Marcin Kube: 'An Imperfect Time' takes us to 1906. We read about a pogrom carried out by the Russians on Polish land. What ends, and what is that begins, with the death of Baruch Brok?
Bronisław Wildstein: It's the end of the enchanted old world and its mythical order. I think that literature that's seriously treated takes place in two times – linear, which can be identified historically, and in the eternal now, that is, in the reality that keeps repeating itself. This pogrom in the village of Polesie was a historical event, it took place shortly after the revolution in Russia, when a black sotnia organised these sorts of actions. Baruch's children who survive – the three Brok brothers – come out injured by the experience, it's imprinted on their relationship with the world. This injury is inherited by their descendants. The experience of the original crime and the innocent victim will last for generations.
MK: We then follow the fates of the Brok family throughout the whole of the 20th century.
BW: That's when Europe's system of civilisation broke down. It wasn't just the Bolshevik revolution, but also the developing philosophical threads which translated into political solutions and the increasing force of psychoanalysis, and the general intellectual mood of the era, our era, which rejects the Western civilisational order.
MK: You describe the different paths of people who want to rebuild the world anew.
BW: Of people who recognise that the traditional order has disintegrated and that they're in a position to build a new and different one. The Bolsheviks repeated that you have to reject the old world because its a source of oppression and depravity. Freud was in turn from the field of scientific thought, the representatives of which wanted to translate all cognitive forms into the language of science. They believed that to heal human reality, they would reduce it to strict algorithms, an act which inevitably leads to the depersonalisation of people.
MK: And you tell this story about the breakdown of the European order from a Polish perspective.
BW: From our point of view, the 20th century has enormous potential for an epic. Poland, positioned between the East and the West, went through everything we're talking about in the form of two totalitarian regimes. That's why it was all just begging to be written about in literary form.
MK: You also appear as a character in your book. You lead a demonstration in Kraków in 1977 after the murder of Stanisław Pyjas. The narrator says calls you 'hairy'.
BW: I don't lead them, but I do take part. But yes, the hero of the story describes me with barely a handful of words. That was a fun experience, putting oneself into a book and breaking the fourth wall.
MK: Does this all imply that 'An Imperfect Time' is a roman-à-clef?
BW: A roman-à-clef is understood as a specific and second-rate genre. An author using the form wants to depict events and participants that they have connections to, but they're either scared or there's some other reason they don't write about it directly, merely giving pseudonyms to real people and show events they participated in in a veiled manner. They do it in a clear enough way so that everybody knows who and what they're really talking about. These sorts of books have kept appearing in Poland over the last quarter century. Most weren't good, but then their authors didn't really have literary ambitions. They wrote them to expose certain things, knowing that if they wrote about them directly they could end up in court. But I'm not interested in all that. I treat literature much more seriously.
MK: So how come so many characters in 'An Imperfect Time' remind us of real figures?
BW: Because I live in a particular time and place, and by writing about real things they take on universal properties. I'm not afraid of any consequences that come from my words. After 1989, I had many trials because of this. But I don't have to write a novel to show the pathologies of our reality. That's what reportage and journalism are for. Literature, however, should be about a deeper insight into the world. That doesn't mean I don't deal with people and environments that I know and interest me, hence why I've more than once judged them in my journalistic writing. The only difference is that when I try to show a person in a novel, I try to understand them in a fully multidimensional way, but it will always be some sort of interpretation. And that interpretation doesn't have to be completely true compared to the prototype I came across in reality. When describing the psychological processes happening within them, I can only guess, so assigning a real name to these characters would be dishonest. A real writer always also experiments with the data he has experienced. He places specific people in specific conditions that they didn't really go through in order to think about how they would have behaved, gives them tests they were spared from in their lives. Trying to capture certain types of people, he combines different characters. And so on.
MK: But people generally seem to interpret your book as a roman-à-clef, not just your journalistic opponents.
BW: My ideological opponents are trying to reduce me to a journalist, recognising that treating me as an author would be too ennobling. This is typical of the ideologically-oriented environments dominating contemporary culture that wave banners of tolerance and openness, but do everything to avoid honest dialogue with their opponents and instead generally disgrace them in any way they can. At the same time, many people who share my political interpretations also read my books in a similar way. They do not deal with literature much, so if they do reach for it, it's only to find some simple confirmation of their views. I try to be objective about that, but it's sad.
MK: The character of Bruno Klein seems rather reminiscent of sociologist Zygmunt Bauman.
BW: Klein represents a group which has certain experiences and attitudes, and this group includes Bauman. This is the next phase of communist poisoning. In the novel I present its subsequent stages. The first is the Bolshevik revolution. One participant is the oldest of the Brok brothers, Jakub, who is a Chekist and has committed terrible crimes.
MK: You describe these crimes through his diary from the Russian civil war.
BW: Yes, I wanted to show them directly, from the perspective of a good man who becomes a monster. Jacob is an ethical maximalist, which paradoxically leads him to commit the worst crimes of the first phase of the revolution. However, others came after him. And when communism was installed in Poland after World War II, people like Zygmunt Bauman appeared, who is personified to some extent in Bruno Klein. He represents a type of thinking that was characteristic of people who were communist agitators and who were to bring a new communist order to Poland through the barrel of a gun. They were to teach Poles dialectical thinking with the Soviet butt of a gun, so that they could cite Tadeusz Kronski. And when it turned out that reality radically failed to meet their expectations, they were equally radically disappointed in the system.
MK: And what was the effect of all this?
BW: They concluded that communism was bad because it had become a quasi-religion. From a wonderful emancipatory project, it had became a closed doctrine and their mistake was to rely on it. They didn't think about their experience at all, and to some extent, they kept to their basic, emancipatory illusions. The answer to the disappointment in communism of people like Bauman was still the rejection of the whole of Western civilization because they'd put modernism under its banner too.
MK: Bauman admitted that the experience of modernism cannot be separated from the extremes of the 20th century, namly the crimes of totalitarianism.
BW: Yes, the answer was supposed to be free of presumptions – the twilight for great narratives, as Lyotard said. Liberalism questioning any mental order in the name of the individual power of man.
MK: In your novel, this sort of thinking dominates the people around the communist weekly Republika. And they are partly taken over by Benedykt Brok, who also works in this editorial office.
BW: They are Klein's ideological children. They interpret disappointment with communism by deciding they need to keep their distance from any and all powerful identities, especially the national community. I write about it in An Imperfect Time because it was this kind of thinking that won in the Third Polish Republic [the formal name for Poland from 1989 onwards]. Left-wing liberalism attacking identity, claiming that all normative order ends in the gas chamber... An individual is left trying to arrange themselves in the world on a contract basis. For them, freedom means freedom from any bonds, obligations or loyalty.
MK: Although you're talking about this way of critical thinking, in the novel you do show a whole spectrum of attitudes. Even to the extent that we are able to understand Benedict Brok.
BW: If I were to describe Benedict in journalistic terms, I would be unambiguously negative towards him. But in the novel he's a living man who has his own baggage of experiences. And literature is there to understand and put yourself in the role of someone else. Ask yourself: what if you couldn't stand it, if, like Benedict, you were scarred by fear? This is what literature is all about and that's why Shakespeare's most terrible characters fascinate us so much.
MK: Writing as a path to self-discovery?
BW: Literature's purpose is to make us imagine the mass of terrible and funny things that we carry within ourselves, so that when we look in the mirror – as Herbert said – we see our clown face. Because stepping away from yourself is a fundamental thing.
MK: Although there are ghoulish characters in your novel – like Jakub, the previously-mentioned Bolshevik.
BW: I wanted to understand him too and all the motives driving him, because that's what a novel is for. This does not mean, contrary to that stupid saying, that understanding means forgiving. Not at all.
MK: What, then, should understanding lead to?
BW: Understanding is an autotelic value in itself, it makes us human. Our approach to the world grows out of it. It's as if you were asking me why we needed beauty. Beauty, although it serves many things, is a value in itself and if someone took it away from us, the world would be radically different, unacceptable even. As a consequence, however, understanding to some extent immunises us against threats we may normally fall prey to.
MK: What's more, your novel does not always show its good heroes in a positive light.
BW: There are readers who've even attacked me for what the defenders of Solidarity in the 1990s looked like.
MK: They look pitiful at times.
BW: Like Zuzanna, they are a bit funny, grotesque. But they really were like that to a large extent, though not of their own volition and nor is it their fault. Hardly anyone can resist pressure, and when those who also hold power in the ideological realm make us crazy, it's difficult to avoid succumbing at least to some degree.
MK: Does this mean that literature is also not there to judge?
BW: The power of judgment is a fundamental human quality, and we shouldn't nor can we renounce it. People who say that we mustn't judge others are very easy to judge those who, however, try to find some measure in life and make this judgment. Here you can see the paradox. Challenging the assessment is convenient because we don't have to judge ourselves.
MK: Scientists argue that scientific discourse should be stripped of opinions and assessments.
BW: Then let them try to describe the Holocaust without judging it. Anyway, it's impossible to formulate any statement without an assessment, because it's built into the language.
MK: So you wouldn't agree with the words that nothing is black or white and that we live in the grey.
BW: The spectrum of colours is possible due to the fact that we move between these two poles. But this does not mean that everything is white or black, few things are completely unambiguous. However, if we question this basic division, we stop seeing differences and stop seeing anything at all.
MK: 'An Imperfect Time' is not only a story about Poles, but maybe more a story about Central European Jews.
BW: That's right, it's a novel about the conflict between Polish and Jewish memory. Although it should be emphasised that Polish Jews are also Poles, inscribed into Polish tradition and history. However, their memory of recent history is different.
MK: You've also experienced what two memories mean.
BW: My mother was of Polish descent and from a Masovian village. Meanwhile, my father was of Jewish origin, and his entire family was murdered during the war. I've included many of his experiences in the novel, and although Adam Brok is not Szymon Wildstein, there are some common threads in their lives, even their experiences of 1939. My father was an officer in the Polish Army, he was interned in Hungary. Therefore, that contention over memory that I present in the novel through the example of Benedykt and Zuzanna's marriage, was also something present in my family. It was not as sharp and came about for slightly different reasons, but I must admit that I know the taste of ideological differences under one roof. Another topic is people's experience of the Holocaust. That is probably the strongest thing that builds a different memory among Polish Jews.
MK: This issue keeps coming back, at diplomatic levels too.
BW: And it will keep coming back. Now Polish-Jewish relations are being toyed with by Putin, who uses Israel for these purposes. It's a kind of battle for memory and prestige, while at the same time an attempt to deny our memory and history. I see this as conscious strategic actions on the part of Russia, which are finding support amongst Western countries – although not as ostentatiously as in Russia itself. It is also ideological in nature, because a blow to memory is a blow to identity.
MK: Your novel is also a blow to memory. People's memory of the Third Polish Republic, which you are very critical of.
BW: That's not memory, just mere hypocrisy and manipulation. I'm actually trying to rebuild our memory here. Because memory of facts allows us to build tradition, and tradition is our choice. We choose to refer to one thing and question another. We choose whether we refer to 'Solidarity' or to communism. Or: do we invoke the Home Army, or those who came in Soviet tanks to 'teach' us with the gun butts of dialectical thinking.
MK: Home Army uniforms were also worn by people unworthy of remembering.
BW: Of course, there are no groups or formations out there in which unworthy people do not find themselves, and sometimes the heroes of one era turn out to be the traitors of another. However, this should not lead us to question the value of specific institutions or attitudes. During the occupation in Poland, there were szmalcowniks [blackmailers of Jews] and various terrible instincts were released in people. The question is whether if it would have been any different anywhere else in the world during such a terrible war. Our representative was the government-in-exile in London and the Underground State. That is why we, as Poles, can be judged on the basis of their behaviour, not of those people on the margins – not even the broad ones.
MK: Your novel is also one of many that tries to describe the entirety of the Solidarność movement.
BW: The phenomenon of Solidarność has been smoothly pushed out of the collective consciousness and now we must recover it. It was a truly republican movement that rebuilt the community and led to the fall of communism. It was an extraordinary phenomenon on a global scale. Meanwhile, the Third Republic was built on her corpse. Solidarność was murdered and pierced through with an aspen stake so that no one could revive it, although this was fortunately ineffective. Zuzanna's experience, her bitterness and disagreement with reality after the Round Table Talks is the experience of many thousands of people.
MK: Looking at 'An Imperfect Time', the reader has before them a Poland built on historical injustice. A country where communists, or at least those who were neutral towards it, have made careers. Meanwhile those who fought the hardest and did not accept the Round Table Talks were given scraps or even pushed under a bus. Isn't this an exaggeration?
BW: It's the truth. Only sometimes the scraps were larger than others. Some say that I exaggerate when describing the figure of an ubek [secret police officer] who becomes the head of a TV station in the Third Republic, but I have actually seen similar careers. Anyway, I think that the Third Polish Republic is over or will end soon. No one is proud that he belonged to the Communist Party. Even Aleksander Kwaśniewski, the Polish United Workers' Party dignitary [and Poland's president from 1995 to 2005], referred to Solidarność as the president. In the end, however, the communists not only escaped responsibility after 1989, but built individual and social careers upon their injustices.
MK: The novel starts at a time when Poland had basically disappeared.
BW: The Jews in the Eastern Borderlands with whom I start the story are basically not Polish Jews. They were 'locals', as they called themselves. But that was also how the other inhabitants of these villages spoke about themselves, and its difficult to unambiguously attribute any of those people a particular nationality. Jews were different, due to cultural and religious reasons, yet still 'locals'. Over time, however, they lost that closeness with this place. This what happens in the example of Adam's brother, Abram Brok.
MK: Abram says that the axis of his world is the tent pole he sticks into the ground.
BW: Abram opposes the socio-national community through his individual struggle for the recognition that, of all his relationships, he still remains loyal to his family. But his family abandons him. He becomes lost, alone and defeated, even though it looks like he has succeeded in everything. In turn, Adam – Abram's brother and father to Benedykt – returns to reborn Poland and tries to take root there again.
MK: The Second Polish Republic [Poland from 1918 to 1939] is not an idyllic land, however.
BW: Because, of course, anti-Semitism existed in the Second Polish Republic and there was a feeling that Poles of Jewish origin had things harder. And assimilation wasn't always easy. As we know, this period ends tragically. The memory of Poles and Jews start to grow apart with no going back. Benedykt Brok spends almost all of World War II in his wardrobe and this traumatic experience marks him with fear for life. It makes him a different person from his wife Zuzanna, who is a courageous woman.
MK: Amongst the next generation is Adam – a young broker who is also trying to remove himself from any Jewish identity.
BW: His roots don't seem to matter to him, other than his memory of tensions in the family, which additionally provokes in him an aversion to conflicted identity. He's also similar to Abram – a strong young man who conquers the world.
MK: A modern man.
BW: It seems everything is going well, until yet again events pull him towards Poland. And it turns out he can't break away from the experiences of his parents, and even those of his distant ancestors.
MK: Abram says to Adam: 'You are and will remain a Jew, even though you have converted and renounced your ancestors. You will be one because others will always see one in you. They will want to humiliate you. And the only thing you can do is control them, to make them afraid of you.' Have you ever heard such words yourself?
BW: Similar ones.
MK: And what did you reply?
BW: I reject this sort of approach. The issue of identity is absolutely fundamental and people who are confronted with its complex variants encounter problems and tensions. You have to be able to face this issue, just like you do with everything. But don't react with resentment or fear. You need to free yourself from irrational behavior.
Interview originally conducted in Polish, Feb 2020; translated into English, Mar 2020