There are journeys that are plotted, and journeys that are governed seemingly by serendipity. "All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware" (Martin Buber). These words of wisdom are echoed by Montreal writer Irena Karafilly, when a fact-finding trip to Poland while researching a character for a novel takes her back to her five formative childhood years spent there and motivates her to write another type of book altogether. That book, Ashes and Miracles: A Polish Journey
(Malcolm Lester, 296 pages, $21.95 paper), is an insightful, engaging, often compelling travelogue through and into a nation, and a journey into the author herself.
This duality is captured on the cover with its unfortunately kitschy design and washed-out colours reminisent of communist-period postcards and picture albums, and the more poignant centrepiece of a black-and-white family photo.
The title itself conflates two symbolic associations of the pairing of ashes and miracles. On the one hand, there is the metaphor of Poland as a phoenix that has risen from the ashes of captivity to a foreign power four times over the course of its long and tumultuous history, and that symbolizes the miracle of the rebirth of a nation. On the other hand, because the Nazis established extermination camps on its occupied Polish territories, there is the unavoidable and painful association for many of Jewish descent of Poland as a vast crematorium where the ashes of millions have become part of its collective consciousness. And the miracle-survival?
In her travels, Karafilly literally criss-crosses the country-from the Baltic coast in the north to the mountain resort of Zakopane and spa town of Krynica in the south; from the remote and wild eastern borderlands with their curious mix of Russian Old Believers, Lithuanians, Tatars, Belarussians, and remnants of Jewish shtetls, to the former German city of Wroclaw in the west; and in between, she stops into the famed Kraków and the nearby saltmines, the former concentration camp, now museum of Auschwitz-Oswiecim, the Teutonic castle of Malbork, the holy city of Czestochowa, the site of an infamous Jewish pogrom in Kielce, her hometown of Lódz. Not only is the geographical diversity well-represented, but she also judiciously provides her readers with just enough historical and cultural context to adequately inform and pique the curiosity of a potential, even past, visitor to the country. At the same time, the records of her conversations with and eavesdroppings on Poles from all walks of life-her hosts, fellow travellers, people met by chance, like the prostitute in the Bialystok bar-give an animated portrait of contemporary attitudes, lifestyles, politics, concerns, and mores.
Karafilly includes the traveler in the travelogue, and presents the reader with an intriguing self-portrait of someone whose life and circumstances (her frequent uprootings and migrations from Russia to Poland, Israel, Greece, and Canada) have helped her to develop a psychological adaptability. This "chameleonism" is the perfect trait for someone writing about a foreign land, and she exploits her indeterminateness for others (i.e., the ambiguity of a foreigner who speaks some Polish) by assuming the identity that is most strategic and comfortable in a given situation. In this way, she is able to access what a total outsider could never have access to (direct and open contact with the people), while also retaining an objectivity that a citizen could never have of his or her own country. In context, however, her constant evasion of her own identity seems symptomatic of lingering anti-Semitic and anti-Russian attitudes. One of my only qualms is that her inclusion of herself in this travelogue borders on the self-indulgent at times, and as a reader of a book about another country, I would prefer not to have such a pervasive "I".
Ashes and Miracles is a well-written and effective book that should persuade people to explore this multilayered, fascinating country in the eastern reaches of the European continent.