My Two Polish

And Other Essays
On the Imaginative Life

Witold Rybczynski
The editors said this was available for review if I wanted it and I immediately said yes because I liked the author's astounding writings about coups and revolutions around the world: on-the-scene reports from Angola after the departure of the Portuguese, the last days of the Shah of Iran, a post-partum look at Soviet Russia in The Imperium, and The Emperor, tales of the corruption of the court of Hailie Selassi in Ethiopia. The New York Times referred to his journalism as a "shimmering reality."

My Two Polish Grandfathers arrives ... and what do I get: studies in architecture at McGill University in Montreal, building stone cottages in Formentera, creating a house for his parents based on Le Corbusier's house built for his family. There are Habitats in Puerto Rico, Israel and the Virgin Islands, along with I. M. Pei, Louis Khan, and Philip Johnson. Shimmering above all this is a loving portrayal of his ancient noble Polish family, destroyed by the violence known as the 20th Century.

For instance, there is this observation of Witold Erasmus Rybczynski, his grandfather,

    who sampled all the forms of government that the turbulent twentieth century had to offer: imperial rule under the Habsburgs; democracy and then authoritarianism during the twenty-year Polish Republic; fascism under the Third Reich's General Gouvernement; and --- briefly --- Communism.

"In spite --- or, perhaps, because--- of the unsettled times in which he lived, he created for himself a remarkably settled existence. His was a happy unhappy life, which, as John Lukacs has pointed out, is preferable to an 'unhappy happy one.'"

Well, I think, this guy has got to be the certified genius of the last half-century. He was friend to Patrice Lumumba in the Congo, Ben Bella in Algeria, Che Guevara in Cuba and Idi Amin in Uganda. At the same time he is getting his MA in architecture at McGill University, working on UN projects in Manila, and designing (and building) a family barn in Hemmingford, the apple-pie country south of Montreal.

I complained about this perversity of personalities to a friend. He, somewhat more literate than I, explained it all in an email:

    That's the trouble with Polish names, they all look alike. You are thinking of Ryszard Kapuscinski. His fascinating book on travels in the crumbling Soviet Union was called Imperium, and it was the first book in which he described his childhood in the part of Poland occupied by the USSR after the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of 1939.

"Witold Rybczynski is pretty good too, although on different subjects. Perhaps Rybczynski and Kapuscinski are related to each other ... but probably not to Theodore Kaczynski, the Unabomber."

--- Carlos Amantea
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