Reading Polish poet Miron Białoszewski’s account of the Warsaw Uprising—the long two months in 1944 when Hitler’s forces, retreating, executed their orders to leave nothing of the city standing—feels as though you are sitting in a building that is being demolished. Things come rushing at you from all sides, in cascades and eruptions of words, stuttering, leaping, and crashing. A quarter of a century after the events, the poet was able to recreate in a breathless narrative the visceral fear, disorientation, and sheer disbelief he felt when the city of his childhood and youth was being systematically destroyed—bombed, shelled, torched, and riddled with snipers’ bullets—around him, street by street, floor by floor, century by century.
Apartment houses split open. . . . Split vertically. Crosswise. Empty. Into chips. Dangling strips. Of plaster, laths, boards, bricks. There was an awful lot of it. All Warsaw was made of that stuff. Almost. Six-storey buildings, too: laths, plaster, bricks, boards. Or rather, splinters. Crumbly material. It was dry. It crackled. When struck, it spurted out. House after house. Sheet-metal corbels—parapets—were hanging from the empty spaces left by balconies or from nothing at all. They swung. Clanked. Banged. Thin, hollow inside. . . . Warsaw was betraying all her secrets. She’d already betrayed them—there was nothing left to hide. . . . She’d revealed a hundred years. Two hundred. Three hundred. And more. Everything was exposed. From top to bottom. From the Mazovian princes. Up to us. And back again. Staś, Sobieski, the Saxons, the Vasas. The Vasas. The Saxons, Sobieski, Staś, Fukier. The Sobieskis, Marysieńka, the Sisters of the Holy Sacrament.
The memoir, a masterpiece of post-war Polish prose, reminds one of nothing so much as the prose writings of Britain’s poets of the First World War: Robert Graves’s Goodbye to All That or (even more) David Jones’s In Parenthesis. Like those books, Białoszewski’s is written in terse anti-heroic prose continually slipping into strange poetry. It’s also a work that uses almost tribal regional language codes to give form to a shared and yet intensely personal wartime existence shaped by abject terror, mad chance, and lightning decisions that could just as easily lead to death as dodge it. Like these works, Białoszewski’s memoir succeeds in portraying the contractions and distortions of time occurring under fire and the periods of unnatural calm that provide relief from chaos, but also a return to the acute consciousness of loss.
Białoszewski’s book still offends those Poles who prefer to remember their uprising as it is commemorated in the Warsaw Rising Museum: the running gag about this museum is that, leaving it, one is unsure of who won. The story told is of heroism and patriotic sacrifice, of unbreakable faith in the transcendent power of the Polish nation. There’s literally no room in it for Białoszewski’s description of huddling with a group of friends in a buildingunder bombardment, listening to a man outside in the street groan in agony and call for help; the group does not even have to discuss the matter—the man was a fool to try to cross the street, no one even considers going to his aid. And instead of reinforcing soldierly virtues, Białoszewski dwells on the fate of women and animals in wartime:
So, the twentieth day of the uprising. We are in a new shelter, beneath the pillars. In times of war, it seems, there is always a return to matriarchy. And especially during that war. That uprising. Particularly with that descent underground, under Warsaw (into the anthill of the shelters). It was a relapse—an explosion. Of the cellars? The caves? What’s the difference? Masses of people. The mothers rule. Sitting underground. Hide! Don’t stick your head out! Mortal danger. Non-stop. Even if you don’t stick your head out. . . . Animals? There weren’t any. The larger ones had been eaten already. And the small ones? Some people kept an animal they loved, took it below and sat with it. With an animal. But that was unusual. Particularly in Starówka [Warsaw’s Old Town]. There were fewer pets there. Or they weren’t taken. Underground. Or they were brought along and died. Whatever didn’t escape, fly away, burn up, cave in, die, was hunted down. Cats disappeared. Dogs disappeared. There’s no use even talking about winged beasts. Only that cricket in the wall when it grew dark. And then, in September—lice.
It is hard to exaggerate the difficulties of translating Białoszewski’s prose, with its fragmentary idiom, colloquial wildness, constant self-revisions, and rapid shifts from dense physical detail to subtle internal states and analyses of perception and emotion. For the new NYRB Classics edition of the memoir, Madeline G. Levine revised her own remarkable translation, originally published in 1977 by Michigan publisher Ardis, which has long been the source of many important Eastern European works in English translation. The revision embraces changes incorporated in the recent Polish reissue of A Memoir, which included for the first time material cut from previous Polish editions. Some of the brief sentences or clauses are descriptions of Poles taking pleasure in the targeting of Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto.
But the book is not simply another chronicle of Eastern European misery; its importance is both larger and more subtle. Miron Białoszewski, a naturally exuberant, odic—indeed ludic—poet, managed to capture how the human imagination is changed by the sight and sound of mass destruction, how to have your city destroyed before your eyes is to participate in a kind of eternal exodus that is the shadow tale of all civilization. The ways he made language enact rapid and radical metamorphoses of historical reality are an astonishing resource for poets, historians, and journalists alike. Imagine New York on 9/11 as it might have been described by Walt Whitman, E. E. Cummings, or Hart Crane, and you will have some idea of what Białoszewski’s book does to—and for—its readers.
Alissa Valles is the author of the poetry books Orphan Fire and Anastylosis and editor and co-translator of Zbigniew Herbert’s Collected Poems and Collected Prose. Our Life Grows: Poems of Ryszard Krynicki is forthcoming from NYRB Poets in 2017.