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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