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"The best epic saga of the prewar period"
Czesław Miłosz: History of Polish Literature

Nights And Days

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Probably the most significant literary work to emerge from Eastern Europe since WW2.
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Jacek Bocheński (b. 1926) is the leading literary figure of modern Poland, a prolific author, classicist scholar, former president of the Polish PEN Club, former president of the Polish Authors’ Society (SLP), former president of the Intellectual Property Association (ZAIKS), former member of The Citizen’s Committee serving the office of President Lech Wałęsa, a highly-regarded and much-decorated freedom fighter, banned by communist censorship, imprisoned during the Martial Law in Poland (1981-1983), and today widely honored as the Nestor of Polish literature.

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Jacek Bocheński in Berlin in 1988, soon after his release from communist prison.

Like most young people who experienced World War II under German rather than Russian occupation, Bocheński experienced a moment of youthful enthusiasm for Marxism. But as he watched the practice of communism in Eastern Europe, he became disillusioned and decided to drop out of politics and into innocuous classicism. Little did he know that writing a commentary on Julius Ceasar's Memoirs of the Gallic War--Divine Julius of this trilogy--would offend his rulers--to the regime's eyes, the book showed too clearly how a dictatorship corrupts the elites into cooperation.

The banning of the first book, eventually led to other banings of books, and eventually to a blanket ban of any text by Bocheński from any media--or even any mention of him at all. Cornered, Bocheński decided to start an underground literary magazine, and, one thing leading to another, in time became one of the leading dissidents in Eastern Europe and--after the fall of Communism--one of the most widely respected and most decorated heroes of the struggle.

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The Three Titles of the Trilogy
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"Would you like to become a god? It has been done before, you know. There are techniques."

So starts Bocheński's Roman Trilogy, its first volume, Divine Julius, and his first step--totally innocent and unawares--into civil disobedience. Written in the terse, abbreviated style imitating Caesar's own, Divine Julius is a picaresque tale about a charming cynic overthrowing the Roman Republic. Though it pretends to be a how-to book for aspiring dictators, it is also a story of the gut-wrenching compromises made by the Roman elites who have made the overthrow possible--in exchange for offices, debt-forgiveness, economic opportunities, for friendship, out of personal loyalty, for the peace of mind.

While the political message has long been celebrated as the book's one claim to glory, its writing style is its great literary achievement. This is absolutely world class writing for the thinking man.

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Rome's greatest poet was sentenced to exile and damnatio memoriae--an eradication of his work and name--a fate which would soon affect Bocheński. At the time of writing this (1969-1971), however, he was not expecting it. He just wrote a wonderfully playful tale, structured as a live variety show (complete with striptease and dancing girls)--to have fun and to share his love of the man and his poetry. The fun soon turned to frustration when Polish censors submitted the book to thousands of cuts an edits because--well, because poets under tyranny are.

The book is full of subtle insights into the workings of literature under dictatorship, and has been praised mostly on these grounds, but this has overshadowed the fact that it contains some of the most beautiful prose writing to emerge from Eastern Europe in the last century.

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Thirty five years later, in the wake of the picaresque volume 1, Divine Julius (how to overthrow a republic in four easy steps), and the poetic volume 2, Naso the Poet (how, under tyranny, poetry can get you into trouble), came volume three, Tiberius Caesar: a horrifying tale of the second emperor of Rome: the man who normalized political terror. A moral, intellectual, emotional zero whose only skill in life was to grab power and hang onto it. At any cost.
Tiberius Caesar is, on the one hand, a vertigo-inducing look into the great echo chamber of fear, an insight into the mediocrity who ruled, terrorized, and murdered all his betters because he could and because they made him do it.
But the book is also a brilliant work of literature, with deeply moving passages of beautiful prose, many of which would stand as independent essays:

  • how the police state hires its executioners

  • what it is like to read--perhaps better said: to work through--Tacitus in his original Latin

  • an evocative (and hilarious) description of a summer night on Capri in 1970

  • an imaginary visit to a Roman bordello in AD 16

  • a moving and stylistically astonishing scene of Cocceius Nerva reading Cicero's On the Laws

If you enjoy the rich prose of writers like Kazuo Ishiguro or Orhan Pamuk or Gabriel García Márquez, the style of this book will astonish and delight you with its many pleasures.
And if, in your pleasant and secure life in a Western, constitutional democracy you have grown complacent and bored with all the freedoms you take for granted--you should read this as a warning. Because you should be afraid. You should be very afraid. If you lose your democracy, this is what you will have.
This is a very beautiful and a very important book. 

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