Midway through Moonrise, Moonset, the narrator recalls a childhood memory of a dreamy summer swim in the river, full of playful acrobatics and delight in the warmth and beauty of the underwater world; he rises to the surface after a somersault and is just about to shout triumphantly to his friends on shore, when his head strikes something hard, “the rough surface of an enormous coffin lid.” He has come up under a raft, and struggling, losing air, he has his first brush with death. His near-drowning functions as a metaphorical anchor for the work as a whole, a mini-incident of the kind that is repeated throughout the book—when an illusion of triumph and freedom collides with a limiting plank of reality, bringing with it a kind of death. From major life experiences to minor ones, from the political arena to the purely personal, the theme of disillusionment runs throughout this unusual book—a book that includes such varied narrative forms as past-tense memoir, present-tense diary, criticism of literary contemporaries, and excerpts from two unfinished novels. This is the fifth novel to appear in English by Tadeusz Konwicki, a prominent Polish novelist and filmmaker. Richard Lourie provides an excellent translation.
Moonrise, Moonset is filled with the tension of hope and despair, the two words of the title reflecting the polarity between a birth and a death, a beginning and an end. Appropriately, the present-tense narrative covers the span of time from the official recognition of the Solidarity Party in 1980 to the clampdown of martial law in 1981; it is a historical beginning and end. The most frequently mentioned incident in the past-tense narrative—and the one casting the strongest emotional shadow over the work as a whole—is a moment in the mid-1940’s, just after the Polish Home Army’s victory over the Germans. Like the exuberant boy coming up from his underwater somersault and hitting a raft, the exuberant young soldiers rise from their successful liberation to meet another “coffin lid"—in the form of Russian soldiers who appear at the edge of the forest. It was, Konwicki writes, “a new slavery coming to us disguised in the coarse cloth of freedom.” Once again, hope is quickly chased by despair. It is another reminder that “for centuries now, the Poles have been sentenced by Moscow and Orthodoxy to death, the death of the Polish state and nation.”
In the present-tense narrative, and in the spirit of Polish renewal, Konwicki allows himself a hopeful fantasy, that in Russia’s attempt to swallow Poland it will suffer an indigestion so powerful that Communism will be brought to its knees. Yet by the end of the book, soldiers are everywhere, telephones are dead, and martial law has been imposed. “Mother of God,” he moans, “how many times does this make? How many times have I seen a rabbit-quick hour of greatness followed by years of weeping, misery, and decline?”
The climate of slavery and dashed hopes is pervasive, even when the reference to politics is not made explicitly. In one of his two unfinished novels (inserted into “this prose diary the way you slice a little stale kielbasa into a soup”), Konwicki plots the story of an elderly man and woman who miraculously find in each other a renewal of passion and love, yet their children “plague them, persecute them, forbid them to continue.” Again, hope for renewal is stamped out by a more powerful oppressor.
The artist’s equivalent for slavery and dashed hopes is not, as one might expect, the specter of censorship (despite the fact that this book and Konwicki’s earlier works had to be published by the underground press). In fact, in the relaxed atmosphere created by the rise of Solidarity, the narrator complains that he could use a little censorship to quicken his creative juices. One of the book’s many threads is the story of Konwicki’s ill-fated film adaptation of Nobel Prize winner Czesaw Miosz’s novel, Dolina Issy (1955; The Issa Valley, 1981). Expectations...
(The entire section is 1651 words.)