Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1007
The events depicted in Czesaw Miosz’s two-part political novel The Seizure of Power take place in Poland during the final ten months of World War II and the first five years of the postwar era. Miosz tells the story of this turbulent period though a series of interconnected sketches that involve a score of characters drawn from diverse elements of society. To some extent, The Seizure of Power is a roman a clef, and readers who are well versed in the circumstances in Poland during the Stalinist era will be able to match many of the fictive figures in the novel with their historical counterparts. Miosz, moreover, uses a character named Peter Kwinto to reflect his own spiritual disquiet before he defected to the West in 1951 from his diplomatic post as First Secretary for Cultural Affairs at the Polish Embassy in Paris.
Part 1 opens in the summer of 1944 as the soviet army is in the midst of an offensive that has brought it to the outskirts of Warsaw. Inside the capital the branch of the Polish underground officially designated as the Home Army (Armia Krajowa) rises in revolt against the Nazis on August 1 in the belief that the entry of the Red Army is imminent. To the dismay of the Polish rebels, the Soviets decide to suspend military operations along the entire Warsaw front and thereby give the Germans a free hand to suppress the uprising inside the city. Peter Kwinto is a witness to these events, since he is serving as a political commissar in a unit known as the First Polish Division that is operating in conjunction with the Red Army. He shares his Soviet hosts’ distrust of the motives of the Home Army, since its hierarchy owes its allegiance to the Polish government-in-exile based in London. Kwinto, who is steadfastly opposed to a restoration of the reactionary social order that prevailed in prewar Poland, views the Polish Committee of National Liberation that was established at Lublin under Soviet sponsorship as a preferable alternative to the government-in-exile. Nevertheless, he follows the tragic course of events unfolding inside Warsaw with mixed emotions.
Miosz’s account of the Warsaw uprising focuses on the fighting that takes place within the old city, where the Home Army withstands the Germans for a month before evacuating its forces from the district on September 2 through the sewers. The most memorable of the resistance fighters depicted by Miosz is Stefan Cisovski, who is nicknamed “Seal” because of his manner of moving and his prowess as a swimmer. Separated from his wife by the fighting, Seal commits an act of sexual infidelity with Joanna Gil, the daughter of a professor of classical literature. Shortly thereafter she is killed by German shell fire while assisting a wounded man at Seal’s behest. In the process of escaping from the old city, Seal abandons a seriously injured comrade named Gdula in the belief that his wounds are terminal. Reproaching himself for the fates of Joanna and Gdula, as well as for having violated his marriage vows, Seal is overwhelmed by guilt. Miosz does not inform his readers of Seal’s eventual fate until part 2 of the novel. Placed in an internment camp in Germany after the capitulation of the Home Army on October 2, Seal returns to Warsaw after the war to help in the reconstruction of the capital and learns that his wife had been killed during the insurrection, one day before he committed adultery with Joanna Gil. He also visits Joanna’s father and assists Professor Gil in recovering Joanna’s remains from the ruins of the city. Later in the year he is arrested by Polish security forces for having been a member of the Home Army during the German Occupation. After being detained for approximately four years without trial, Seal is taken to court and sentenced to an additional four years of imprisonment.
Most of part 2 deals with the process by which Communist rule is imposed on Poland. The key figure is a Soviet agent named Wolin who has been placed in charge of organizing the Polish Security Department. His mission, in addition to liquidating those who are opposed to the imposition of Soviet hegemony over Poland, is to recruit collaborators from among the opponents of Communist ideology, wherever it is expedient to do so. Wolin’s greatest success occurs in the course of a dialogue with Michael Kamienski in which he persuades this former leader of a Fascist youth group to head a pro-Communist organization of Catholics. The process of rationalization through which Kamienski comes to terms with the political realities of postwar Poland is far from atypical. Kwinto himself, who at this juncture of the novel is employed in the Bureau of Publications as a propagandist for the new regime, finds that his humanistic values have been steadily eroding. Hoping to rekindle the ideals nurtured by his prewar university training, he decides to take advantage of an opportunity to serve in a diplomatic post at the Polish embassy in Paris. At the last moment, Wolin has doubts concerning Kwinto’s political reliability and attempts to revoke his exit visa. Wolin’s emissaries, however, are unable to reach the airport in time to detain Kwinto, who boards a plane to Paris just as the year 1945 draws to a close and the first snow of the new winter has begun to fall.
Each of the novel’s parts begins with a short meditation by Professor Gil on the state of affairs in Poland after five or six years of Communist rule. There is also an epilogue of a similar nature. Gil, it turns out, was forced to retire from his professorship and is currently engaged in translating Thucydides’ history of the Peloponnesian War into Polish. He is able to draw many parallels between the civil strife described by Thucydides and the postwar situation in Poland. Miosz uses this device to validate the misgivings concerning the future course of liberty in Poland that prompted Kwinto to seek spiritual renascence in the West.
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