Chicago Review

Chicago Review. (Summer-Fall 2000): p385.
Ihor Junyk

The unnamed narrator of Antoni Libera's much-lauded novel Madame has a problem. A precocious high-school student in Soviet-controlled Warsaw in the 1960s, he is in love with his glamorous, thirtysomething French teacher. So what is the problem, you ask? What could be more common than a student developing a crush on a teacher? For Libera's narrator that is precisely the problem: it is so commonplace, so cliche, so kitschy (to use the word beloved by Central European writers) that it drives him to distraction. "I've got to do something," he moans when he realizes that he is hopelessly smitten. "If I don't I'll soon be like the rest of them--pathetic, oblivious to all sense of shame, stooping to anything for the slightest scrap of attention." An aspiring writer and a devilishly sophistic analytical thinker, the narrator decides to turn to the "magic power of words," not by composing "woeful ballads" or love letters, but by engaging in a thrilling and dangerous language game. By peppering his communications with Madame with half veiled allusions to her life and past, he can establish a secret and subversive intimacy with this unapproachable woman. And so, in order to gather the material he needs for his linguistic seduction, he sets out on a series of "investigations," intent on uncovering the secrets of her history.

What he discovers takes him into areas beyond his wildest imaginings. Through canny detective work and some uncanny coincidences he learns of Madame's birth abroad, in the decadent West, her father's involvement in the Spanish Civil War, and her Joycean strategy of silence and cunning to survive incarceration in the arid closed world behind the Iron Curtain. Along the way, the narrator develops a relationship with Madame that transcends the trickery of double entendres and language games and Libera paints a vivid portrait of both the romantic (lower- and uppercase r) folly of youth and the stultifying mediocrity and inertia of postwar Poland. He gently satirizes the youthful propensity for myth-making, showing how the narrator, who scorns his own age in comparison to the wartime "age of heroic, almost titanic struggle," becomes, for students who follow, a symbol of heroic struggle himself and a mysterious, alluring figure who rivals Madame. And, not so gently, he criticizes the way totalitarian politics invades family and school and pushes people into compromises that pervert social solidarity and the integrity of everyday life. A number of characters find themselves spying on their neighbours, unconsciously doing the invasive work of the regime they despise.

However, despite his willingness to treat themes both epic and intimate and his long experience as a critic and theatre director (including his collaborative work with Samuel Beckett), Libera's book still reads very much like a first novel with all of its attendant problems. He has a tendency to lapse into generalities and abstraction instead of giving us precise, immediate physicality. Instead of a high school student, his narrator tends to sound like the fifty-year-old Libera transplanted into a teenager's body. Even factoring in the cultural divide between Mitteleuropa and the New World, an eighteen year old who can play jazz, Ray Charles, and Joaquin Rodrigo like a virtuoso, improvises in iambic pentameter, and reference Mann, Proust, and Schopenhauer off the top of his head is too arch by half. And at moments (mirroring the classic case of the book that seeks to render boredom by itself being boring), in its efforts to capture the philosophical musings of a teenager, Madame itself becomes somewhat maudlin and silly.

Nonetheless, despite these flaws the novel displays a truly endearing humour and charm. And in some scenes Libera positively shines. When the narrator attends an exhibition of Picasso drawings the novel's synthesis of precisely observed detail, philosophical and psychological analysis, and erotic reverie is reminiscent of Milan Kundera at his very best. Agnieszka Kolakowska's lucid and unobtrusive translation is admirable. But perhaps more than anything, in an age when self-styled "mooks" consuming ever more wrestling, porn, and Limp Bizkit testify to the coarsening of culture, Madame's decidedly outmoded air of civilization, cultivation, and Romantic melancholy make it hard to resist.