Kozłowski tells the story of a young Polish army doctor who is one of the few survivors after the disappearance, in April 1940, of 4,000 prisoners from a Soviet interrogation camp in Starobelsk, Ukraine. The novel is based on extensive research of the Katyń Massacre by the author .
The novel moves back and forwards through time, showing the way that the events in the camp, and the relationships forged there, shape the rest of Kozłowski’s life.
The men in the camp have no official prisoner of war status, no certainty from day to day. When many of his comrades disappear, Kozłowski suspects the worst, but has no evidence. It is only after the war when he is asked to bear witness at an enquiry in London that he begins to piece together what happened.
The account of life in the camp shows the different strategies the men use to survive and to maintain their morale. The officers throw themselves into everything from art to botany to political discussions. You also see the tensions between them, personal and political, and their discussions give an insight into the ethnic diversity in Poland and their range of political views, from communist to nationalist, and how these are shaped by the war and Stalin.
Despite the stark experiences of the prisoners, this book avoids sensation or sentimentality. It doesn’t dramatise or dazzle with plot twists. Kozłowski doesn’t emote or have profound periods of self-analysis. The story is built from a careful layering of his experiences.
Kozłowski’s stoicism enhances rather than detracts from the sense of his courage and endurance. The way he goes on to make a life in Britain, underpinned by his past experience, is quietly moving.
Enjoyed this? Take a look at some of my other reviews of novels set in the Second World War.