SFGate, July 9, 2000
A Masterpiece of Love and Bureaucracy in Soviet Poland
Sheila Farr

 Antoni Libera is a 50-year-old Polish critic, translator and theater director whose first novel, "Madame," has just been published in English. If he never writes another thing, it doesn't matter. His place in world literature is already firmly established with this book: a dazzling piece of invention so mindfully constructed and recklessly inspired it doesn't want reviewing but worship.

"Madame" is about the aspirations and frustrations of a budding artist whose every instinct is at odds with the stagnant culture of 1960s Poland. The narrator is a high school boy -- drunk on music, theater and the power of words -- who flings himself wholeheartedly against the Soviet dogma of his school curriculum. He eats and breathes literature, and sometimes finds himself reliving it in astonishing bursts of creative fervor.

One day, for example, he goes to the office of the Amateur and School Theatrical Events Board (the name reeks of bureaucracy) to register his group in a drama competition. The board's smug secretary, buffing her nails, informs him the deadline for entry was at noon. It's now past noon, and there's no sympathy in her eyes.

As he stalls, trying to think of some way to soften her, a local Shakespearean actor, famous for his Prospero (and judge of the competition in question), strides into the office with his entourage. Seized with inspiration, our narrator begins reciting Ariel's lines in "The Tempest." The flattered actor responds in character, so the narrator improvises -- in iambic pentameter, no less:

"This pageant, Liege, on which your justice will ere long pronounce I would fain enter; but this dread Sycorax. . . . This monstrous hag, who here doth sit and paint Her claws all day, informs me that the deadline Now is past. It passed at noon, she says."

Suffice it to say, his performance gets him around the rules and into the competition. But that triumph fades when our narrator discovers a more formidable challenge. It's Madame, director of the high school and French teacher extraordinaire, known to her awed students as the Ice Queen: "(S)he was like something not quite of this world, a goddess who by some miracle had stepped down to earth from Olympus," the narrator tells us. Misted in Chanel No. 5 and wearing Parisian silk, Madame stands worlds apart from the other frumpy teachers and administrators who timidly toe the party line.

Outside of school, Madame is at home in the mysterious world of the Centre de Civilisation Francaise, where foreign art and movies are shown. To our narrator, surrounded by dull bureaucrats, Madame represents the Mont Blanc of culture, intellect and accomplishment -- and besides, she's gorgeous. He falls hopelessly in love.

When our narrator realizes he's smitten, he decides to pursue Madame with every ounce of his formidable ingenuity. It will be a seduction of the mind, he decides, with words as his romantic weapons. He will play a chess game of desire to capture this formidable Queen, evoking, in his ruthless passion, all the great loves of literature from Aeschylus to Shakespeare, Dante to Proust.

Our narrator admits to us that he has been "corrupted by literature" and is given to bouts of "mythomania." Any reader similarly afflicted will no doubt succumb to his allusions long before Madame begins to show the first telltale signs of reciprocal affection.

While we are being charmed by "Madame," we, like our narrator, are also being instructed, not just in literature but also in history. The book is a primer on the way life worked behind the Iron Curtain. Censorship, hidden rules, pettiness, the truth disregarded for the glory of the regime, intellectual pursuits systematically thwarted. "A pathetic round of daily rituals in a wretched conquered province," Libera writes. "A world where you relied on 'drops' and parcels of frumpy castoffs from the West and listened to Radio Free Europe."

In this wasteland, Madame embodies not only beauty but also truth. She becomes the mistress of our narrator's imagination and, in a very real sense, his muse. What she bestows on him with her favor is the secret and universal weapon against tyranny: art.

"Madame" has everything: poetry, politics and love. The story is full of exuberant digressions and heroic asides by which our narrator subverts all the clumsy efforts of the Communist dolts who try to make him conform. Sometimes his oppressors are laughable in their stupidity, sometimes truly demonic.

Therein lies the delicious irony of Libera's story. The more repressive a regime is, the more creative will be the efforts to undermine it. "Madame" is a metaphor for that struggle, and, in creating it, Libera has scored a beautiful victory for the better half of human nature.