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This article is taken from PN Review 237, Volume 44 Number 1, September - October 2017.

‘In the Province of Demons’: On Czesław Miłosz David Herman
Andrzej Franaszek, Miłosz: A Biography (Harvard University Press), 544pp, £30

I MET CZESŁAW MIŁOSZ IN 1991 when Michael Ignatieff and I went to produce a programme about him for BBC Two. Miłosz was already eighty. His years in exile were nearly over. The Berlin Wall had fallen in 1989 and Miłosz had returned to Poland a hero. A few months before we filmed our interview with him, Lithuania had just emerged from the deep freeze of the Cold War. Miłosz had gone back to the country he had grown up in for the first time since 1939. In a later interview in Paris Review he said, ‘I was made an honorary citizen and attended a mass in the wooden church where I was baptized. But many villages have disappeared. I have to presume enormous numbers of their inhabitants were deported to Siberia […] I visited the place where I was born, but there was no house, only the bare remnants of a park, and the river is polluted.’

This brief passage is deceptive. Some of these images, which seem casual, do a lot of work. ‘The wooden church where I was baptized’, for example. Miłosz was a lifelong Catholic. ‘If I were asked to say where my poetry comes from,’ he once said, ‘I would say that its roots are in my childhood. In Christmas carols, in the liturgy of Marian and vesper offices, and in the Bible.’ One of his great Holocaust poems is called, ‘A Poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto’. He wasn’t just baptised, he was baptised ‘in a wooden church’, ...

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