Magazine article The Spectator

Communism and Other Disasters

Magazine article The Spectator

Communism and Other Disasters

Article excerpt


by Gustaw Herling, selected and translated by Ronald Strom Viking f18, pp. 273 Gustaw Herling Grudzinski was born in Poland just after the first world war. The second, coming when he was barely 20, propelled him through a range of experience that included two years in a Soviet Gulag on the White Sea and three of active service in the Polish army. After laying down his arms in 1945, he took up the pen.

His book A World Apart, prefaced by Bertrand Russell, was one of the first, and remains one of the greatest, pieces of concentration-camp literature. It was a minor best-seller and was translated into several languages. Typically, Gallimard would not publish it, in spite of the support of Albert Camus, because it upset the cosy Sartrean view of the Soviet paradise.

Herling was also one of the founders of the Polish literary monthly Kultura, published in France, which was one of the great beacons of free thought and literary excellence in the night of Europe's division. Its influence radiated not only over the Polish and much of the Jewish diaspora, but also all over communist Poland, and into Russia and Czechoslovakia.

He left the editorial team soon after its foundation and came to live in London, and then in Munich, where he worked for Radio Free Europe. But in 1957 he went back to Kultura, to which he contributed a continuous stream of reportage, comment, literary criticism and fiction. Occasionally, he would deliver a literary masterpiece, such as the novella The Island, but most of The Journal Written at Night, as his regular contribution was headed, is more akin to a prolonged dialogue with his readers.

Herling is remarkably familiar with the languages, the literatures, and the cultural highways and byways of Europe. With breathtaking facility, he leaps from Dostoievsky and Kafka to classical authors, and from there to art and politics. And to just about anything else - the cats of Naples and a curiously evanescent loveaffair in Venice with a criminal twist do not seem remotely out of place. For he is as much at home writing about the frescoes of Pinturicchio as about communism.

It is nevertheless communism, or rather totalitarianism, that lies at the heart of his preoccupations, as it must with any thinking inhabitant of this century. …

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