Bohin Manor (Magill Book Reviews)
Of living Polish novelists, Tadeusz Konwicki is one of only two whose works are regularly translated into English, the other being the science-fiction writer Stanislaw Lem. In his recent books, Konwicki has been playing with the distinction between author and narrator. In his novels THE POLISH COMPLEX (which appeared in English translation in 1982) and A MINOR APOCALYPSE (1983), the narrator is Konwicki himself, and the events recounted are a mixture of the fantastic and the mundane. This blurring of the line between author and narrator, between the real and the imagined, culminated in MOONRISE, MOONSET (1987), a diary interlaced with what purport to be excerpts from an unpublished novel that Konwicki wrote in his youth, in the late 1940’s. Throughout the book he moans that he has lost the power of invention, that he can no longer write fiction--yet even these laments are simply grist for his mill.
In BOHIN MANOR, a best-seller when it was published in Poland in 1987 and now expertly translated by Richard Lourie, Konwicki has taken a new tack, just when his bag of tricks might seem to be empty. At one level, BOHIN MANOR is a romantic historical novel, a literary bodice-ripper set in late-nineteenth century Lithuania some years after the Polish uprising of 1863, which was brutally suppressed by the Russians. The protagonist, Helena Konwicka, thirty years old and fearing spinsterhood, is torn between a passionate young Jewish rebel, Elias Szyra, and a...
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Bohin Manor (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
Tadeusz Konwicki’s novel Bohin Manor continues the tradition of nuanced psychological investigation that marked his previous work, including such novels as Sennik wsp6lczesny (1963; A Dreambook for Our Time, 1969), Kompleks polski (1977; The Polish Complex, 1982), and Mala apokalipsa (1979; A Minor Apocalypse, 1983). Although the central action of the novel is set in the northwestern corner of Poland in the mid- 1870’s, the reader soon realizes that the events depicted in the novel actually occur within the mind of the narrator. These events, and the complex reactions they trigger within the novel’s protagonists, assume full meaning only when they are recognized as the narrator’s attempt to create a family history for himself, a history that will allow him to locate his personal identity in the fluid and fragile world of twentieth century Poland.
The main plot revolves around the life of Helena Konwicka, the narrator’s grandmother. She has recently turned thirty and is faced with the realization that her life is empty and hollow Oppressed by a vague sense of sadness and regret, she allows herself to be courted by a correct but boring neighbor; Alexander Broel-Plater; and eventually agrees to marry him. At the same time, however; she finds herself cunously attracted to an intrusive newcomer, a young Jew named Elias Szyra, who persuades her to teach him to read and write in Polish. The novel chronicles the rising tension experienced by Helena as she is swept up by Elias’ persistent attentions even though she recognizes that it is socially impossible for her to respond to his affection.
Helena’s confusion is echoed by the atmosphere of mystery and uncertainty that Konwicki has woven into his tale. All the central characters seem to bear some secret in their souls. Alexander Broel-Plater; for example, is rumored to prefer men to women and is said to live with his handsome huntsman as with a wife. Elias Szyra claims to have participated in the Polish uprising of 1863, and during his successive meetings with Helena he spins an elaborate tale of adventure that includes exile in Siberia, near-death by hanging in France, and prospecting for gold in Australia.
More pressing for Helena, however, is the mystery that surrounds her own father. After the failure of the Polish uprising, he suddenly decided to stop speaking, except when forced to do so by extraordinary circumstances. Having pledged to remain silent until his country attains its freedom, he becomes a prisoner to his vow, yet Helena is unnerved to hear strange lamentations and prayers emanating from his room at night when the rest of the household sleeps. These lamentations point to a mystery even deeper and more troubling to Helena—the enigmatic character of her mother, who died while giving birth to Helena. Helena repeatedly ponders her mother’s strange destiny, and especially her unexplained wish to be buried not in the family plot but in a simple grave by the side of the road. Driven to seek answers, or even any slight traces of her mother’s existence, Helena steals into her father’s room. There she rummages among his belongings, hoping at last “to discover the secret of her mother.” Yet even while looking through her father’s meager possessions, she asks herself: “Why am I haunted by the ghost of a mother I never knew…
Helena’s question strikes at the emotional and psychological core of Konwicki ’5 novel. For in questioning why she is obsessed with the image of a figure she never knew, she unwittingly asks the very question the narrator has voiced earlier in the novel. Describing his attempt to travel back through the “dense mists of uncertainty” to the time of Helena Konwicka’s life, the narrator wonders why he is engaged in this activity at all: “Why do I pursue a ghost, a specter … ?” Similarly, Helena’s aspiration “to discover the secret of her mother” anticipates the narrator’s craving for knowledge of the secret of his father, a secret the father succeeded in “hiding” from the narrator and “taking to his grave with him.” When one compares Helena’s quest and questions with those of the narrator, it becomes clear that Helena herself is invested with the narrator’s own aspirations. Indeed, her entire character is born out of the narrator’s questions and longings. As he confesses early in the novel, he never saw his grandmother. She is his creation, the imagined repository of his innermost fears and desires.
Recognizing this fact, the reader may appreciate the subtlety and depth of Konwicki’s invention. The creation of Helena Konwicka and her emotional dilemmas is a...
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