The New York Times Book Review

The New York Times Book Review. (Aug. 6, 2000): L, Arts and Entertainment: p17.
David Walton

Antoni Libera's ''Madame,'' set in Soviet-controlled Warsaw in the 1960's, demonstrates the power of the coming-of-age novel to renew itself with each generation. Like Stendhal's Julien Sorel, Libera's unnamed narrator scorns his own miserable era and longs for the wartime ''age of heroic, almost titanic struggle when the fate of the world hung in the balance.'' This young man's pleasures are his small triumphs over a school system that represents his airless society -- a play he puts together, for example, is banned by the deputy headmaster yet wins a citywide competition. Libera's hero meets his greatest challenge, however, when he sets out to investigate the life of Madame la Directrice, his school's icily reserved headmistress and French teacher, the object of all the boys' ripening erotic fantasies. Vowing to ''exploit the magic power of words,'' the narrator, like many romantic heroes before him, follows his idealized love not to earthly consummation but into the wider realms of the mind and spirit, and eventually to an understanding of what he must do -- and not do -- to keep himself ''somehow beyond the influence of the drab, dismal, perverse reality'' of a closed society. Although this adept translation by Agnieszka Kolakowska can't prevent the novel from being somewhat windy and overlong, Libera's portrayal of a gifted mind learning courage and honor in the most deprived of circumstances is inherently powerful and dramatic.