Paradise in a Concrete Cage

By Leszek Dziegiel. Kraków. Arcana. 1998. 307 pages. Paper.

Joseph A. Kotarba

Leszek Dziegiel's Paradise in a Concrete Cage is a rich and fascinating, first-person account of everyday life in post World War 2 Cracow. Dziegiel is a professor of ethnology at the Jagiellonian University, who earlier in his career applied his skills to the study of third-world societies in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. Paradise is an effort to write about his own society from the ethnologist perspective. This exceptionally detailed story meets the first and most important criterion for good ethnography (as this scholarly enterprise is more generally referred to in the West): the author makes you feel like you were there.

Dziegiel's postwar Poland sounds both alien and fascinating to the American reader. He writes about numerous common problems and practices in the everyday life of Polish people that are only hinted at in stories we hear from friends or relatives emigrating from Poland, or that are suggested by the mass media. For example, we all have heard about the long queues in which Poles have had to stand in order to get scarce food and other goods. Dziegiel describes the actual social structure of these queues. During times of unusually great shortage, queues would split into two columns: one made up of "privileged" shoppers, such as the disabled or old-age pensioners, who "leaning on their canes and crutches. . . stood tight-lipped, clutching the documents that allowed them to jump the queue" (34). They would exchange insults with members of the regular queue. The rules of the queue were constantly violated, either by the hired queuers, who would wait in line for wealthier patrons, or by shop workers who, for a bribe, would furtively disclose the day and time of special product arrivals. Dziegiel similarly describes the unexpected intricacies and complications of dealing with chronic shortages of paper, plastic, sugar and salt; locating a flat; and buying a car.

The primary method organizing Dziegiel's recollections and descriptions is autobiography. Most of the book is devoted to the making of the academic intellectual in postwar Poland. Obviously, everyday life for the intellectual in Poland was not the same as, say, that of the vast working class or peasantry. Yet, the status of intellectual in no way automatically relieved one of the constant drudgery of everyday life under the totalitarian yoke of communism.

Dziegiel's scholarly career began in secondary school in Katowice, where he was forced to take an exit exam supervised by party officials. In attempting to enter the Jagiellonian University, Dziegiel had to compete with young people from the peasantry who were given preferential admissions treatment because of their "correct social background." Scholarships were tiny, and housing was difficult to locate.

Nevertheless, university students devised strategies for escaping the drudgery of communism, if only for fleeting moments. American and British films, hiking in the Tatras, clothing and hair styles that were symbols of political resistance, private parties, French jazz--university students in the 1950s and 1960s found ways to enjoy life and establish a sense of individualism in the midst of drab collectivism.

Any ethnography as detailed as Paradise is bound to have numerous pluses and minuses. A distinctive plus is Dziegiel's elegant analysis of the redesign and rebuilding of Poland's devastated cities after the war in light of massive population relocation. A distinctive minus is his overdrawn obsession with automobiles and motorcycles.

In addition to its wealth of substantive information, Dziegiel's book illustrates the contrast between ethnographic and ethnological studies of everyday life. In a nutshell, American and sociologically-inspired ethnography was designed to study everyday American urban life, whereas European and anthropologically-inspired ethnology was designed to study "primitive" peoples. Ethnologists attempting to apply their craft to urban life in the new democracies in Central and Eastern Europe can benefit from exposure to the sophisticated methodologies developed over time in American ethnography, for example, the explicit and desirable use of the researcher's personal experience as a valid source of data. American ethnographers can benefit from reading Paradise in a Concrete Cage and seeing how the human spirit can construct a warm and supportive everyday life reality within the soulless context of totalitarianism.

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