Lesley Chamberlain

Warsaw Diary

 

Poland, torn apart by history, is a land of ghosts and symbols. Some are obvious, like the eighteenth-century shoemaker who led a riot in Warsaw against the Russian occupier, and whose monument in the old part of the city receives daily tributes of flowers. Some are tucked away, as in the dingy National Museum where one day somebody put flowers in a milk bottle under an astonishing lifesize crucifix.

Symbols signify the life of Poland: the quest for national autonomy and the pervading love and respect of Poles for the Church. Not surprisingly these two paramount concerns are fused in the symbol of Solidarity, an S superimposed on an anchor, the Catholic symbol of hope. The symbol of the Polish underground in wartime was the same anchor, overwritten with a P: free Poland. The Solidarity sign is still visible on one or two Warsaw walls, despite the labour movement’s demise.

Communist officialdom doesn’t need to object to these symbols, bringing together the complex strands of Church and nationality which define Poland. Symbols don’t militate for change; they may speak more directly than words but they don’t carry over distance; they are a conservative and a passive way of remembering, and even sometimes a kind of weakness.

In the two years since martial law Solidarity’s leader, Lech Walesa, has been transformed from quasi-official opposition leader into a symbol: of noble rebellion crushed by force, or by a shift in the law. It is a curious process, this creation of symbols out of living men, like forced history-making. The Polish authorities declared Walesa a spent force politically, but the process which brought him political near-death appears to have had its own momentum. The West helped it along by giving Walesa the Nobel Peace Prize last year. Now he has a place in Polish and European history. What consolation for no longer being in a position to press for reform in Poland! I suppose consolation was the point, but we took the last inch of sting out of his political tail and made him a cultural exhibit. The process itself, something ineffably Polish, drove rum to make of his own medal a symbol, which he placed in the holy shrine of Jasna Gora, home of the Black Madonna.

Walesa, being rather like the shoemaker, may expect to go on receiving tributes for his efforts in a good cause, and perhaps eventually a monument: he is already building one himself.

In Warsaw I hoped to find a blossoming musical life. After all, Stanislaw Moniuszko, the nineteenth-century composer who begat Polish opera, was on at the Teatr Wielki sounding with lots of coloratura like Offenbach and Rossini rolled into one. In a colourful production of Hrabina, set in the baroque Polish court a young soldier living in a world of graceful gallicisms is told by his father-in-law-to-be how to be a good Pole: to speak and read Polish. There is sustained applause and by the end of the performance the stage is awash with flowers. Moniusko turns out to be a national hero, and I turn out to be at the birthday party of a stranger when, as the curtain goes down, the Minister of Culture presents a medal to the soprano for thirty-five years’ service to Polish opera. Age barely allowed her to get through the extravagant last act. Never mind. Polish television was on hand to record the whole occasion. The evening left the impression of an isolated culture.

When did the isolation begin? In the National Museum in Warsaw an undated court jester by Jan Matejko, a Polish Courbet, broods offstage on the coming decline of Poland, in hand by the mid-eighteenth century. He is in red but the canvas is suitably gloomy. Incidentally where there is no money for food there is certainly none for restoring pictures. The national collection is small, neglected, and still suffering from the diminishing effects of wartime plunder.

Przeprasham: By which time I have already tripped over someone in the crush to get on the bus, out of the appalling cold. The language is a stream of nasals and sibilants, and a curse. Outside the big hotels nothing is translated. I get my theatre tickets by speaking Russian and then German. I speak to a woman in the bus queue in English who calls the other language Russich and then delivers a homily in Polish on Stalin, metaphorically wringing the neck of a chicken. She adds something about her children learning good Russian and not so good English at school. Stalin made her learn too much Russian and not enough English. We have this conversation because we cannot communicate. Later a rare woman, using a mixture of German and English, tells me which churches to visit. All were destroyed in the war, except one. She, meanwhile, is on her way to the Bahnhof. ‘Dzienkuje bardzo.’ It takes me a week to have my thanks understood. But there is a real problem with isolation from the European cultural world which adds to the pressure to try. You can’t muddle through. Imagine how it would be if everyone in Wales spoke only Welsh.

I did a lot of walking. Parks criss-cross Warsaw, making it seem rural in many places, and unusually quiet for a city. A gladiator in the park near the modern white building of the Sejm is remarkably graceful in his triumph, resting one foot on a slain head; the Sejm itself, with its central dome and bas reliefs, is not an ugly building. It is low-rise, and architecturally complex, which makes a good contrast with the Stalinesque Palace of Culture across the city. Near the university a rough-hewn statue of the writer Boleslaw Prus looks like Lenin; it is tilted forward and seems to be making progress. Prince Josef Poniatowski, a national military leader and quondam Marshal of Napoleon, is grateful and magisterial, mounted halfway along the finest street, Krakowskie Przedmescie. A difficult destination to ask for in the taxi. Guests in the closed and decaying Hotel Bristol dated 1899, once owned by musician and prime minister Ignacy Paderewski, could have looked out on Poniatowski in the early morning and breathed in the fresh air of the Polish cause. Along the road four Herculean caryatids hold up the University Library. The faculty buildings are elegant in the centre of town, and the sight of chandeliers in the lecture rooms during daytime adds a spurious romance. Just behind, there are slum tenements with garishly painted balconies. I walk on down past the Chopin Academy terrace, where of course I can hear someone playing the piano.

The Chopin Academy is a grimy Baroque villa on an escarpment, looking towards the Vistula and the belching chimneys of the industrial quarter. It is early December and the sixteenth all-Polish Chopin Competition is underway to find the country’s best young pianists, a delightful, schooly occasion made real by the gossip in the intervals and the sight of a few tense, pale young men in their best dark suits and white shirts trying to walk everywhere on tiptoe. The judges hear with infinite patience fifty renderings of Chopin followed by Liszt or Schumann. I listened to an impulsive, impatient version of Carnival.

Inside the three-storey villa everything is yellow and gold and white, with one room permanently devoted to Chopin memorabilia. Warsaw is full of Chopin. You can even visit a reconstruction of his parents’ living room. I have the time and Poland has the will. But I feel we are both clutching here at cultural straws.

A second evening at the opera at the Teatr Wielki, and I am sorry they do not take Philip II of Spain as seriously as Verdi did. The Marquis of Posa sings his role in Polish, while Carlos uses his native Italian. The well-designed modern theatre is packed but the audience is full of chatter. While Eboli and the Queen sing impressively in Italian of jealousy and renunciation, Philip remains a cardboard unfeeling papa, even after his sleepless night of misery. The monks sing of terror in Polish. Perhaps now is not the time to sympathise with the human dilemmas of dictators. The production lacks power, and analysis.

Power makes me think of Russian music and literature which are obsessed with it on a massive scale. Poland is ‘wet’ compared to the hard line of Russian culture. The Warsaw Pact has not brought the slogans of communism to its birthplace, so that Warsaw does not seem as strained as the Soviet capital. In daily business there is not the secrecy and obstructiveness travellers experience further East, and people in the street do not stare, or glare as they do in Moscow. They are not rude. The West is not so alien, nor so grotesquely cherished that people have to walk around in odd items of begged, borrowed or stolen foreign clothing.

I am not taking sides. I have that odd affection for Moscow which seizes Westerners who live there long enough to find a satisfactory way of life. But Poland by comparison is unaggressive and unassertive. You can ignore it if you want to, and if you don’t, then as a West European you will probably find daily Polish culture more congenial, less prudish, less trivial, more stylish. One thing in Poland’s favour is physical elegance against Russian lumpiness. Poland’s isolation from Western Europe does not seem natural.

The meat queues, the household goods queues and the butter rationing have been well publicised. They are all true. They make life difficult, and they make some people greedier and more rapacious than they might be. Westerners have a special shop for meat, and they import goods from Scandinavia. Wine and spirits are available for dollars. I can’t judge, or complain. When I did shop locally there were always surprises; one day plenty of mushrooms, another day a lot of endives at our ordinary corner shop, as well as the usual tomatoes and parsley; cheeses to compete with Brie and Boursin; strudels and cheesecakes; jam that came with stalks and skin and tasted homemade; yoghurt, sour cream, and buttermilk; good cheap mineral water. The problem is not being able to predict what will run out when. The bread is close-grained, mid-brown, heavy and slightly sour, the sort of loaf that makes you long for a baguette once in a while, but terribly nourishing and healthy.

There was no strawberry soup, but we enjoyed smoked eel and roast wild boar and wild duck in a sweet sauce. The whole meal at a good restaurant on the picture-postcard Old Town market square was oppressively sweet. The only wine available was white and Romanian. Most people were drinking coke. The service was almost invisible and there was no music. The waitresses wore long skirts with tightly-waisted jackets. You won’t find a restaurant like this, with soft lights and carpets and an easy atmosphere, in Moscow; not even for dollars.

More and more I think what flourishes in Poland has symbolic value. The Chopin Academy houses diligence, excellence, and hope through music. The Palace of Culture, a Soviet present, easily the city’s tallest building, upholds official Marxist-Leninist values for those who care for them. 

Fukier’s wine cellar, in the Old Town, exemplifies another kind of good life, to which Poles hang on. It is a pity they cannot hang the Matejko jester inside the tavern, which has been serving wine since the 1540s, a grand era for Polish sovereignty and international prestige. The Fukiers were German, with connections in Europe, and money enough to finance a loan to the government of the day. It is remarkable that even in today’s straitened circumstances, unlike other bars and restaurants, Fukier’s had plenty of wine, albeit Bulgarian. We pay in zlotykh which means pieces of gold and are served by more waitresses in long skirts, short jackets and clogs. We drink from large tumblers, Italian cafe style.

The cellar is a tourist attraction without tourists, and we don’t have to pay in dollars. If Fukier’s is a window on Poland it is not for us, but for Poles, to remind themselves of their past. It would be pleasing to think that supplying it with wine, an official decision somewhere, against the tide of economic pressure, is a way of keeping that wealthy, international, western-oriented past alive, at least symbolically, because that is surely the Poland Poles would, given their freedom, try to make real again.

In the meantime, against the background of superpower wrangles, they ask for Western financing and trade in the name of the Polish people. It sounds like rhetoric, but points to an obvious predicament: a culture that lives mainly in the past and in the ideally projected future, with no present productive reality; a culture which under pressure from an alien political system threatens to become only history.

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter