up not writing a single word about those days.” He attributes his silence to the self­censorship that was encouraged, not only by the regime, but by the opposition, as well. “[T]he idea was to build morale and boost myths regardless,” “and for a book like that I’d have been treated like a provocateur or police spy.”

As the author of Poland Under Black Light, Anderman accomplishes what the narrator of his final story never achieves: He breaks the vow of silence that the opposition required of him, and he names the weaknesses that the movement does not want to admit.

So the appearance of this short story collection is important, indeed. For its composition and subsequent publication by the Polish underground press signals a change in the opposition’s thinking. Dissidents may be ready now to criticize their own recent history; they may be ready to rethink their approach to their unfinished revolution and, eventually, to bring their struggle out of private apartments and secret printing houses and into the open once more.

* A large number of Poland’s radical intellectuals were actually interned in Bialoleka, the prison where Anderman spent six months.

September-December 1986, ATC 4-5

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