Magazine article The Spectator

French Lessons Post-Stalin

Magazine article The Spectator

French Lessons Post-Stalin

Article excerpt

MADAME

by Antoni Libera,

translated by Agnieszka Kolakowska

Canongate, L10.99, pp. 438

If the task of a good novel is to describe a particular time and a particular place in such a way that they seem real to people who never knew that time and that place, then here is a very good novel indeed. I didn't grow up in 1960s communist Poland, but from the first few paragraphs of Madame, Antoni Libera's narrator beautifully evokes the disappointment and claustrophobia of that time, when to be a Polish schoolboy was to feel certain that nothing interesting was ever going to happen again:

For many years I used to think I had been born too late. Fascinating times, extraordinary events, exceptional people - all these, I felt, were things of the past, gone for good.

The war, `an age of heroic, almost titanic struggle', is over. The era of Stalinism, a time of `wild orgies of slaughter' and `demented trances that gripped thousands of people', has just ended too. The 1930s, when Poland had last been free, already seem a `golden age of carefree oblivion', never to return. By contrast, the present is filled with stupid rules, toadying teachers, and ludicrous political censorship which dulls and dampens everything, even the school play. The past is a beautiful myth: the present is 'a world of used goods and hand-me-downs - of frumpy cast-offs from the West'.

Then, into this world, one almost perfectly designed to induce adolescent frustration, steps a beautiful and mysterious French teacher, the Madame of the book's title. …

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