TWO CITIES: On Exile, History, and the Imagination by Adam Zagajewski, translated by Lillian Vallee (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $24; 265 pp.). Poetic sensibilities often find prose ill-fitting, particularly when mediated by translation. That’s one problem with “Two Cities,” a collection of short fiction and essays by emigre Polish poet Adam Zagajewski, whose lapidary writing sometimes seems too precious and refracted for his subjects. In “Two Cities” he describes childhood life in Gliwice, no substitute for the family home of Lvov, from which the family was exiled in 1945 following Poland’s post-war repartition; whenever he strolled the streets of Gliwice, Zagajewski writes, his grandfather “despite his walking right next to me, was in Lvov.” That’s the best piece in this collection; also noteworthy is “Spring Thunderstorm,” in which the author, now a well-known writer living in Paris, walks lost and alone, for the first time in years, in a foreign city; and the crisp, chilling “I Killed Hitler,” in which the narrator claims his assassination of the Fuhrer changed nothing “because the next day someone else, exactly like Hitler down to the last detail and perhaps even crueler than the one I killed, took his place.”
Zagajewski, once a believing Communist functionary, has an unusual view of the world, but often his insights don’t seem particularly insightful. The realization that ideas encountered on library shelves are double-edged--can imprison as well as liberate--no doubt reverberates strongly for those raised under communism, but in this country, at least, the insight is rather ho-hum.