A Polish Notebook – on the eve of martial law

David Lodge

The LOT plane is late leaving Heathrow because of baggage-loading problems. ‘You will understand,’ says the ground hostess, apologising for the delay, ‘that we are carrying a great deal of baggage to Poland these days.’ The passengers waiting at Gate 11 smile wryly at each other. Their hand luggage is bursting with goods difficult or impossible to obtain in Poland these days. The British Council has thoughtfully supplied us (British scholars bound for a conference on English literature organised by the University of Warsaw) with a list: soap, shampoo, washing powder, chocolate, sweets, batteries, notepaper, toilet paper, coffee, sugar … Most of us will spend the next few days trying to find ways of slipping these goodies to our Polish hosts without giving offence.

At Warsaw airport we are met by members of the English Institute of the University, and the English Language Officer of the British Council. First impressions are of a country that seems surprisingly, almost disappointingly normal. Traffic on the road from the airport to the city is heavy. What looks like a line of parked cars at the kerbside, however, turns out to be a mile-long queue for petrol. Many of the cars are unoccupied: their owners leave them, sometimes overnight, to reserve a place in the queue. Queues and shortages are the main features of the current Polish scene to be reported in the West, and we stare out of the windows of the British Council minibus with almost ghoulish eagerness to have our expectations confirmed. There are indeed queues to be seen in downtown Warsaw, but one’s apocalyptic visions of an entire nation standing perpetually in line for the necessities of life prove to be exaggerated. This is not to underestimate the gravity of the crisis, but, so far at least, it seems to amount to acute inconvenience rather than real suffering. When you ask people to describe their present mood, the mood of the nation, the most common answer is ‘We are very tired.’

After registering at the University, we are taken by bus and car to Jablonna, a small palace built, in Neoclassical style, on the outskirts of Warsaw in the late 18th century. Like almost every building of consequence in the city, it was destroyed in World War Two, and carefully restored. It is now a conference centre belonging to the Polish Academy of Sciences, and is to be our home for the next three days. We are immediately apprised of the austerities of Polish life, though for reasons not directly related to the crisis: the previous day a freak storm brought down some power lines in the district, and although the palace is dimly lit from its own generators, there is no water since water is pumped electrically. We make up for the lack of hot baths at the end of our journey with nips of duty-free liquor and rueful jokes. ‘I have plenty of soap, but the British Council didn’t tell us to bring water,’ I remark to a lady from Poznan. ‘Ah, Poland will always surprise you,’ she replies with a smile. ‘By the way,’ I say, ‘would you like some soap?’ The moment seems opportune, though the offer, when I hear myself saying it, lacks finesse. She accepts with charming good humour. ‘I promise you it will be the last bar of soap I shall use.’

At dinner in the handsome banqueting room, with its murals, mirrors and dimly-glowing chandeliers, there are speeches of welcome. The Rector of the University congratulates the British visitors on their ‘courage’ in making the journey to Poland at the present time. I can’t honestly say I feel I deserve this accolade, nor, I think, do my colleagues: perhaps, it occurs to me, we should be more nervous than we are. Perhaps we are suffering from the blithe foolhardiness of those who have never experienced foreign occupation or seen unarmed demonstrators shot on the streets. The history of Poland over the past two centuries must be one of the most tragic among European nation states: a long succession of defeats, occupations, betrayals, and brave but futile or mistimed uprisings. This bitter historical heritage underlies everything the Poles say and do today. It explains the intensity of their patriotism, their courage and their exhilaration at the success of Solidarity: it also explains a degree of self-obsession, a streak of fatalism, which seems stranger and more disturbing ‘under Western eyes’ – to turn Conrad’s phrase upon his native country.

Outside the formal sessions of the conference, in which we discuss somewhat haphazardly the ‘Quest for Identity’ in 19th and 20th-century literature, the Poles talk of little except the crisis. We pump them with questions which they are only too glad to answer and debate among themselves; they seldom ask us questions in return, except: ‘What do they think of the Polish situation in England?’ Some days later, at a party in Lodz, I asked the company what they thought about the question of Northern Ireland (the only part of the British Isles, it seemed to me, where life was remotely comparable to life in Poland) and received rather vague and underinformed answers. Obviously they had not given much thought to the matter. Likewise, the recent wave of anti-nuclear demonstrations in Western Europe touches no chord of response in the breasts of Poles. This is partly because they feel that whatever force in the world inhibits Soviet imperialism must be good for Poland; and partly because their recent history has been so terrible that the prospects of nuclear war hardly hold any terror for the Poles. This latter sentiment, though understandable, is of course quite irrational, and rather alarming, since it implies a readiness to plunge the whole world into a nuclear holocaust for the sake of Poland. The first of these considerations, however, is much more logical. When you reflect upon the matter in a Polish context it seems glaringly obvious that for the West unilaterally to renounce the possession of nuclear weapons would entail at best abandoning the peoples of Eastern Europe to indefinite servitude, and at worst inviting the same servitude for ourselves. It can be argued that this would still be preferable to the risk of nuclear war, or to the moral iniquity of threatening to use nuclear weapons: but one can’t help wondering whether those who adopt this position have really imagined the price they are theoretically prepared to pay, or would maintain the position for very long if they lived in an Eastern European country.

This is my own first visit to Eastern Europe, apart from an afternoon in East Berlin, and although Poland, I am told, has been in the last decade the most liberal of all the Warsaw Pact states, and at present enjoys unprecedented freedom of speech and action, it is still something of a shock to realise, not merely abstractly, but as it were on one’s pulses, that virtually the whole of the Polish nation stands in relation to its rulers rather (to compare great things with little) as do the private soldiers in a conscript army to their regular officers, or the pupils at some repressive and corrupt boarding school to their masters. The Poles, quite simply, did not choose the political system under which they live, and given the chance would repudiate it in favour of some kind of social democratic state with a mixed economy. This, in spite of decades of Party propaganda to the contrary. The Poles have seen the Communist future and as far as they are concerned it does not work. For the Westerner, in consequence, Poland is a looking-glass world in which many of the ‘progressive’ and ‘conservative’ positions in our own ideological discourse – on the economy, on disarmament, on religion, on Vietnam, even on the Boy Scouts – are queerly inverted.

After the conference disperses, I go into Warsaw to keep a lunch appointment with two people at the Catholic publishing-house Pax, which published my first novel, The Picturegoers, many years ago. They have been considering my last novel but gently intimate that they have decided against it, a decision which does not surprise me. A Polish lady at the conference who had been reading it warned me that, much as she was enjoying it, it would be impossible to publish anything in Poland, at the present time, which adopted a critical or satirical stance towards Catholicism. The Church has been the main focus of spiritual and ideological resistance to Soviet Communism in Poland in the post-war years, and has played a crucial role, at once steadying and inspiring, in the events of the last year and a half. Who can forget those press and TV pictures of the striking workers in the Gdansk shipyards hearing Mass in their thousands, and even going to confession in public? In such an atmosphere, it would clearly be unthinkable to criticise the Church, or to expose its internal tensions and contradictions, even in the modes of comedy and irony.

For of course there are tensions and contradictions. I am reliably informed, for instance, that practising Polish Catholics resort to abortion as a means of birth control on a large scale. The state, though officially in favour of contraception, does not ensure the availability of contraceptives – the pill is particularly difficult to obtain – but does provide abortion on demand. It is possible that this state of affairs has been deliberately contrived to weaken religious allegiance. If so, it has not been very successful: but the fact remains that many Polish women, especially the unmarried (since the one-parent family is not a viable social option in Poland), see no alternative to committing what their Church teaches is a very grave sin. Thus, whereas British Catholics active in the anti-abortion campaign see themselves as trying to persuade secular society to renounce abortion, in Poland it is a moral issue for Catholics themselves. In this perspective the present Pope’s teaching on sex and marriage, which to liberal Catholic opinion in the West sometimes seems not merely conservative but decidedly eccentric, becomes much more explicable, if no more universally relevant.

My publishers hand over to me some zlotys, royalties on The Picturegoers (Kinomani) which have been blocked here since its publication in 1966. They are now worth about £280 at the official rate of exchange, a tenth of that at the ‘real’ (i.e. black-market) rate. The pursuit of hard currency in Warsaw seems to have reached panic intensity. There is a joke in circulation giving three reasons why Poland and the United States are one and the same country: 1. In America you can criticise President Reagan, and in Poland you can criticise President Reagan. 2. In America you can buy anything for dollars and in Poland you can buy anything for dollars. 3. In America you can buy nothing for zlotys and in Poland you can buy nothing for zlotys.

On Sunday I attend Mass at the academic church just outside the perimeter of the Old Town, a baroque building full of saints and angels in billowing gold leaf – all restored, presumably, since there was a battle in the church during the war, between Poles and Germans. The congregation, filling the church to overflowing, is predominantly young, sober, attentive and earnest. Unfortunately the sermon, and the bidding prayers, both entirely unintelligible to me, are so extended that I am obliged to leave before the Mass is over in order to meet the British Council driver who is to take me to Lodz, where I am to lecture as guest of the university. Unlike most Polish cities, Lodz was scarcely damaged in World War Two, though it has its dark wartime history: 30 per cent of the pre-war population was Jewish, and very few of them survived. The wealthiest Jewish family bought themselves a safe passage to Switzerland: their palatial town residence now accommodates the municipal museum. Their less fortunate brethren were herded together in the ghetto with Jews brought in from outlying districts, en route to Auschwitz and other extermination camps. It seems incredible that anti-semitism could survive in a country in which the camps are preserved as monuments, yet there was an ugly outbreak of it in the late Sixties, and even now, I am told, some who disapprove of Solidarity are apt to suggest that there is too strong a Jewish element in its leadership. Would a Polish Faulkner make anti-semitism the nation’s Second Fall, like slavery in the Southern States?

I am booked into the Hotel Swiatowit, an imposing modern building at first sight, though on closer acquaintance somewhat shoddy in detail. It is certainly a less interesting place than the pre-war Europejski in Warsaw, with its shabby splendours of mirror and marble, hard-currency whores discreetly plying their trade amid the potted palms. But in Lodz I am invited into Polish homes for the first time, and able to get a little closer to the realities of Polish life. My escort and guide, E., a young teaching assistant working toward her PhD in phonology, takes me, as soon as I arrive, to have a late lunch with Dr M., a single, middle-aged lady who is a lecturer in the Department of English. She lives in a tiny apartment, in a rather neglected-looking block, such as an old-age pensioner with no independent means might occupy in Britain. She serves a pleasant meal of mushroom soup, breaded veal cutlets, cake and tea, which I consume gratefully though guiltily, thinking of the queueing and coupons it must have cost.

Dr M. is a fervent Catholic and patriot – to her the two things go together, and she seems slightly disconcerted to learn that I am a Catholic too, almost as if she thought Catholicism were the special property of the Poles. The pontificate of Pope John Paul II has rather encouraged this proprietorial attitude. It is certainly impossible to exaggerate the contribution of the Pope, and especially of his triumphal return to Poland after his election, to the resurgence of national spirit and the success of Solidarity. It is, for the same reason, impossible to criticise the Pope in Poland, or even to suggest that he is a conservative in theological and pastoral matters. Dr M. remarks that Hans Küng’s description of the Polish Church as authoritarian was ‘insulting’. She speaks slowly, precisely, formally. Our talk is polite but serious, with none of the jokes, evasions and polite qualifications that would characterise such a conversation between strangers in England. We discuss the crisis, the films of Wajda, Polish history, Catholicism, the Pope. I introduce the subject of nuclear disarmament. ‘Of course,’ she says, ‘unilateral disarmament means death.’ She smiles the sort of smile with which one tries to take the offence from stating a childishly obvious truth. She concedes the difficulty of reconciling the use of nuclear weapons with Christian principles, but this is obviously a vaguer, more problematic issue to her than the other side of the equation. A young woman at the end of World War Two, she seems to look back upon the Stalinist period that immediately followed with even greater horror than the German occupation, perhaps because it was a time of trahison des clercs, when the universities, especially in the humanities, were deeply compromised by ideological indoctrination. Even E., who grew up in the period of the Thaw, can remember the humiliation of having to parrot the party line when addressing a group of girl scouts under the surveillance of a party officer. There must be few adult educated Poles who do not have the memory of some such episode in the past – hence the exhilaration with which they now observe the authority and membership of the Party crumbling away.

E. is a composed, friendly but unflirtatious girl who spent two years at Atlantic College in Wales in her late teens, an experience which helped her achieve her perfect command of English, but also in a way permanently unfitted her for the life she can expect in Poland. She finds Lodz a boring city, and would like to be more independent, but there are insuperable obstacles, both social and economic, to her moving away, or even out of the parental home. This, of course, mainly because she is a girl. Poland is deeply traditionalist in its attitudes to women and their social roles. Although most women work and many achieve high standing in certain professions (e.g. the teaching of English literature in universities), they are expected to fulfil the traditional duties of the wife and mother at the same time. There are few women among the leaders of Solidarity.

I return to Warsaw in an overheated train, and check into the Europejski for one night – my last. Two experiences in the course of the evening epitomise the two moods of contemporary Poland – one buoyant and hopeful, the other anxious and pessimistic. The chambermaid who brings mineral water to my room is a thin, frail-looking middle-aged woman, with a gentle, lined face. She speaks a little English, and quickly establishes that I am from England, a university professor, about to return home. ‘What do you think of Poland?’ she asks. ‘Very nice,’ I reply politely; then, as her face creases with incredulity, I add: ‘Nice people.’ ‘Nice people,’ she agrees wryly. ‘But things are terrible here. We have nothing. Nothing.’ She looks at me more with curiosity than with envy, as if trying to imagine what it must be like to be a prosperous Englishman, about to return to a land of plenty. ‘You would not change a pound, half a pound?’ she asks tentatively – then anticipates my reply: ‘No, you do not need, tomorrow you go to England.’ I give her my last bar of soap, for which she thanks me effusively: it is one person’s ration for two months. ‘You are very lucky,’ she says, ‘to be English.’ I don’t feel inclined to disagree.

It is 11 November, Polish Independence Day, since the modern state came into being after the Great War. The date has been only perfunctorily honoured by the Communist regime, which prefers to stress the ‘liberation’ of 1945. But this evening Solidarity has organised – perhaps ‘improvised’ would be the more accurate term – a huge procession from the Cathedral of St John in the Old Town to the tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which faces the Europejski across a vast, barren square. Just after seven, X., a young lecturer at Warsaw University, calls at the hotel with a package for me to mail in England, and we go out into the streets to observe the demonstration, for that is what it is. Large crowds, summoned mainly by word of mouth, have turned out on this frosty evening to line the pavements and applaud the marchers – unions, Boy Scouts, and many other groups, some of them illegal, like the movement for an Independent Poland. One banner says simply: ‘Katyn 1940’, a reference to the massacre of Polish officers which, according to the official account, was carried out in 1941 by the Germans, but which most Poles believe was perpetrated by the Russians a year earlier. The marchers sing songs from the First World War which have not been heard in public for many years. X. and I go back to my hotel room, which overlooks the square and the floodlit tomb of the Unknown Soldier. X. telephones his wife and, standing at the open window, through which the amplified speeches carry to us, describes the scene to her, like a war correspondent. ‘She says there is nothing about it on the radio,’ he says to me. His eyes are bright with excitement. ‘If you had told me a year ago that such a demonstration could take place in the streets of Warsaw I would not have believed you.’ Since X. is younger, and stronger, than the chambermaid, one may hope that he, rather than she, represents Poland’s future.