Wednesday, January 6, 2010

'Breathing Under Water and Other European Essays'

This article appeared originally in the International Freedom Review, Volume 4, Number 2, Winter 1991. This is the first time it has been made available on line or in digital format.

Book Review
Breathing Under Water and Other European Essays 
by Stanislaw Baranczak
(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 258 pages; cloth, no price given.)
Reviewed by Richard E. Sincere, Jr.

What follows is a sort of trompe d’oeil of a book review, as Stanislaw Baranczak’s Breathing Under Wateris essentially a collection of book reviews. Perhaps if this present essay is someday published in a collection, and another reviewer tries his hand at a critique... but enough! The mind boggles, which is precisely the effect Baranczak achieves in his description of life in Eastern Europe under totalitarian communism.

Stanislaw Baranczak  Breathing Under WaterBaranczak is a remarkably fluid writer in English, considering that he only came to the United States in 1982, in the aftermath of Polish General Wojciech Jaruzelski’s martial law crackdown on the Solidarity trade union. In this he shares a heritage with other Central Europeans who chose to express themselves in English, such as the Pole, Joseph Conrad, and the Czech, Tom Stoppard.

Baranczak is a finely-honed and witty stylist who writes with a clear understanding of his audience. He can make an obscure Polish essayist of the early twentieth century come alive for American readers who have never encountered a single one of the books under discussion. This is a rare talent.

Baranczak is at his best in the first few essays in this collection, in which he describes the culture shock that awaits Eastern Europeans (“E.E.”) who arrive in the West. Given current circumstances in Central and Eastern Europe—where not only travel but emigration is easier than ever before—these chapters are especially pertinent today.

His biting wit targets both East and West. He lists some “things American which E.E. will never be able to come to terms with” like Barbara Walters, Wonder Bread, stand-up parties, baseball, and small talk, among others. Ms. Walters, he says, reminds E.E. “of the superficiality and pretentious blah-blah of Eastern Europe’s own TV anchors” and television commercials, which “though basically unknown as a genre in the Communist bloc, have much in common with the general mindlessness and bad taste of what serves as mass culture there.”

Baranczak is not always lighthearted In his approach. The themes and subjects he takes up include some that are quite serious. He reviews biographies of Lech Walesa and Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski; he analyzes the prison letters of Václav Havel; and he searches the collected poems and plays of Pope John Paul II (Karol Wojtyla) for an underlying philosophy currently guiding the Pontiff. He takes on important but neglected Polish writers who perished during the Holocaust or who spent their entire careers in exile, avoiding Nazi and communist persecution. He reveals the secrets of totalitarian censorship and how the oppressed are able to be creative and truthful despite it all.

In the book’s title essay, originally delivered as an address in Boston in 1982, he points out that in totalitarian countries, “the so-called dissidents. . . may of course constitute a minority, and they usually do; but on the other hand, they are the only normal people around.”

More precisely, he writes, the dissidents are the people who most actively seek to “live like human beings.” Poland, he said, though it may be a country under occupation (this was the period of martial law, when totalitarian repression was brought out in the open), is a country “of free people who know exactly what they want and who most certainly will continue their struggle to achieve it.”

Despite the efforts of apologists and merely ignorant people in the West who try to understand the totalitarian regime or explain away its oppression using Western paradigms, “the only people who still behave abnormally and who constitute the minority — in other words, the only real dissidents in today’s Poland—are its Communist rulers.”

This lesson must be learned and remembered by all of us. It is too early to take for granted the emerging democracies of Central Europe. Ethnic tensions simmer beneath the surface. Yugoslavia is ready to fall apart. Romania and Bulgaria, despite changes in regime, still suffer under communist rule. In Poland itself, Solidarity’s once indivisible solidarity was riven by disputes between Walesa and Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki, representatives of just two of many factions.

Stanislaw Baranczak Zbigniew HerbertIn Hungary, the free-market-oriented ruling party has lost seats to the (former) Communists in a number of local election contests. Only in Czechoslovakia and what used to be East Germany do the transitions to democracy seem to be going relatively smoothly. Yet in Czechoslovakia there have been disputes over what the name of the country should be — “the Czech and Slovak Federated Republic” seems to have won the battle for compromises, seeking to satisfy the historically dissatisfied Slovaks in a federation dominated by Czechs — while In eastern Germany, strikes among the industrial proletariat began soon after reunification, a signal of the deep-felt fears of economic upheaval after years of impoverished certainty.

The bottom line is that we have not yet reached Fukuyama’s proclaimed “End of History.” Communism is not yet a museum piece. It still exists in Albania, China, Cuba, Vietnam, and in nascent forms in various so-called Third World countries. It still earns the allegiance of a few recalcitrant American academics who continue to plead, “True Marxism has simply never been tried.” We must, therefore, still worry about totalitarianism and its effects on the human soul.

In this collection of essays, devoted primarily to explorations of the human spirit, Stanislaw Baranczak ultimately spins a cautionary tale of many threads, warning us to be aware that our own human frailties too often lead to the totalitarian temptation. Baranczak uses two terms to praise another author that apply equally to himself: “perspicacity of vision” and “lucidity of prose.” These make Breathing Under Water a compelling read.

Richard Sincere is author of several books, including Sowing the Seeds of Free Enterprise: The Politics of U.S. Economic Aid in Africa (Washington: International Freedom Foundation, 1990) and a frequent contributor to the book pages of the International Freedom Review. Currently, Mr. Sincere is editor of CSIS News at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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