Sunday, October 14, 2018

The light picks everything out of the void

Poland had, in its habitual way, once again ceased to exist.
If you know anything about Polish history, that line should make you laugh. Or maybe cry.

This is the great appeal for me of reading Polish fiction. It gathers me into its fold. I may not be an insider, but I'm not an outsider. It connects me to my history. Sometimes I learn a thing or two to buttress my Polishness.

Zygmunt Miłoszewski writes crime thrillers set in contemporary Poland. It is unabashedly "genre" fiction, and as such it captures common life in a way "literary" authors don't; Olga Tokarczuk, for example, may give voice to Poland's soul, but Miłoszewski conveys the noise of its hair and clothes. Similarly, when Louise Penny writes about Montreal, I feel the comfort of recognition; when I read Miłoszewski it fosters the familiarity with Poland I wish I had.

I'm not saying that's the case on every page, but it's what I want when I reach for Miłoszewski's books, and it's what I get in just the right dose.

If I'm a Pole, it's good for me to know that this is what the Polish character is:
The average American starts off by taking everything at face value. The average Pole is convinced from day one that everyone's trying to screw him, cheat him, stab him in the back, and declare war. As a result, they never let down their defenses, which is handy at the front, but a major obstacle when you're trying to conduct a secret operation right under their noses.
Priceless, by Zygmunt Miłoszewski, is a standalone thriller (a departure from his series featuring State Prosecutor Teodor Szacki) about an art heist (my favourite kind of thriller*). It's one of the greatest heists in history — countless masterpieces the Nazis stole from Poland during WWII. And evidence has surfaced attesting to the fact that Raphael's Portrait of a Young Man has been preserved.

According to the Economist, the Polish ministry of foreign affairs:
maintains an inventory of approximately 60,000 works of art, listed as stolen from Poland by Nazi forces during the second world war. And this figure could be only the tip of the iceberg. Immediately after the war, Polish authorities estimated that roughly half a million works of art had been stolen or destroyed. According to a recent article in Wprost, a weekly, the 124 most sought-after stolen Polish art pieces are worth somewhere in the region of $200m.
The article confirms the approach to negotiation for the return of artwork as explained in Priceless — Poland will not pay a grosz for it, in accordance with official government policy, as the paintings are the true property the Polish state. The art should no longer be hostage.

The novel's plot concerns the mission to recover the Raphael, but the team of experts uncovers a conspiracy to keep it hidden, which points to the much deeper conspiracy behind it concerning who pulled the strings of world power in the 1930s.
"Maybe I know history too well; sometimes too much knowledge is a a curse. Put it like this: If I had a time machine and could stand by Hitler's cradle, I'd say to his parents, 'Find him a good art teacher, otherwise he'll be unhappy and nasty.' But if I could stand by Himmler's cradle, I'd wait for his parents to leave the room and strangle the baby without batting an eye."
The characters are a lot of fun, all with great backstories. One of my favourites is old granny Olga, eyewitness to political shenanigans and wartime devastation, renowned for her amorous conquests. In her room hangs a movie poster for Tarkovsky's Solaris. It must be the same one I have on my wall, though hers is signed by Lem with a dedication.

Priceless is a well-paced, original thriller full of history, humour, and grace. And art.
"Painting is light. It's simple physics. The light picks everything out of the void, and reflects off everything in various ways, and that's what produces colors. Painting is an attempt to render that fleeting moment when an infinite number of rays of light reflect off the world and land in the eye."

*I mean, who even buys stolen art? What do they do with it? And where can I get me some?

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