Road to Nowhere by Józef Mackiewicz
Ezra Pound’s observation that “literature is news that STAYS news” certainly applies to Road to Nowhere (Henry Regnery Company, 382 pages). This excellent novel, first published by a Polish exile in 1955, is consistently engaging and, for its aching, visceral power, still feels fresh. Given the unfortunate fact that Józef Mackiewicz is generally unknown in the U.S. and most of his work is untranslated or out of print, he might as well be seen as a new writer, as far as Americans are concerned. Considered in this light, he is quite simply the most intriguing new writer I have encountered in years.
Who was Józef Mackiewicz? Though the vagaries of history and fame might suggest otherwise, he is by no means an obscure figure and in fact he possessed a Zelig-like capacity to pop up at crucial moments as a witness to disaster. He was present at the first excavations of the 1940 Katyn massacre, at one of the three sites where the Soviets had murdered, in total, more than 21,000 Poles, and he produced the first written accounts of the atrocities. (He also later testified to a U.S. Senate Committee on the subject.) In 1942 he witnessed the Ponary slaughter of Jews by German SS and their collaborators, which he recounted in a later book. Though the realistic ethos of his fiction differs artistically from a writer like Vladimir Nabokov, he shared a similar uncompromising attitude toward Communist totalitarianism, which led to his works being banned for forty-five years in post-war Poland. Effectively a “non-person,” it was forbidden even to mention his name in journalism or academia.
Working in Rome, London and Munich until his death in 1985, Mackiewicz wrote for the Polish diaspora and, though praised by figures like Czesław Miłosz, only a few of his books have been translated into other languages. Legal disputes about succession and copyrights further complicate matters to this day. Only in the last decade have his works been coming out in Poland, re-establishing his reputation.
When Road to Nowhere (Droga donikąd) first appeared in 1955, Miłosz reviewed the novel in Kultura, the leading emigré magazine based in Paris. He admired its unprogrammatic realism and the author’s ability to conjure up character with a gesture. He also raised the question of the future reception of this uncompromising work. How, he wondered, would Road to Nowhere be perceived fifty years later?
Now, in 2013, it is possible to attempt an answer. If Road to Nowhere has aged well—and I believe that it has—it is not simply because Mackiewicz’s excoriation of the Soviets has been vindicated by history. Rather, it is because he has rendered these views with considerable art. Although certain passages do succumb to speechifying, most of the novel remains refreshingly wary of groupthink in any form. It is intimate and sympathetically attuned to human frailties and personal quirks and how these can be exploited by excesses of ideology. Road to Nowhere does not preach about what is right as much as it explores the downward pathology of how things can go so wrong.
The story centers on a couple, Paul and Martha, as they struggle to survive during the Soviet occupation of Vilnius in 1940-41. Paul is a former journalist now eking out an existence as a day laborer, woodcutter and carter. Eventually, he undertakes black market smuggling in an attempt to survive. Martha manages their household and endures Paul’s marital infidelity with the younger, more beautiful Veronica. At all times there is the menace of imprisonment or deportation.
Although the marriage is far from perfect, the novel depicts a profound complicity between Paul and Martha as they support each other in dire circumstances. This is a world rife with opportunism, denunciation and torture, of careerism that is literally murderous, where a character named Bozhek, the son of a kulak (i.e., a land-owning peasant and thus considered a class enemy by the authorities) realizes that “life nowadays was no longer a matter of wishing good things for oneself, but of wishing evil things to others.” He acts on this insight and becomes a powerful local functionary.
The educated classes accommodate the occupiers in other ways. Charles is an intellectual who abandons his religious training to become a party ideologue, thus allowing him to maintain at least a semblance of pursuing a life of the mind. Konrad, a lawyer, drops his profession to become a physics teacher, because physics is safer and less political—at least he hopes so. But there is always the danger of being caught out, and The Road to Nowhere effectively shows the Soviet fascination for genealogy and origins, as pervasive and snobbish, in its inverted fashion, as something out of Jane Austen, with commissars playing the parts of the country gentry.
In the process, the novel displays a sly asperity and flashes of humor. A few characters lack nuance (the smuggler Thaddeus sometimes feels like a mouthpiece for the author, and Veronica is simply too mysterious); but, overall, the novel teems with burgeoning, unruly humanity, which resists being reduced to a totalizing system not because it is intelligent or moral but because it is human. For instance, an informer named Antony is not particularly resented by his neighbors because everyone knows he’s so bad at it. Or, a darkly funny extended episode involves Paul careening around his home town on a snowy night trying to sell an antique sabre to raise a little money. He fails, in various Kafkaesque ways, while frightening his friends and acquaintances because it is technically a weapon and considered contraband by the authorities.
Indeed, the perverse effects of fear count for almost as much as physical danger. To escape a scrape is not an occasion for celebration as much as a further challenge to one’s nerves, described Paul as “the fear that comes when a man is not afraid to die but afraid to live [...] a man goes about feeling as if he had eaten green apples, he tries to find out what makes him feel like that and he never knows the cause of his condition is: worry.” The depiction of Martha’s desolation when Paul is interrogated by the N.K.G.B. is very powerful, as is the surprising description of Paul’s punch-drunk behavior after he survives.
For the 21st century reader, another source of interest and perhaps surprise will be the remarkable cultural diversity of the region before it was subsumed by Soviet rule.
Long before the fashion of multi-culturalism, Mackiewicz acknowledges such differences; Vilnius and the surrounding area was a land of Poles, Lithuanians and Belorussians; Catholic, Jew, Orthodox, Seventh Day Adventist. It is a place where the influence of the Tatars was still palpable, where “minarets, tipped by gold crescents, may be seen rising unexpectedly above the tops of the fir trees.” Other groups include “a colony of Crimean Karaites who followed the Pentateuch, while scorning the Talmud.” There are Calvinist and Lutheran churches, as well as “Bible Christians, Baptists, Pentecostalists, Stundists and a score of other heretics…”
Mackiewicz underlines how the Soviet occupation was of a different order from earlier generations of Russian domination. The Russians wanted to subjugate a society; the Soviets, to destroy it. In this novel, the prospect of war with Germany is actually welcomed as an alternative.
The story ends on a suitably apocalyptic note, with a long set piece about a peasant “prophet” in the Rudniki Forest. A hapless mystical boy named Oluk has come to represent hope for people of widely different backgrounds and persuasions, in a manner echoing the 19th century “ghost shirt” phenomenon among Native Americans. Inadvertently Paul and Martha find themselves on the road with the other pilgrims. It makes gripping reading and the conclusion is harrowing.
George Orwell famously observed that his calling as a writer stemmed not only from a facility with words but also “a power of facing unpleasant facts.” This power is much in evidence in Road to Nowhere, though the novel is in no way miserabilist or sensational. Mackiewicz reveals how some of the most unpleasant facts are, practically speaking, invisible. With various characters he memorably dramatizes the pain of thought, of being aware but being voiceless. This is probably his signal achievement.
Presently the novel is available in English only in an out-of-print edition, but the Internet makes it fairly easy to track down used copies. The translation by Lew Sapieha is generally smooth and unobtrusive and only occasionally feels dated. A new edition in English would be desirable, if only to give the novel the audience it deserves.
Is Road to Nowhere a lost masterpiece? That is debatable, if only because this book has never really been “lost”. Misplaced, perhaps? Unlucky? Definitely. And even if the word “masterpiece” flirts with hyperbole, it is still a powerful piece of literature and it is still news.
Charles Holdefer is author of Back in the Game (2012), The Contractor (2007) and other novels.
Martha was not a jealous woman. Other women held this against her, as though she were being disloyal to an inborn sense of female solidarity. Some of them even felt resentful: “Who does she think she is?” they said, suspecting Martha of trying to show her superiority in this way. Paul took advantage of this virtue of his wife whenever he could. However, his enforced idleness, his increased financial worries due to the ending of seasonal jobs and the uncertainty of the future combined to create an atmosphere which, even with a woman of Veronica’s beauty, was hardly conducive to romance.
Rumours of more and more arrests swept through the city and countryside. Scarcely anyone slept peacefully. Paul decided to keep the back door of his house always open, ready for them to dash out and escape through the garden and over the fence into the woods if the need arose. Phantoms sometimes woke them at night: suddenly, on the wall facing the window the trembling shadows of geraniums, kept in pots on the window-sill, would appear; they would creep upwards, reach the ceiling and there mingle with the shadow of the cross from the window-frame, lit by the moving headlights of a car on the main road.
Paul and Martha had developed such a subconscious watchfulness that as a rule the shadows on the wall woke them even before the dog began to bark. They would jump out of bed and, instinctively holding hands, watch the lights.