World Literature Today

World Literature Today. 74.4 (Autumn 2000): p885.
Jerzy R. Krzyzanowski

IN THE BEST AND WELL-ESTABLISHED tradition of the European bildungsroman, Antoni Libera (b. 1949) wrote his first novel, Madame. Completed in 1983 and published in Poland only in 1998, it has become an instant success: a coveted publisher's prize, excellent reviews, and a number of translations, the volume under review being one of them.

On the surface, the novel tells a simple story of a teenager who becomes first fascinated and then infatuated with his French teacher, referred to only as "Madame." Told in the first person, it relates a three-month period of what was never to become an affair, yet cast its spell on both main characters, the boy and his teacher. Aloof, elusive, and unapproachable, Madame has built a wall of mystery around herself, as if trying to protect her privacy in a country -- Poland in the 1960s -- when everybody and everything was supposed to be the subject of public (and political) scrutiny.

The boy develops all sorts of clever schemes to breach that wall, and to find out about her as much as possible, in hope of ... what? Winning her attention? Her heart? Her body? He doesn't know himself, but intuitively he comes closer and closer to her story until he learns that she is working out a scheme of her own in order to be able to leave Poland, where she has been trapped for years as a victim of her father's political past. Thus, a double game becomes a real charade, full of wit, often bordering on fun and more often on intrigue, all told in a clever, elegant narrative set against a rich social background of Warsaw during those turbulent years.

The translation reads very well indeed. For instance, during a political celebration at school, as a boring speaker is intoning about natural resources in Spain, somebody in the back of the room shouts, "Piryt w dziczy!" -- an untranslatable Polish idiom and a dirty play on words popular with the adolescents. It has been rendered into English as a perfect Spoonerism ("the more obscene the better") as "Copper for stunts." Examples of such linguistic ingenuity demonstrated by the translator could be cited almost endlessly, and the English text is as enjoyable as the original.