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The most censored book ever

Amazon has put Naso the Poet by JacekBocheński on sale. Get it here.

Like many young men who experienced World War II under the German rather than Russian (“Soviet”) occupation, Jacek Bocheński (born 1926) experienced an early enthusiasm for the “communist” political system installed in Poland by the conquering Russian (“Soviet”) armies. And, like most such young men, by 1960, he finally realized that what had been promised by the regime to be “just a temporary phase of proletarian dictatorship” was really intended to be a permanent feature of the system and a return to democratic principles of governance was not really part of the communist plan. Disillusioned, he decided to disengage politically. He turned in his work to something that he thought would be completely apolitical: the writing of commentaries on ancient Roman classics.

Alas, the first book he wrote on the topic, Divine Julius, documenting the rise to power of Julius Caesar and the corrupt, craven, and cowardly response to it by the Roman elites (which made that rise possible), attracted the communist censor’s ire: the communist party perceived this picture of how a dictatorial regime might choose to mascarade as a republic to be a form of veiled criticism of itself. The book, published to resounding critical and commercial success in 1961, was promptly banned, and Bocheński himself found himself under a publishing interdict.

Paradoxically, the popular protests of 1968 and their violent suppression by the communist party opened a chance for Bocheński’s books to be published in Poland again. In fact, the publication of Naso the Poet became politically unavoidable: the Communist Party was eager to prove that the period of repression was over and Poland was once again the land of the free (and merely lovingly guided by the fatherly party). Yet, given the brouhaha around the publication of Divine Julius, the censorship office of the Polish People's Republic was bound to go over Naso the Poet with a very fine tooth comb. They did. They made several thousand cuts and corrections in the text.

The censors adopted a seemingly rational attitude: unlike Divine Julius, which got in trouble precisely because readers found in the Roman story numerous allusions to the Communist present (such as the fake pretense of preserving the institutions of a Republic or members of the elites cravenly propagating the Big Lie—i.e., that pretending that they believed the system to be democratic), Naso was going to contain no such references.

Some interventions were understandable—a book about ancient Rome should not contain references to Warsaw (as the original text did); nor should one read in it direct quotations of the Polish communist leadership put in the mouth of Emperor Augustus; but others verged on the paranoid. For example, in a sentence in which Naso says, “My books have been banned,” the word “book” had to be replaced with “scrolls.” Obviously, said the censors, there were no books in Rome in 22 A.D. and therefore no books could have been removed from Roman state libraries.

A long period of negotiations followed between the publisher and the censorship office, during which many “interventions” had been reversed—sufficiently many for the author to allow the book's publication in its new, emasculated form.

Interestingly when, following Poland's independence (1991) and the abolition of the office of the censor, Bocheński sat about preparing Naso for the first uncensored publication of the work, he found to his surprise, that a few of the edits undertaken under pressure, turned out better than the original phrasing. This only applied to a minority of the “interventions” and yet illustrated an interesting point: that a very careful reader does force the author to improve his craft.

The text you are about to read follows the text of the first post-communist edition of the book, removing most of the censor’s edits, but retaining those the author decided to be advantageous.

Tom Pinch

Ardennes National Park


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