Only a writer with James Michener's popular appeal can resort to one-word titles - ''Hawaii,'' ''Iberia,'' ''Chesapeake,'' and now ''Poland'' - and anticipate best sellers.
His timing is exquisite. Since 1980 Poland has been constantly in the news, and the current chapter in its rich history remains unfinished.
Authors of historical novels, as this one turns out to be, either create a human story of several generations within the framework of history, or they recount history utilizing fictional characters. In this instance, Michener chooses the latter emphasis. Members of three families are placed in the center of stirring events from the Tatar invasion of 1241 to the Solidarity of today - more than 700 years.
The families are from different levels of society: the Lubonskis are perennial magnates or overlords, becoming increasingly important among the decisionmakers of pre-1918 Poland; the Bukowskis are originally the lieges or knights owing allegiance to the Lubonskis; and the Buks are serfs and later peasants living in the Krakow region, to which most Polish-Americans trace their roots.
Members of all three families participate in Michener's telling of the great moments of Polish history: the Tatar incursions, victory over the Teutonic knights at Grunwald, the Swedish invasion, the successful defense of Vienna against the Turks, Polish independence in 1918, the defeat of the Soviet Union in 1920, the Nazi occupation, and the Soviet victory in 1945. (Improbably, a member of the aristocratic Prussian von Eschl family also bobs up in almost every major crisis.)
Inexplicably missing from the novel are detailed accounts of Poland's only recent experience with true independence, 1918-1939, and of the postwar 1945- 1981 period. Michener could have used the history of the Polish Republic after 1918 to illustrate some of his important conclusions. That period sets the scene for communist Poland and, thus, the tumultuous events of the last three years.
Michener does not hesitate to let his own views come through the narrative. He correctly criticizes such failings as the historical tendency of the Polish aristocracy to choose foreign kings for fear that one of their own would become too powerful, the questionable ability of the Poles to govern themselves, the willingness of the magnates and the gentry to cooperate with foreign predators to preserve their own predominant positions.
Yet, during much of this period most European states were governed by monarchs dependent on the often uncertain allegiance of the aristocracy. And certainly European ruling groups everywhere showed no more interest in sharing power with the peasants and growing urban population than did their Polish counterparts. In fact the Poles had a greater sense of nationality than the Germans, Italians, Belgians, and others. However, they could not successfully exploit these bonds of nationhood to construct a viable nation-state.
Inevitably there will be disagreement over whether Michener made the best choices about what to include. He chooses, for example, to set up a present-day confrontation between the government and farmers. Yet, as fundamentally important as farmers are to Polish society, it was not they who challenged the regime in 1980. It was the more numerous industrial workers, whose example was followed by the organization of Rural Solidarity. To try to make the Solidarity period meaningful only in a rural context distorts contemporary social and political dynamics.
Although Michener injects a local bishop into the contemporary narrative, there is little effort to dramatize the Roman Catholic Church as the historical guardian of Polish national values and as the alternative power center, especially in times of adversity.
Finally, although much is written of the Prussians and Austrians, there is little about the Russians, who, perceived as inferior and uncultured non-European people, are traditionally objects of Polish disdain.
In the novel, the history is communicated less through the flow of the lives, actions, personalities, and words of Michener's characters than through his descriptive passages, which could stand alone without fictional characters.
Michener could have shown more respect for his readers by limiting his role to skillful narration and characterization, and allowing readers to draw more of their own conclusions. The characters are at best, however, two-dimensional. They emerge as artificial creations who are never allowed to develop into real people.
The two contemporary protagonists are best drawn, perhaps because Michener met people like them on his travels in Poland. The peasant leader, Janko Buk, exemplifies the stubborn, land-proud, suspicious, universal but profoundly Polish peasant, whose sophistication has been geometrically expanded by exposure to the outside world - even President Reagan.
The other protagonist is the minister of agriculture, Szymon Bukowski, a participant in the anti-Nazi resistance and a one-time inmate of a concentration camp, where he concluded that communism was the only way to realize Polish aspirations. In Michener's hands, Bukowski becomes a typically Polish apparatchik, reluctant to choose between being a Pole or a communist.
Michener's resolutions of both the political and personal subplots are not quite credible, although they follow the best romantic and inconclusive Polish tradition.
What has Michener achieved in this book? A great deal. In the form of a novel , however uncompelling in some ways, he has succeeded in writing a readable and accurate history. Most of the countless number who read it will learn something new and gain an inkling of the complexities of Poland and its people.
If, from other sources, they come to comprehend the passion that fires the Polish soul, they will have a still greater understanding of this tormented and proud nation. In their passion the Poles have forced changes in leadership three times since 1945. Students of Poland know that they will try again and, if unseccessful, yet again.