Readers in the free world may be brought up short amid the literary pleasures of this novel by a Nobel Prize-winning poet. Are they sufficiently honoring the peace and freedom denied to the characters seen here in World War II Poland? Or are they, like the Americans observed by Milosz in another book, using their distance from the upheavals of history for no more than the equivalent of watching TV in a bar?
Whatever the answer, a Western reader has to feel a humbling admiration for the depicted resisters of Nazi and then Soviet tyranny, precursors of the Solidarity heroes whose second anniversary was celebrated last month.(August) And what of those who gave up resisting then - or now? Milosz fascinatingly explores the characters able to rationalize compliance with a repressive regime.
Here, for example, is a writer forced into a pact with the communist devil, accepting a printing press from the authorities, trying to place conditions on the selling of his soul, bleakly imagining the dark years ahead. It is a brief, telling fictional -vignette to accompany the analysis of artists snared by Stalinism for which Milosz's ''The Captive Mind'' is known.
What makes some people finally adjust to communism and others not? Milosz can draw on his own experience of at first working for the postwar Polish regime and then leaving it for the West. He has elsewhere explained that he could not hew to the line of ''socialist realism,'' which he came to see was just another term for lying.
At the end of ''The Seizure of Power,'' a character decides to leave for the West, too. But when the chance actually comes he is suddenly afraid, ''for he had lately become almost reconciled and had begun to find his place among the conquerors.'' (His mother had warned him: ''Anyone who speaks the way he has to speak begins to think the way he's got to think.'') Then the plane to freedom does take off, and ''the land, his native land, was somewhere below, covered in snow forever.''
First published in 1955, this translation becomes a fresh experience in Poland's present year of martial law. Some of the intellectual deception and self-deception portrayed is in the realm satirized by Soviet exile Alexander Zinoviev. Echoes of the Peloponnesian War are sounded in framing passages about a professor looking at his daughter's generation through the lens of history. But poet Milosz's prose also comes through with concrete immediacy of sight and sound as he describes the turmoil of Poland in the middle 1940s when Warsaw rose against the Germans and its ruins were overrun by the Russians. These pages are suddenly reminiscent of Stephen Crane's understated battlefield eloquence in ''The Red Badge of Courage.''
It as if the style itself - alternately distancing readers and pulling them sharply into the scene - were reflecting the duality of thought and feeling so often noted in Milosz's work. Is the ''seizure of power'' only over people's governments and territories, or is it over their hearts and minds?
The writer in the book is tempted by a communist official who argues that it is possible to accept revolution while maintaining one's private opinions: ''You will lend us your name. In exchange, you will be able to practice spiritual resistance quite legally.''
But Milosz, like the old Polish mother in his novel, knows that ''what begins with a lie will remain a lie.''