It is a thoroughly delightful biography of the early years of an extraordinary man. Born and raised in communist Warsaw, in the 1950s and 60s, Janek dreams of one day being free from the heavy oppression of communism, and free from the extreme poverty that plagued the masses and never seemed to improve.
Poland was occupied by Russians who were paranoid that everyone was out to destroy communism, so they kept a very tight grip on movement of people, not just to and from Poland, but even within the country. Any kind of change in your life was viewed suspiciously and required permission which was often not easily obtained.
Food was very scarce! People often had to leave work hours early in order to stand in line at a store that might have a loaf of bread to sell them. It was in this dreadful poverty and hopelessness that Janek grew more and more determined to get out from behind the Iron Curtain.
Janek was clever, courageous, and determined. He and his friend decided that the only way they would ever get permission to leave Poland for the west was to make the regime think that they were model communists. This they accomplished, and in their early 20s, the two men separately got permission to visit England. Neither had any intention of returning.
Janek made a big mistake, however, by marrying his sweetheart before leaving. He might have been able to get her out of Poland had he not married her, but Janek found out that because he did not return to Warsaw, his wife would never get permission to leave Poland for the west.
The rest of the story tells us how Janek lived and sought help to find a way to get his wife out. The plot becomes more and more intense as time goes by and Janek is running out of options. The extraordinary efforts to get his wife out led him into many situations that were simply terrifying. I was barely able to put the book down especially in the second half.
I won't tell you more than that about the plot except to say it would make a thriller of a movie.
One of the most delightful aspects of the book was watching Janek discover the west. In London, he was captivated by the colours - the houses, the advertising in the tube, were all so stunning compared to the drab grayness of Warsaw.
Janek was taken to see the Polish government in exile. A pitiful yet prideful government still thinking they were the legitimate government of Poland even though they hadn't been in the country for 20 years.
A move to Paris brought many new adventures and enchanting descriptions of the world's most romantic city. It also revealed some of its inherent ugliness in a couple of heart-breaking episodes.
Janek and his friends go on a road trip through Italy and delightfully take us along with them. For awhile, I did something that I did when reading The Count of Monte Christo about 10 years ago. I followed on Google Maps and Satellite view, the movement of the hero as he sailed around the Mediterranean and then into Marseilles. I did the same for Janek and his friends as they travelled through Italy and across other parts of Europe. It was fascinating until the story got so intense I had to give it up and just read.
Putting the book down at the end of the story left me craving for more. I wanted to be back on the Champs-Elysees in a cafe having a croissant and cafe-au-lait, or a cognac, or a bottle of fabulous French wine with quirky, unpredictable, sometimes hilarious friends. I wanted to be on the road again through Italy and Austria to experience the food, the wine, the incredible views. I can hardly wait for the second book in the series.
Janusz Siwinski, the author, is a man I have recently gotten to know, a little, through a prayer meeting we both attend. Having met him, I can easily see him doing all the things he has written about. While living in Canada now for many years he still has a moderately thick Polish accent. This actually comes out a bit in his writing in what might appear to be a few spelling mistakes, but in fact, is simply what his accent looks like on paper. It's part of the charm of the book. I think I might just read it again.