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This review is taken from PN Review 68, Volume 15 Number 6, July - August 1989.

EX URBE OPPUGNATA Zbigniew Herbert, Report From The Besieged City, translated by John and Bogdana Carpenter (OUP) £5.95

Zbigniew Herbert has always written in the grave, ironic manner that is the hallmark of a temperament reluctant to submit to misery, however grim and implacable its grip may be. For a comparable modern instance one would need to turn to the Alexandrian Cavafy, or to the persona of Cavafy's most famous poem: a citizen of the empire disappointed of "some kind of solution" by the non-arrival (and rumoured elimination) of barbarians beyond the orbit of civic pieties. Without totally rejecting this persona's basic postulates, Herbert has reversed the perspective, with the result that he is left in a position somewhat similar to that of the banished Ovid reminding Rome that "Here [in his Black Sea exile] they account me a barbarian, for I am understood by no one" (Tristia, Book V, Elegy x). Far from providing "some kind of solution" to the discontents of a civilization in decline, Herbert has sought to show how problems and dilemmas arise in the first place. For him, as an outsider, there can be no here without a concomitant elsewhere, no now that (if it wishes to perpetuate itself) can disregard its genealogy. Herbert's quiet and quizzical voice is a wry comment on a situation which until quite recently was taken very much for granted: the fact that the culture of MittelEuropa has never enjoyed a centrality equivalent to its geographical position, and has suffered profoundly from Europe's failure - as Czeslaw Milosz has ruefully phrased it - "to acknowledge itself ...


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