Insights on the News

Insight on the News. 16.32 (August 28, 2000): p25.
Charles A. Cerami

Marxism stole years from Poland's youth, but some young people trumped the system -- or so author Antoni Libera suggests in a delightful novel, Madame, set in Warsaw during the Cold War.

Born in 1949, Antoni Libera is a leading theater director and literary critic in Poland. His book, Madame (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26,435 pp), looks back at his teen-age years, when the Communists controlled his country.

Madame is a readable and often rollicking tale of youthful ingenuity against the shackles of harsh discipline, although the author manages to imbue the pages with the glacial chill of life in a communist society. Some of the stratagems Libera and his classmates used to skirt the rules may be exaggerations -- the author calls the book "a novel" -- but there's no question that the restrictions and failures the Poles lived with were real. The dreary sense that an evil foreign ideology was robbing a freedom-loving people of decades of life is palpable.

The novel's title refers to a beautiful young high-school French teacher who commands the attention of boys and girls alike. The boys have a sexy dream of somehow winning her favor; the girls dream just as hard of emulating her

hairstyle, subtle eye shadow and superior bearing. Beyond that superficial attraction, however, is the harsh reality that her grace contrasts sublimely with the ugliness of everything in communist Poland.

As Libera tells it, these kids knew far more than we ever imagined about the outside world of democracy and freedom. Much of it was learned because their own parents, even when dutifully marching in step with the system, were devoted to clandestine radio broadcasts from the West. And all the while, two foreign countries seemed more magical to them than any other.

France was one, and Madame's obvious ties to its fashions, street scenes and avant-garde tastes brought Paris almost near enough to touch. The United States was the other. Libera and his friends loved to imagine noisy, smoke-filled New York cafes. America's brash modern music, of course, was their way of summoning up the American spirit, which Libera, a pianist, attempts to re-create with a jazz quartet.

These young Poles had equal disdain for soddy Communist-made products and the petty corruption plaguing the Marxist system. But Libera grows disillusioned, too, with Madame, whose compromised past belies her glamorous presence.

Libera himself would experience a serious crisis as an adult in the 1970s. After being denounced as fascist, he was silenced by a total ban on the publication of his work. Worse, the action against Solidarity in late 1981 and the return of martial law to Poland forced him to flee Warsaw to Gdansk. There, in a little attic hideaway, he began to write Madame, fortunately aided by old diaries that had escaped the secret-police searches.

That a man in hiding could portray the exuberant mind of a lively 16-year-old so vividly helps to explain why the red disease left no chronic infection among the freedom-loving Poles.