Here comes the end of the world

Michael Hofmann

For a year or more, I was haunted by the outline of a story: someone is told to immolate himself as a political protest. All day he runs around whatever city it is, as it were Leopold Bloom with a can of petrol, wondering whether to go through with it, waiting for the appointed time, saying his goodbyes. I didn’t know where this idea had come to me from; no one I asked knew anything about any book along these lines, and I was just beginning to think that I must have dreamed it and (God forbid!) that I should write it myself, when I came upon a copy in a second-hand shop: the book is laughingly entitled A Minor Apocalypse, the city is Warsaw, the liquid is not petrol but, unpleasantly, ‘thinner’, and the author of this terrific and almost unknown masterpiece is Tadeusz Konwicki.

In all, six books by Konwicki (born in Wilno in 1926) have appeared in English. I propose to leave the first two out of discussion: The Anthropos-Spectre-Beast, ‘a fantasy for young readers’ that is as hard-edged and adult as everything else of Konwicki’s; and A Dreambook of Our Time, once chosen by Philip Roth for his Penguin series ‘The Other Europe’, but long unobtainable. (My own copy of it has gone missing, but I remember it as a slightly flowery rooming-house novel about zero-hour Poland.) It seems barbaric to ignore any books by a foreign author, like reburying archaeological material: when not everything of his has been preserved for us by translation; when translation affects what has; when a writer has had such a chequered career as Konwicki, who was a Party member in the Fifties, the author of approved socialist realist books, as well as of eerie and untidy films (he directed some of his own, as well as writing scripts for Wajda). But perhaps it is too much to hope – to reconstruct the career of a foreign author under circumstances so unfathomably alien to our own. Like rebuilding Knossos or Troy. This brooch, that awl, these shards? God knows. The point is the particular historical moment of the last ten years, and that, out of whatever moral and ideological and stylistic background, Konwicki found himself able and equipped to take it on. The test of writing from another country is the degree of reality and interest it gives to that country. The four last books of Konwicki give a fascinating picture of Poland – no, they are Poland, as Juan Rulfo is Mexico, or Patrick White Australia. Further, they contain some of the funniest, most outrageous, acid and lugubrious writing I have ever read. I don’t think I have ever been spoken to by an author the way I have by Konwicki.

The first of these four books is The Polish Complex (1977 – the translation by Richard Lourie in 1982), the first of Konwicki’s books to be banned by the authorities in Poland; later on, he graduated to being banned by the Underground. Its basic situation is less extreme than that of A Minor Apocalypse, but just as dramatic and suspenseful: practically the whole book is set in a queue. It begins: ‘I was standing in line in front of a state-owned jewellery store. I was twenty-third in line.’ What Konwicki and his fellow Poles are queuing for is gold wedding rings, a consignment of which is rumoured to be on its way from the Soviet Union. There is no particular occasion for them to be wanting these rings: the queue isn’t about to get itself hitched, individually or collectively. They are there because the goods are (or, strictly speaking, aren’t) because a queue is an opportunity, because anything is better than the money in their pockets: Konwicki is always prodigal with money in his novels. It is hard not to think that these gold wedding rings from Russia have a symbolic aspect as well: something like the legitimisation of the Russian-Polish relationship, Russia doing the decent thing after years of crass occupation. In general, Konwicki is not a hermetic or even an indirect type of writer: but a symbolic reading does suggest itself. Anyway, the rings never come. There are electric samovars instead.

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