Dodano: 23 April 2016
“General Jaruzelski has proclaimed August 31as The Day of Work and Peace.
MIGHT NOT APPEAL TO US,
YET IT IS THE ONLY IMMORTAL WAY
OF PEACE AND STABILIZATION”
Mixing literature and comics is not unseen in some lucky places on Earth, but so far we did not have that many examples here in Poland. With the release of this impressive volume courtesy of Laboratorium Reportazu and National Centre for Culture, this type of narration may finally see its development here as well. Reading “The Pope and the General” makes it evident that in some cases this combination makes perfect sense.
Marek Miller is a seasoned journalist, university professor and a sociologist with many books published and rewards received in his curriculum. With this publication he makes it clear tha first and foremost he aims to deliver some kind of a summary of the time that defined the lives of his generation, but then also of his own role in that period and his mark as a journalist and a human being in general. Not the easiest of tasks certainly, but Miller definitely knows what he is doing.
As the starting point to the story, the author uses a rather significant meeting between the head of the Catholic Church John Paul II and the head of the Polish communist state general Wojciech Jaruzelski. No photos of that meeting exist so an idea occurred to Miller that a comic story would be perfect to provide the visual extension to the literary description. The work by three prominent artists has been commissioned for the book and thus we get what I believe is the first Polish comic based reportage of 250 pages. An amazing piece of art and a great read at the same time.
The book starts with the introduction by the author, which is typical, but this time the author is a comic book character himself and he talks to us while walking along the familiar streets of Warsaw. And so he becomes the third main character of the story, which is natural in a reportage that puts emphasis on witnessing described events. In the case of this particular story, the author’s role changes slightly, and instead of explaining what he saw with his own eyes, he relays the facts as presented by general Jaruzelski himself in a series of interviews, and illustrated meticulously from the depths of their imagination by talented comic artists. Apart from the actors, there were no other witnesses and both of them are dead by now.
Marek Miller attaches a lot of importance to this meeting between the two personalities. He sees in it an initiation of a process that eventually led to the downfall of the communist regime in Poland and subsequently in all the USSR satelite countries in the Eastern Europe. As a professed Christian, he seems to see there some kind of divine intervention, even though he does not mention this explicitly. What he mentions a lot is his inability to understand the motives of the general and his life choices. Raised in the family of Polish nobility, educated in a Catholic school, deported to Siberia, sent to work in coal mines of Karaganda during which time he was struck with snow blindness and forced to wear sunglasses for the rest of his life – Jaruzelski had all the reasons to detest Soviets. Marek Miller is trying to find the turning point that changed one of the countless victims of Stalin into an eager officer of the authorities and eventually the military dictator of the communist Poland.
The truth is – there wasn’t one. As surprising as it might seem, there is no moment in a person’s life when they decide to become evil. When general explains that his shift to the side of the oppressors was a long process without any strict borders Miller does not believe him. He gigs deeper and since he is too polite to ask about being evil directly (his personal opinion of the general is unequivocal) he uses what he considers to be a synonymous question: when did the general give up Christianity? What becomes clear after a few pages of their discussion is that they both use mutually exclusive sets of values and thus all the discussion between them is futile. Miller is unable to understand the general and the politician cannot reach the journalist with his explanations. Maybe he never had anything to share in the first place.
This would be a story of two worlds that cannot infiltrate one another, if not for a small detail. The key to the plot of the book is The Pope’s astonishing ability to understand the general. They have spent together two hours during that famous meeting, and then the have met many times afterwards. It is obvious John Paul II respected the general and considered him a partner for a discussion even when the latter was a private person, a pensioner in the free Poland. Just how different two men were is beyond words. The Pope – honest, sympathetic, open, friendly, and the general – serious, firm, self-restrained, dull. How did they find the words to communicate? How were they able to find a common agenda? It is truly amazing and one can understand why the author finds this topic fascinating.
Marek Miller will not give us any easy answers. To be honest we will learn more about the communist regime and how it enslaves human souls from other books. I personally recommend “The Captive Mind” by Czesław Miłosz, “The Calendar and the Hourglass” by Tadeusz Konwicki or “Iron Curtain” by Anne Applebaum – there are plenty and some are even mentioned by Miller in his work.
The strength of “The Pope and the General” lies elsewhere – in its honesty and personal message from the author who feels he is aging and declares his urge to do something significant, leave a tangible trace of his existence, something with which any reader can sympathize and refer to. This topic is covered thoroughly in the book, and in a very artistic and touching way. Some people will find it superfluous in a book pertaining to history, but I really enjoyed it and can subscribe to the main thought of the volume: it is neither the author not the reader that is important, but the link that connects them in the moment of reading.
The author of this review is Arek Królak, former editor-in-chief of KZ Magazine.
Proofreading: Klementyna Dec.
Title: “Pope and general” (SC)
Author: Marek Miller
Comic book illustrations: Przemysław „Trust” Truściński, Krzysztof Ostrowski, Jacek Frąś
Publisher: Narodowe Centrum Kultury
Publication date: Luty 2016
Format: 210×295 mm