A. Scott Cardwell
Memory and passion are the palette of Andrzej Szczypiorski's Self-Portrait with Woman -- a complex tale of history and heartache, truth and lies, that may remind some readers of Milan Kundera's work. Szczypiorski's narrator, a Warsaw sociologist named Kamil, is invited to Geneva to contribute to an oral history project intent on chronicling the epic that is 20th Century Eastern Europe. He confounds his interviewers by recounting 60 years of love affairs. For Kamil, the relationship between man and woman is the most powerful and painful one possible -- he is a victim of passion, not of Hitler or Stalin. "If you've lived through a night of waiting for your beloved woman who has humiliated you... or stopped loving you, then you've been on the scaffold where Robespierre gave his head, and you've been where those from the resistance died." This metaphorical "gulag of heartache," while questionably accurate, is an ingenious emotional hook as well as a telling character trait -- Kamil is a doomed romantic. He is also a liar: "There is no truth without lies. . . the past unfortunately doesn't exist...there's only the remembered world...and this changes along with us."
Memory as history, love as oppression: these devices allow Szczypiorski to create a pliant space between page and reader. Discerning the malleable meaning of these heart-wrenching tales -- of pain and passion, secret police, German ghosts, exotic women, and decaying cultures -- is as emotional as it is intellectual. The "self-portrait" that emerges is as complex as any human being or culture has a right to be. This book breathes. -- Salon
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Amid the spiritual exhaustion of post-communist Poland, Szczpiorski's everyman Polish hero, Kamil, sums up and relives all his romances in a last-ditch effort to find redemption. A survivor of the tyrannies of Hitler and Stalin, as well as of the more banal totalitarianism that followed, Kamil, as is revealed through the extensive portions of the novel that he narrates, has cuckolded a secret policeman, carried on an affair while in prison during the Solidarity movement and generally loved unwisely and inadequately. Now his final chance arrives in the form of a Mrs. Ruth Gless, a Swiss sociologist interviewing him for a documentary archive commissioned by Radio Geneva. Underneath his bluff irony and smothering sarcasm, Kamil turns out to be a romantic in remission, one who has internalized a guilt about universal human cruelty and about being unequal to the era's challenges. Szczpiorski (The Beautiful Mrs. Seidenman) skillfully melds Kamil's conversations and monologues with vivid scenes of confrontation, and with nightmares and guilt-ridden hallucinations, all the while maintaining just the right narrative tempo. Although not quite as compelling as the author's previous works, this novel offers moving reflections on love as seen in history's window. (Jan.)
Library Journal - Library Journal
Some authors present life under Communism as an end in itself. A few rare authors use this traumatic experience as a vehicle to explore broader human themes. In this novel, it is romantic love. Kamil is invited to Switzerland to participate in a project that seeks to document the experiences of ordinary people living, first, under Communism and, later, with its collapse. The protagonist tells his story by recounting some of the women he has loved, and although a bit about the state is revealed, mostly the novel explores his innermost feelings toward love and his vulnerability in romantic encounters-emotions not often revealed by men. Szczypiorski shows terrific flashes of wit, melancholy, and insight into the human and political conditions he recalls. His ability to build characters and establish a dialog with himself is outstanding; it is not exaggerating to rank him alongside Ivan Klima and Milan Kundera as a major East European writer. A necessary purchase for all solid fiction collections; libraries that did not purchase his Mass for Arras (LJ 6/1/93) and The Beautiful Mrs. Seidenman (LJ 11/15/89) may want to buy them now.-Olivia Opello, Onondaga Cty. P.L., Syracuse, N.Y.