herbert the barbarian


For many years I believed that the great Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert traveled by bus to the places he describes in Barbarian in the Garden. Each time I re-read Barbarian I could picture him wearing a white shirt, sleeves rolled up, wiping sweat off his forehead, and climbing onto a dust-covered bus. Since I had no clue what an Italian bus would have looked like at the time of Herbert’s journeys, it invariably resembled the dilapidated Polish bus I used to ride as a child in the late Fifties and early Sixties, and the background I envisioned could have come straight from a Rosellini or a De Sica movie. The problem, though, is that in the entire book he makes only a few references to his manner of travel: we know, for example, that he went to Lascaux and Chaalis by bus, and to Paestum and Orvieto by train. Most of the essays begin after he’s already arrived at a given destination, allowing the reader to get the gist of things much sooner than if the author had cluttered his essays with minute details of his arrivals and departures. I’m sure that I could have settled the question once and for all if I’d had a historian’s yen for research. But the lack of textual evidence that would corroborate my theory didn’t bother me at all. The bus just had to be Herbert’s preferred means of transportation. How else could he have gone from one little Tuscan or Umbrian town to another?

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