Regal House Publishing
174Pages; Print, $13.30
Some novels seem like memoir in disguise, some memoirs read more like novels. Which type I was encountering in A Warsaw Chronicle, Carol Hebald’s fascinatingly dystopian, cautionary and somewhat Kafkaesque novel, was sometimes hard to keep straight. Indeed, a quote from Kafka: “Always only the desire to die and the not-yet-yielding; this alone is love,” itself a tricky statement, precedes the author’s dedication to the memory of her father.
Right from the beginning, we are given a description of dread:
This morning when I rose, all the clocks had stopped…Never, never was there such darkness…the coldest, gloomiest rain, threatening, full of animosity. I had on a thin white raincoat, I wore no boots.
Karolina—sometimes called Carol—senses that someone is following her and, indeed, it is her prime student, a budding poet; but he is now wearing a military uniform. The student is Marek, whose father, Adam, is a lieutenant in the army. By day’s end, Karolina/Carol has been hauled off to jail and interrogated, replete with a slap in the face, forced sedation, the threat of a beating and sexual abuse. But this is December, three months after she first arrived in Poland. So, is she experiencing a memory, a nightmare, or the imaginings of a fractured mind? The confusion is enhanced by the fragmented nature of the storytelling, which doesn’t help to place much trust in the narrator/protagonist.
Written in the form of a series of chapters, with dated entries over four months during Poland’s period of marital law by the Communist regime in 1981, we are told the story of an American Jewish professor of English who has accepted an exchange position in Warsaw. This gives her an opportunity to find adventure and to overcome the feeling of stagnation in her job, her writing, and life in general. But her real motivation, she confesses, is to try to unlock the mystery surrounding the background of her Polish-born father, who died when she was four, and whom she hardly remembers. Her mother is appalled at the decision (which we learn much later), and so she arrives in a turmoil both personal and political.
At first it seems that the main male character will be the tutor, Pawel, but, no, it’s Marek, the student poet and possibly Carol’s cousin, followed closely by his father, Adam, who might or might not be a Jew turned Nazi youth turned Polish militant. Pawel, in fact, is done away with long before the ending. Other characters come and go according to their usefulness, (not unlike) (as in) Shakespeare.
Lies, deception, fear, and confusion abound, but eventually the pieces come together—more or less—in this dark story of a woman who, in trying to connect with her family heritage, loses her sense of reality. Is she on the verge of going mad or just starved literally and figuratively in an atmosphere of physical and emotional deprivation? One hopes it’s the latter, but the whole world of the book seems distorted as a funhouse gone amok.
The writing, which is sometimes poetically lyrical, is not surprising since the author is a poet and playwright as well as a novelist. My favorite passage, for it’s sense of rhythm and rhyme, is
Ice, ice. The sun is slicing the leaves. I am struck by the sunlight tipping the trees and so much darkness under the limbs.
The book consists of 19 chapters, within which are shorter, dated entries. That format, and the episodic nature, of the storytelling, makes me think that this novel could easily be transformed into a series for television. There certainly is enough danger and mystery in it to warrant viewers coming back for the next episode. The only elements that would be missed, should this idea be taken seriously, would be the very helpful glossary of Polish words (the author provides) at the back of the book.
According to Carol Hebald’s biography, she left a career as a university professor...