Magazine article The Spectator

'The Mountains of Parnassus', by by Czeslaw Milosz, Translated from the Polish by Stanley Bill - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'The Mountains of Parnassus', by by Czeslaw Milosz, Translated from the Polish by Stanley Bill - Review

Article excerpt

Science fiction is not the first thing one thinks of in connection with the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, though the Nobel Prize for Literature has in fact been awarded for science fiction poetry -- Harry Martinson's Aniara was an epic about a spaceship. Then again, many English speakers probably don't primarily associate Milosz with poetry either, but with The Captive Mind, his damning critique of the moral crisis of artists under authoritarian regimes.

That book had, however, science fiction elements in its discussion of the 'Murti-Bing pill' -- which reconciled the vanquished to their conquerors (lifted from Insatiability, a utopian novel by Stanislaw Witkiewicz, published in 1930) -- and the Islamic notion of ketman, an aspect of taqiya which closely resembles Orwell's 'doublethink'.

This slim volume, posthumously published in Polish in 2012 and now translated, does not suggest that Milosz would ever have been paired up in an Ace Double with the likes of EE 'Doc' Smith. But then the same could be said of his contemporary and compatriot, Stanislaw Lem, best known as the author of Solaris (Janusz Zadjel is probably the only other figure at all familiar to English-speaking SF readers).

An excellent translator's introduction from Stanley Bill acknowledges that even within

Poland's highly literary tradition of science fiction writing, it is difficult to imagine this archetypal European intellectual immersing himself in the world of space travel and alien planets.

If the science fiction fan, undeterred, dismisses this as the usual academic snobbery (Bill lectures at Cambridge) and pushes on,

Milosz's opening lines don't promise much more:

To the curious reader of the future, I commend these chapters from a science fiction novel that will never be written. Why will it never be written? Because I don't feel like writing it.

That may indicate why Milosz's publisher, Jerzy Giedroyc, had his doubts when he saw the manuscript in 1972, and The Mountains of Parnassus languished in a box until after the author's death. Even so, it's a pity.

True, despite the cover bearing the words 'a novel', there is no definition elastic enough to qualify it as that. There are half a dozen vignettes: sketchy attempts at world-building, incomplete descriptions of techniques of governance, complaints about technology and theological meditations. Despite Milosz's antipathy towards postmodernism, the effect is reminiscent of Italo Calvino or Alasdair Gray in their ironically lapidary moods. …

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