NYT review of “In the Memory of the Forest” by Ken Kalfus. This appeared in the Times on April 13, 1997.
By KEN KALFUS
In this novel by an American journalist, a Polish village has buried its troubled past
I wonder what Polish readers will make of this superb novel. It was written by an American, a former journalist who lived in Warsaw from 1986 to 1991 and appears to have closely observed ordinary Polish life, especially in the countryside. In those tumultuous years, as Poland emerged from the Soviet shadow, Charles T. Powers also took full measure of how that country’s sense of itself was being challenged by the liberation of historical memory.
”In the Memory of the Forest” opens with a murder. Sometime in the immediate aftermath of the fall of Communism, a passerby comes upon the body of a young man named Tomek in the forest outside the placid farming village of Jadowia, 100 miles from Warsaw. Tomek has apparently met his end trying to find a place for himself in the treacherous gray area where the fitfully privatizing economy shades into outright illegality.
An investigation of Tomek’s death, led by his next-door neighbor, Leszek, gradually yields the secrets of the village’s present-day corruption, whose foundation lies in the compromises and brutalities of the recent Communist era. The honest, good-natured Leszek is shocked to find past informers among those close to him, a stratum of deceit that rests in turn upon a secret lying even deeper in the soil: the disappearance of Jadowia’s Jewish population, representing 80 percent of the village’s inhabitants before World War II.
Of course, their disappearance is no real mystery. The Jewish residents of Jadowia were rounded up by the Nazis and carted away to the death camps, as were three million other Polish Jews. Yet in the 40 years of Polish Communism, this disappearance, almost supernatural in its swiftness and completeness, was hardly remarked upon, and the death of these Polish citizens went unmourned. Since the war, Roman Catholic Poles have come to occupy the homes and shops of Jadowia’s Jews. Now, shortly after Tomek’s death, someone has begun tearing from their door frames the mezuzot that had been covered by the current owners. A terrifying rumor seizes the village’s imagination: the Jews are coming back to claim their property.
Powers depicts a Poland in which there is no word for the murder of the Jews. When the subject comes up, the villagers are struck dumb, as if by the gods. But the subject rarely comes up. Leszek’s grandfather, a courageous Home Army veteran, observes: ”It’s automatic now, forgetting certain things. People don’t even have to work at it anymore.” As Leszek probes the village’s history, he gains an ”overwhelming sense of being surrounded by memories, misinterpretations and illusions weeded and tended as carefully as a kitchen garden. Not least by me.”
In this mystery novel, the central mystery is the past, which shimmers, liquid and iridescent, determining identity and destiny. Poland’s Communist rulers maintained a monopoly on the history of the wartime years, using it to stay in power. After their fall, in the author’s view, the country’s history has been freed — but it remains narrowly preoccupied. He reminds us that the Poles call their country ”the Christ of nations,” an identification with suffering and redemption that excludes other peoples, especially the one that shared their land and their losses. Hence, for example, the continuing bitter controversy over how to maintain and memorialize the Auschwitz death camp.
These are the provocative ideas of the novel, which Powers has made flesh with compelling characters, including Tomek’s hot-tempered father, Staszek; the scheming local Communist Party hack, Jablonski, whose files exert a nearly occult power over the village; the troubled priest, Father Tadeusz; and Jola, the veterinarian’s wife, who is also Leszek’s lover.
Leszek eventually solves Tomek’s murder, but with little consequence. It is much more important that the process of remembrance begins, in a strange and moving ceremony that takes place in the woods. ”In the Memory of the Forest” is remarkable for the acuity of its moral vision and the vivacity of its language; what makes it extraordinary is its persuasive hopefulness. Perhaps this novel could have been written only by an American, confident that men and women can honestly face their ethnic history without losing sense of their personal identity.
Powers rarely writes a sentence that doesn’t contain something bright and arresting: ”The smell of the vine struck me like a dropped hammer.” ”Jablonski dressed in the colors of a city pigeon and trod the twilight corridors of higher authority on the whispering treads of crepe-soled shoes.” The author makes no mistakes in laying out the complicated story, except toward the end, when a sermon by Father Tadeusz ties together the themes of the novel, a task that could easily have been left to the reader. ”In the Memory of the Forest” explores the ambiguities of guilt, victimhood, honesty and corruption, but it is never ambiguous itself.
After serving as Eastern European bureau chief of The Los Angeles Times, Charles T. Powers retired to Vermont to write fiction. He died suddenly last autumn, at the age of 53. His novel deserves to endure in contemporary American literature, and in Polish translation as well.
Ken Kalfus is an American writer living in Moscow.