Bohin Manor

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 454

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...

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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and the imagined, culminated in MOONRISE, MOONSET (1987), a diary interlaced with what purport to be excerpts from an unpublished novel that Konwicki wrote in his youth, in the late 1940’s. Throughout the book he moans that he has lost the power of invention, that he can no longer write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 calculating landowner whose proposal of marriage she feels obliged to accept.

Konwicki clearly relishes the game of historical re-creation, but he isn’t satisfied to stop there. Hardly has the reader entered the nineteenth century when Konwicki the author deliberately breaks the spell. Helena is his grandmother, he explains, as he imagines she might have been. He is wrestling with the past, trying to work his way back in time. Then, with a flourish, the fictional spell is reinvoked. As the narrative proceeds, however, there are other departures from the conventions of historical fiction. Anachronistic figures appear, avatars of Hitler and Stalin. As in Konwicki’s powerful and unsettling novel A DREAMBOOK FOR OUR TIME (published in Polish in 1963 and in English in 1969), events imperceptibly shift from the realistic to the dreamlike, propelled by a strange inner logic. BOHIN MANOR offers clear evidence that Konwicki’s hand has lost none of its cunning.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. LXXXVI, June 1, 1990, p.1878.

Chicago Tribune. July 29, 1990, XIV, p.7.

Commonweal. CXVII, September 28, 1990, p.553.

Kirkus Reviews. LVIII, May 15, 1990, p.678.

Library Journal. CXV, June 15, 1990, p.134.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. August 12, 1990, p.3.

The New York Review of Books. XXXVII, July 19, 1990, p.23.

The New York Times Book Review. XCV, July 15, 1990, p.7.

Publishers Weekly CCXXXVII, May 18, 1990, p.69.

The Washington Post Book World. XX, November 18, 1990, p.6.

Bohin Manor

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1923

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 vivid representation of the narrator’s attempt to understand his own identity. Uncertain of the true story of his father’s lineage, he sets out to create his own truth—“a truth that I compose myself out of memories, imagination, longings, and forebodings.”

The sense of personal identity which the narrator seeks in order to clarify himself involves not only his identity as a Konwicki but also his identity as a Pole. As he describes them, the events of Helena’s life are thoroughly informed with a consciousness of Polish history and national psychology. Thus, Michal Konwicki’s room is plastered with scraps of paper containing statements about the Polish land and the Polish people, and the picture of Poland that emerges from these writings is not an encouraging one. As in The Polish Complex, here Konwicki tries to articulate the strange mix of audacious aspiration and self-destructive behavior that marks the Polish character. One note provides an ironic vision of the Polish intoxication with the concept of heroic action: “So dear to them is their reputation for being noble and valiant that the very words ’courage’ and ’valor’ excite them beyond measure. Their virtues are theatrical as well.… They are forever exchanging the sun for fireworks.”

One character who seems to embody the negative side of Polish political options is the landowner Korsakov, an unpleasant man who has added the Russian suffix-ov to his Polish name Korsak. He was given the Konwickis’ native estate by the Russian authorities, and his attempts to excuse himself in their eyes suggest that he has lived the life of a double agent, working both for the Russian rulers of Poland and for the Polish people themselves. It is clear, however, that he feels that he owes more to his Russian masters than to his own countrymen, for in his last appearance in the novel he tells Helena that it is the fate of the Polish people to merge with Russia: “We have to survive within Russia, there’s no surviving outside it.”

Although the specter of Russian political control over Poland which Konwicki raises in Bohin Manor has immediate relevance for the central characters in the novel—Helena and Michal Konwicki, Elias Szyra, Korsakov—it also has pointed relevance for the author himself, for Konwicki has lived much of his life in a Poland dominated by Russian and Soviet political figures. Konwicki is not shy about alluding to the influence of the Soviet regime on his homeland. Among the secondary figures in the novel is the chief of police, a pockmarked Georgian named Dzhugashvili who dashes around the region looking for seditious troublemakers. Konwicki’s vision of nineteenth century Poland contains several foretokens of its oppressors in the twentieth century. In addition to the figure of Joseph Stalin evoked in the person of Dzhugashvili, Konwicki ’5 characters speak of a fearsome beast in the woods who is called “Schicklgruber;” a transparent reference to Adolf Hitler. According to Elias, Schicklgruber “loves to burn people. Especially Jews.” Considering that the historical era depicted by Konwicki is the fictive invention of his narrator living in present-day Poland, it is not surprising that the earlier era is informed by the narrator’s consciousness of the depredations of the twentieth century, which, he writes, has given people “space flight and the crematoria.”

Far from being a nostalgic evocation of a happier time in the distant past, Konwicki’s vision of Helena’s life is permeated with dark tones and ominous forebodings. As she walks the grounds of her home, she is disturbed to hear strange noises, which sound as if the earth is groaning or sighing. What is more, her apprehensions of a forbidding environment take on metaphysical overtones when she reflects on the ultimate significance of the encounters and misfortunes in her life. Wishing to believe in the compassion of a merciful God, she finds herself wondering whether it is God or the devil that acts on her life. As she contemplates her uncertain future, she acknowledges that it “might have its origins in heaven, or in hell.”

This uncertainty about whether it is the forces of good or evil that ultimately hold sway over the human realm appears in Konwicki’s other work as well, and it plays a significant role in The Polish Complex, for example. Yet in Bohin Manor the uncertainty seems more pervasive. Even the plucky Elias, when speaking of the Garden of Eden, suggests that the local landscape was traversed by Adam and Eve after their fall from grace. He goes on to explain that the local river winds extensively because Adam and Eve were dodging God and themselves.

Conjuring up this inauspicious atmosphere, the narrator acknowledges his own apprehension about the ultimate destiny of his heroine, his grandmother Helena. Although he writes that he would like to forestall the inevitable denouement, he confesses his inability to avert the finale that he senses lying ahead for them both. Racked by a sense of doom, the narrator (as well as several of the characters within his tale) speaks repeatedly of events as “fated.” As the novel moves inexorably to a tragic climax, the reader senses that the narrator can do little more than contemplate the sad events he finds himself relating. This, then, is one of the powerful messages that emerge from Bohin Manor. Driven by a deep-rooted desire to uncover for himself the roots of his personal past and to locate his present identity in the tragic world of Polish history, the narrator can do little more than look with awe and pity on the sorrows, both large and small, that the Polish people have suffered at their own hands and at the hands of others. At the end of the novel the narrator asserts that he had wanted to say something of importance, but that he cannot remember what it was. Nevertheless, he tries to console himself with the thought that at least he still exists and is among the living. Yet in the final line of his narrative, he poses an ironic question that undermines any sense of peace or contentment he may have created. With stark simplicity he asks: “How can I be the upbeat ending to any story?” The narrator’s investigation into the mystery of his grandmother’s life discloses not only her misfortune and malaise but his own as well. The author Konwicki, however, may find some solace in the fact that he has created a compelling novel that resonates with lyrical magic and high emotion.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. LXXXVI, June 1, 1990, p.1878.

Chicago Tribune. July 29, 1990, XIV, p.7.

Commonweal. CXVII, September 28, 1990, p.553.

Kirkus Reviews. LVIII, May 15, 1990, p.678.

Library Journal. CXV, June 15, 1990, p.134.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. August 12, 1990, p.3.

The New York Review of Books. XXXVII, July 19, 1990, p.23.

The New York Times Book Review. XCV, July 15, 1990, p.7.

Publishers Weekly CCXXXVII, May 18, 1990, p.69.

The Washington Post Book World. XX, November 18, 1990, p.6.

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