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« Roth and His Narrators | Main | Greece and the Holocaust »
Saturday
Aug202011

Biskupin

FUGITIVE PIECES opens disarmingly. First off, you're in the middle of the action, a muddy boy arising from a swamp in front of a geologist--then you jump back and the novel explains the story to this point. It's a structure the novel will repeat many times: folding time for poetic effect.

However, there's something else disarming. We have fictional characters in a "real," historical setting. Jakob appears in Biskupin, a Polish archeological site of some importance, a Bronze Age fortified city. What's intriguing about Biskupin is that archeologists can "watch" the settlement morph from Bronze to Iron Age, the city becoming more centralized and more enclosed as rising architectural technology permitted the closer arrangement of houses. These sorts of settlements were long thought to exist but were rarely found since timbers rot so easily, leaving no trace, certainly since they were made without the bands and nails of smelted iron.

When first discovered in the early 1930s, Biskupin was thought to be evidence of Polish civilization in the remote reaches of European history. As you probably know, the Poles were long the whipping post of European armies, all sides claiming that Poland wasn't truly a country and so up for grabs in the high stakes game of global Risk played over the course of the Middle Ages and into the modern period. To have found a Polish settlement (even if it turned to be out a small ethnic group, rather than the main body of Polish culture) gave the Poles a sense that their country, long run over by armies, was in fact meant to be.

However, when Poland fell to the Nazis in 1939, the German goverment was determined to prove its pre-eminence. The Nazis burned much of Biskupin, then restarted the dig under the direct control of Heinrich Himmler. Germans planted various iconography (including swastikas) around the site to prove that it was really German civilization in the making; a state-supported archeologist drafted two "scholarly" accounts of Germans ruling the region and establishing a pre-modern civilization there before being done in at the hands of those dastardly interlopers, the Poles. Sigh. History always falls to the ideologues. Witness the Paul Revere idiocy in recent U. S. news reports.

At the end of the war, the Nazi government burned Biskupin and flooded it. The reasons for this destruction are a bit unclear but it is certain that the burning and flooding actually preserved the creosote-coated timbers. After the war and into the mid-1970s, the Polish government reconstructed Biskupin. It is now one of the best archeological sites in Europe. If you want to see more about the site from the Polish government, click here.

But back to the novel. There's a second discolation in the opening as history runs up against fiction. We move from Jakob coming out of the swamp at Biskupin back in time to the Nazi murder of his family and his hiding in the wallboards before escaping to the forest.

However, note the crucial difference between the historicity of Biskupin and the Nazi invasion in the novel. Biskupin is named in the text. Right up front. The war is not. The Nazis are also not (at least not at this point). You're thrust into the middle of things that seem bizarre and unfamiliar--although you certainly know the story of the Jews and World War II.

Why would an author choose this strategy? Why wouldn't she show you a snarling Nazi soldier so you could "place" the action? Why would she withhold?

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