Warsaw — WILLIAM Faulkner's ``The Sound and the Fury'' lay innocently on the table. ``It's not Faulkner,'' the host said. ``It's a collection of interviews with anticommunist thinkers. I just put on the cover to read in the bus.''
Since the martial-law period (1981-83), Poland's communist government has squelched most overt opposition. Demonstrations are rare, work stoppages ineffective.
Amid this repression, though, a flourishing underground press helps keep the banned Solidarity trade union alive. In apartment after apartment, variations of the Faulkner scene are repeated.
One young man hides an illegal volume under Ernest Hemingway's ``For Whom the Bell Tolls.'' Another doesn't bother: He just pulls out his favorite volume of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's ``The Gulag Archipelago.''
And just last week Solidarity leader Lech Walesa released an illegally published book -- ``Five Years After August,'' a 500-page study of Solidarity.
``Nobody can forbid us to speak and think about Poland,'' he wrote in the introduction.
Vladimir Lenin once said that opposition remains possible as long as it retains access to a newspaper. Solidarity's leaders agree.
Bronislaw Geremek, a key adviser to Mr. Walesa, says the opposition must now bide its time and fight the government with ideas.
``It's the most important thing we can do,'' Professor Geremek says. ``A free attitude needs free ideas.''
This strategy provokes a confused government response. Some officials contend that the underground press is not a serious problem. It remains, as one suggested in private, ``a little game.''
Government spokesman Jerzy Urban told the Monitor that he considers many underground publications ``useful.'' When ``conspirators are shown trying to overthrow the law, it illustrates the corrosion of the movement,'' he explains.
Culture Minister Kazimierz Zygulski added in an interview that ``the underground literature is junk, useless slander without any intellectual quality.''
At the same time, though, the police have launched an offensive against subversive literature. Almost every day during the past few months, announcements are made about the arrest of ``distributors of illegal publications.'' Sentences, averaging several years each, are handed down against ``anti-state writers.''
Such close police attention suggests that, despite official statements, underground publishing has an important impact.
In addition to the illegal books, Western officials say the underground puts out some 1,000 publications, ranging from amateurish photocopied four-page pamphlets to slick, expensive intellectual journals.
There are also underground broadcasts by ``Radio Solidarity'' and a full-length feature video dealing with the Stalin-era trials is making the rounds of Warsaw apartments. It is called ``Investigation.''
The written material regularly reaches about 3 million Poles, according to opposition activists. Although big cities are best supplied, they say that occasional messages reaching the countryside also are important.
``When a reader gets a paper, it tells him, `We still are here,' '' one activist says. ``It picks them up.''
The underground's efforts to inform and sustain hope do not take place in a vacuum of state-controlled mass media. Much of the population listens to foreign radio: the British Broadcasting Corporation, the Voice of America, and Radio Free Europe (RFE).
Despite constant jamming of broadcasts, RFE says that enough of its programming gets through to keep Polish listenership to RFE the highest in the East bloc. An RFE poll taken last month shows that 16 million Poles (out of a total population of 37 million) listen regularly.
Legal newspapers also operate outside of state control within the country. Usually run by the church, the most famous is Krakow's Tygodnik Powszechny.
``The state censors us, but we still write pretty much what we want to write,'' says Tygodnik Powszechny reporter Maciej Kozlowski. ``When there is a hole in the text, the reader knows what's happened.''
During Solidarity's heady days in 1980 and 1981, most holes disappeared. State papers became lively and argumentative. Thirsting for freedom, the journalists formed their own independent union.
But after martial law was declared and the union banned, all journalists were forced to take loyalty oaths.
Many refused. The government weekly Przeglad Tygodniowy recently revealed that a total of 302 newspaper journalists and 227 radio and television journalists were dismissed.
Many of these talented writers and broadcasters now work for the underground. For example, one former editor of a large city daily earns his living as a night watchman. During his spare time, he writes.
These efforts result in a wide variety of publications. Tygodnik Mazowsze, the weekly Solidarity bulletin, provides nitty-gritty information on arrests and planned work stoppages. Analytical journals such as Vacat and Spectator feature intellectual essays on current politics and economics -- and above all, on history. Poles can now read about topics ignored by the state press, such as the Warsaw ghetto uprising and the Katyn massacre of Polish soldiers during World War II.
Even books with no direct relation to Poland are published. Last year, the first Polish edition of Friedrich Nietzsche since 1929 appeared. And a present underground best-seller is John Naisbitt's ``Megatrends.''
``We print anything the state won't print,'' says an underground publisher, ``anything to promote different ideas.''
Makeshift publishing shops now exist in apartments throughout the country. Much of the work is reportedly done inside government factories, businesses, and offices. Both methods are efficient. According to the underground publisher, it takes several years for the state press to publish a book. In the underground, it takes several months.
``Everything runs on a business basis,'' he explains. ``Many of the printers sympathize, and if they don't, all it takes is a little bribe.''
Underground radio takes more creativity. Small slips of paper listing the time and frequency of shows are posted in apartment buildings. Then activists plant portable audio and video transmitters in public buildings, and the transmitters are activated by timing devices. If the police find the transmitters, the broadcasters have long fled.
Solidarity saboteurs also connect tape recorders to public-address systems. Police often are unable to locate the tapes until the messages have run for their full length, often half an hour. In recent months, such ``broadcasts'' reportedly have stopped work at the huge Huta Warszawa steelworks and the Ursus tractor factory.
Opposition leaders say such spectacular actions are mounted to show that Solidarity remains capable of organizing complex protests. But they admit that their impact is limited. Radio Solidarity broadcasts, for example, reach only a small portion of society -- and the broadcasts themselves remain irregular.
In contrast, the written underground appears with daily precision reaching a large public, and the government appears unable to snuff it out. It has grown too large. As soon as one group is arrested, another group replaces it.
Thousands of Poles with innocuous backgrounds contribute in thousands of small ways. In all, one opposition activist estimates that some 20,000 people are involved in the underground media.
``Imagine putting 20,000 people in jail,'' he says. ``At best, the government can hope to control it at a certain level.''