by Olga Stein
Eva Stachniak has seized an opportunity with her Garden of Venus. She may be the first in Canada to have penned a novel centering on Polish history of the last half of the 18th century, that lamentable period of the three partitions-of 1772, 1793, and 1795-which culminated in the loss of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth's sovereignty. Some surface digging yields fascinating details about the nation forged by Miszko I in the 10th century. It became, during the Jagiellon Dynasty (1386-1572), one of Europe's largest and culturally most developed empires. The subsequent rulers were less successful, though one, John III Sobieski, is credited with nothing less than saving Western Europe from Turkish invasion in 1683. It was this last of the great Polish Kings whose army beat back the Ottoman Turks in Vienna.
For a gifted Polish-Canadian writer like Stachniak, an insider when it comes to both Poland's past and national pride and sentiment, the period of the partitions should be a gold mine. Why then does her 450-page novel leave me with the sense that an opportunity has been missed? The answer-though other readers might disagree-is that for a historical novel, there isn't enough history.
What sequence of events brought about the partitions? Polish-Lithuanian eastward expansion and temporary annexation of parts of Russia and the Ukraine in the 16th century led to a certain anti-Polish trend that probably encouraged the imperial aspirations of Russia's Catherine the Great. The Turks were still a threat, which only increased the rivalry between the three partitioning powers-Russia, Prussia, and Austria-as each sought to play that threat to its advantage. Poland conducted costly wars with Russia and Switzerland, and sustained damage from a Cossack rebellion; and all the while, it crumbled from inside because the nobles insisted on retaining their legislative privileges at the expense of the nation's government and economy. The personalities involved-the quirky, ruthless and vindictive Russian Empress, a conscientious but acquiescent Maria Theresa of Austria, and the rapacious Frederick II of Prussia, a first-class practitioner of realpolitic-were also likely a conributing factor.
Any carefully culled bit of this history could be reanimated to captivating effect, especially in a novel designed to ponder historical facts and possibilities. Some of this we find in Garden of Venus as the stories of auxillary characters take their turns in the rotation of narratives. Two doctors, one Polish the other French, both graduates of Paris's medical academy, both field surgeons during Napoleon's numerous campaigns, reunite in 1822 in Berlin to tend to the dying Countess Sophie Potocka, whose final days serve as an intersection point for the life paths of a group of individuals. In passages that strike me as some of the novel's best, the doctors discuss Europe's balance of power politics, debate Poland's position vis-a-vis Russia (which came to possess the largest portion of the divided country after the Congress of Vienna), and speculate about past and future insurrections aiming to reverse the effects of the partitions. In another section, Thomas Lafleur, the French Physician, recalls the cruel murder of a French aristocrat at the start of the French revolution; after witnessing her torment as a boy of eleven, he lies sick and motionless for days from the shock. This remembered episode is no small achievement on Stachniak's part; it's a vivid stand-in for the revolution as a whole. There are equally compelling moments with Rosalia, a young woman who is a member of Sophie's retinue, and her most attentive nurse. Rosalia ruminates on the tragic circumstances that brought her Jewish mother and Polish father together as children, and many years later led to her father's death. In 1768 the two had hidden from the rebelling Dniepper Cossaks who arrived on horseback in Uman to kill landed Poles and their "lackeys", the Jews. Less than a decade after the massacre, Rosalia's mother, Miriam Davidowich, did the unthinkable; she left her people and her faith to marry the passionate, patriotic Jan Jakub Romanovicz: "A Polish and a Jewish child united by common fate, united by love stronger than everything that tried to pull them apart." Yet it is also the common fate of the Poles, steeped in its own acidic blend of national pride and self-sacrificing dedication to the motherland, that ultimately robs Miriam of her beloved Jakub. Like many others, he joins Napoleon's Polish Legion, hoping that the French, after vanquishing the Russians and Prussians, will reward their Polish supporters by reestablishing their nation's sovereignty. Self-serving Napoleon has his own agenda, however; he ships the trusting Poles to Manzilla Bay to quash a slave uprising-an ironic twist of fate considering the contingent's objective. There, Jakub dies of yellow fewer, leaving Miriam and Rosalia in no-man's land in more sense than one: without a country and without kin, for the convert and her daughter are neither Jews nor Catholics in a world still clearly demarcated along ethnic and religious lines.
Garden of Venus achieves some firmness from writing that uses the personal to illuminate the larger historical context. But such occasions are too sparse and the main storyline, which follows Sophie Glavani, the daughter of a cattle trader, from the beginning of her life in Bursa, Greece, to her adolescence in Istanbul (where, in order to survive, she becomes the sexual plaything of a Polish diplomat), to her last days as the sixty-two-year-old widow of one of Poland's richest magnates, is far less absorbing. I feel that there is too much of the unessential and trite both in form and content in a tale that touts "the art of conversation" (which relies on conciseness as well as refinement). To explain, Charles Boscamp, the aforementioned internuncio of the Polish mission in Istanbul and Sophie's first "benefactor", speaks to his young mistress about Greece's legendary haetteras, women like Lais and Phryne who were masters of conversation as well as great beauties. That, he tells her, "is the most powerful of arts. It alone can open the doors of palaces." Mindful of his advice and eager to improve her prospects, Sophie learns to mesmerise men with her looks and joie de vivre. But while she's ready to listen to her various lovers meditating on subjects like the ideal qualities of gardens, or the strange workings of fate and nature (lovely musings, to give Stachniak her due), the self-absorbed beauty doesn't demonstrate an ability-at least not until those parts where she's much older and dying of a tumour-to engage in thoughtful or witty repartee. The young Sophie travels from one great European court to another with her first husband, the hapless Polish noble, Major Joseph de Witt, whom she had manipulated into wedlock, and she charms kings and princes in Austria, Prussia, France and Russia. No doubt many readers will also be charmed by the long string of her romantic conquests, but I think there could have been much less of that-much less of Frederick Wilhelm of Prussia watching her dance, for example, and more of him reflecting on his ambitions for Prussia.
Am I being unfair? Perhaps this character, based on a real person, with a documented history both as a mistress to Charles Boscamp and later as a member of Polish upper class society, was never meant to be more than this, a "true coquette" as Boscamp describes her in his manuscript, "Mes Amours Intimes avec une Jeune Bythinienne". Perhaps we should look to the reticent, introspective Rosalia for that which is lacking in Sophie. But then it might have been better to shorten the account of Sophie's doings, to pare down the book to that which is essential, illuminating, and beautifully realized as Stachniak had done in her previous novel, Necessary Lies, which won the 2000 Amazon.ca/Books in Canada First Novel Award. That was a novel in which there was nothing missing and nothing superfluous.