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.

The ironic thing about the queue is that it becomes a great way for the people in it – the Poles – to get to know one another. Divisions break down, and the queue talks – how preferable, from the Soviet point of view, the conspicuous or furtive consumption of goods would have been. Konwicki has given us a magnificently warped sample of his countrymen. There is Kojran, a rather well-informed and grumpy reader of Konwicki’s work (and Konwicki himself is preparing to defend himself in a lawsuit brought by another reader who feels his own character has been maligned in the books); there is a one-time security man, Duszek, once instructed to eliminate Konwicki in the early days after the war, but now thoroughly mellowed out, and given to uttering gnomic pieces of folk wisdom about the Poles, little gems like ‘Drink makes a Pole merry,’ ‘When a Pole complains, he feels better right away,’ ‘When a Pole sees a balcony, he wants to jump.’ These have a moronic profundity about them. There is also a serving security man, a ‘stoolie’, Grzesio the provocateur, who doesn’t fool anyone for a second with his ‘Do you people know the joke about the Party Secretary?’ and whom Duszek has well in hand. Then there are lesser characters: a peasant woman of astounding wealth, elegance and sexual appetency; a student with a French anarchist in tow, someone for the Western reader to identify with:

‘He says,’ said the student, still interpreting for the anarchist, ‘that there’s something in Poland. Some sort of spirit. Some force of eternal unrest. He’s seen Polish films, he knows about the Polish school.’

    ‘Many unprejudiced people become quite taken by our country,’ said the woman in the pelisse.

All of life is in the queue, in its rapid and brilliant cross-talk, and shifting relationships and alliances. People eat, drink and sleep in the queue, they make love – a typically Konwickian coupling, sexy, improbable and half-consummated, with the shop assistant – and they suffer heart attacks that take them to death’s door. Intercut with this life, this wonderful heightened repartee, the sumptuous deciphering of detail are passages of reflection and prophecy in a rhetorical and splenetic rush, and a couple of fictionalised scenes from the rebellious and betrayed history of 19th-century Poland (the 1863 Polish Revolt against Russia). The effect is at once seditious and pessimistic, a combination that underwrites Konwicki’s absolute and uncompromising independence. His pessimism is actually his worst sin, because it antagonised government and opposition in equal measure: sedition ‘only’ upset the regime. ‘Don’t make us any sadder, godamnit, write something to give us strength,’ his faithful reader Kojran beseeches him, but after his work in the Fifties – of which only one suggestive title, Authority, is known to me – Konwicki is through with giving strength. He might give it to the wrong people.

A Minor Apocalypse is one of the great works of fiction to have come out of the late, half-lamented eastern half of Europe. Its daunting, unforgettable and joyful first sentence, ‘Here comes the end of the world’, has its truth confirmed throughout the rest of the book – confirmed personally, medically, alcoholically, politically, architecturally, folklorically, nationally, sexually and cosmically. Many of the themes and tropes of The Polish Complex recur in it, in heightened and perfected form: the relationship of Russia and Poland, a man’s life and death, the presentation of the author in conversation, daily life in Warsaw, political debate, the state of the universe ‘where rusted Sputniks and astronaut excrement, frozen bone hard, go gliding past’. Compared to its predecessor, A Minor Apocalypse has been given one more twist of desperation. Once again, the action is all in the waiting – but waiting for the end. And it has been elevated. From being a cross-section of anybodies, a queue of men in the street, everybody here is ‘somebody’. In Poland the book was read as a roman à clef, and even to us, without inside information, it is peopled with high-ups in the regime and opposition, the arts and censorship, philosophy and the film industry.

On the day the author is approached by Hubert and Rysio, two old lags from the Underground, the self-styled ‘keepers of a dying flame’, themselves ironically three-quarters dead, with their outrageous and bland request that he sacrifice himself for their cause – he is after all, expendable – on that day, Poland is receiving a state visit from its eastern neighbour. It would be; it often did; and this is also what gives the protest its occasion. Konwicki experiences in his own person all the encroachment and duress inflicted on – and transmitted by – Poland. He is leaned on by the Underground, picked up by the Police, the water and gas are disconnected in his flat, he meets censors, Politburo members, big cheese film directors – it seems that everyone in the book except himself is some kind of authority figure, has some kind of crummy power vested in him, forms part of an infernal and cannibalistic machine. At the same time, he witnesses Poland’s national humiliation: the placards WE HAVE BUILT SOCIALISM! amidst the rubble of Warsaw, the over-rehearsed crowds, the quasi-homoerotic antics of the two heads of state on the numerous television sets, all with the sound turned off.

One of Konwicki’s great themes is the way his country has been fucked by Russia: ‘I came out onto Nowy Swiat, which was overgrown with a shrubbery of flags, red flags and red-and-white flags. But in those red-and-white flags of ours the red has slowly increased over the years, while the white has diminished. And now our flags are red, too, with just a little white band at the top.’ Hence his interest in outer space, which might be ‘twinned with Poland’, for all the Soviet detritus swimming around in it. The occasional Polish flag peeps out ‘shyly’ from between its red neighbours. The Polish leader has the demeanour of a concierge or a catamite. The crowds in the street chant ‘Poland!’ in Russian and Polish. People break into Russian at moments of stress, speak Polish with Russian accents, even when performing in folkloric representations of Polish culture: ‘The leader of the dance was tapping his foot and singing in a low voice with a Russian accent: I’m from Krakow, yes, I am!’ The Russian is marked out everywhere in the book, and identified with power and scale. There is (the unnamed) Brezhnev with his ‘Kalmuck face’, ‘the tsar of tsars, master of half the world’; the wife of a Politburo member is chatted up by a reference to her ‘Soviet tits’; the official banquet features ‘an enormous sturgeon, a tsar of a sturgeon’: ‘The sturgeon was covered by a shimmering pale-green aspic, which reminded me of the depths of Lake Baikal.’ Even when consorting with the Underground, Konwicki meets the beautiful Russian Nadezhda (or Hope), framed by pictures of ‘the stern and bearded faces of the Russian dissidents’. The unwearying identification of things Russian is comic in itself, and further comedy comes from the way they have been shamelessly substituted for Polish things, their grisly virtue, their scale, their austerity. None of it is authentic, and none of it is even plausible:

A bunch of guys, not young but dressed as newspaper boys, were fast approaching us from Aleje Jerozolimskie. It was a group of some sort of activists, probably from a youth organisation. They were scattering a special edition of Trybuna Ludu and calling out shamefacedly:

    ‘Poland awarded honorary title of First Candidate for membership in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics!’

    ‘Extra! Poland a candidate for membership in Soviet Union!’

Konwicki careers through his day, stumbling from drink to drink, from one encounter to the next, like an all-comprehending pinball. He has nothing, he represents nothing, he is alone, he believes in nothing he sees, he is a transcendental or romantic nihilist. To those who nominated him, the Konwicki character seems like the perfect victim – written-out, hungovcr, on the skids – but he plays the victim’s last best trick of accepting his fate and devaluing it at the same time. His obedience, both to the authorities and the opposition, comes over as a sublime insult. His refusal to be surprised or deceived or enraged is absolutely maddening to both sides. Somehow, a combination of passivity, shrewdness and vast indifference has made him free, and as a free man he is invulnerable. When the police haul him in and stick a needle in his arm, he is grateful that they use a clean one:

He injected the entire large dose. I didn’t feel anything. It wasn’t out of the question that the ampoule was a dummy. They used injections like that which contained no drugs, only a salt solution. Our domestic pharmaceutical industry had also been on the skids for some time.

How do you duff up a man so unimpressed and so analytical that the subject of his unselfish musings is ‘our domestic pharmaceutical industry’?

I am conscious of having made A Minor Apocalypse sound rather like a monodrama: in fact, it is a Babel. Just as in The Polish Complex, everyone gets to talk, though this time not in short, joky lines but more often in long, dazzling and ironic speeches. There is cutting and parrying and thrusting, like some intellectual Punch and Judy show; the best action of the book is in the talking. Everywhere there is amazing articulacy and sophistication from the most unexpected sources. The torturer perorates like this: ‘You represent noble passivity while I am trivial action.’ The censor invites Konwicki to work for the Censorship: ‘They’d appreciate you. You had a flair for allusions.’ The opposition is attacked as ‘apparatchiks’, ‘dissidents with lifetime appointments. The regime has grown accustomed to them and they’ve grown accustomed to the regime.’

A Minor Apocalypse is both generously polyphonic and a curmudgeonly aria. Konwicki appears as the antagonist of a whole country, and the supreme expression of its cussed spirit. When I finally read the book for the first time, I was amazed that Konwicki was still living in Poland, not because I thought he hated it and wanted to leave, but because I couldn’t think of any organisation or power or sectional interest that would put up with him any longer. I could think of no one from the town planners of Warsaw to the priests ‘of the new dispensation’ to the Polish-Arab Friendship Society whom he hadn’t offended. Like the speaker in Joseph Brodsky’s poem ‘Plato Elaborated’, here was someone to throw the book at:

And when they would finally arrest me for espionage,
for subversive activity, vagrancy, for ménage
à trois ...

It was Brodsky again who archly pointed out that ‘a translation, by definition, lags behind the original work.’ In Konwicki’s case, the lag has been five years for each book. Five years is an eternity, given the recent rapid transformations in Poland and the rest of the Soviet imperium, and it may be that Western readers may question the relevance to them of books so outdistanced by political developments. (In 1989 I was aware of an ugly and sub-intellectual wash of resentment against Brecht: ‘with Communism on the way out, why do we still have to put up with him,’ people seemed to be saying. Of course, they were the people who could never be bothered with Brecht in the first place, knavishly using politics as an excuse.) The argument for Konwicki – and the same goes for Brecht – is the artistic one. His books are more than reportage, and survive the conditions from which they sprang. If Gierek had never lived, and Poland never existed, Konwicki would be worth reading. A Minor Apocalypse has, in Edmund Wilson’s phrase, ‘its place among the books that set a standard’. My own belated ‘discovery’ of it seems a case in point: but even if I’d read it punctually, it would still not have been ‘topical’.

This is highly ironic, given that some of Konwicki’s bitterest criticism is reserved for himself and his own writing. In all his books, he presents himself as a soon-to-be-ex writer in one way or another: beset by disappointed readers; selected for an auto da fé. Moonrise, Moonset begins with a constatation of his failure:

I am being rejected. I am being rejected from literature. With the force of a jet engine I am being ejected from fiction. To maintain your prestige you must produce a novel every so often. It’s high time I stammered out another work of prose. But I can’t. But I can’t.

This diary-book, itself an imitation, according to Konwicki, of a similar and far more successful earlier book called The Calendar and the Hourglass (never translated – if it even exists), is the work of a disgruntled journalist manqué, ‘a columnist forced by an unfortunate set of circumstances into becoming a novelist’. Without the stomach for the struggle with form, he lets himself go, produces a hodgepodge of actuality, reminiscence and malice, improvises a ‘Slavic pizza’. And yet even his earlier work is unreadable, he declares; he himself has never managed to read a word of it: ‘I am spur-of-the-moment, short-run, temporary. In life and in my misshapen writing. My books start to die as soon as the ink dries on the page.’

Konwicki makes, as one would expect, a devastating case against himself, but one should hold out against it. I would put Moonrise, Moonset in a slightly different class from the two previous books, which were, after all, achieved novels – although, to make the opposite case, it only continues their démontage of the form, and should perhaps be more highly prized for refusing all compromise. The New York Times did say ‘it has to be considered Konwicki’s best book.’ The Western reader could use a little help with some of the names and references, although Konwicki’s entanglements with Brzezinski (‘the Great Zbig’, who is unable to find time to meet him, thereby costing Jimmy Carter to lose the election, according to Konwicki) and the Laureate Milosz (‘It looks as if I’ll be making a film of Milosz’s The Issa Valley – a jolly leap into a simpatico abyss’) need less explanation than most. Still, for all one’s ignorance of many of the cast, Moonrise, Moonset is a gripping read: for the utter clarity and extreme wilfulness of Konwicki’s positions; for the headlong and perfervid rush of his prose; for the tonic bleakness of his observations; and for the material of Martial Law Poland and World War Two Wilno (Konwicki fought in the Homy Army), and brilliant episodes like his visit to the Soviet Union in the Fifties. Konwicki’s translator in all four of these books, the American slavist Richard Lourie, is once again quite superb: translations can be an alibi or an experience, and Lourie provides an experience, no question, with his wonderful colloquialisms (‘Get up, you provincial dink’) and his matching of Konwicki’s foul, matey and rhetorical style. If an author tells you, ‘The sex will come later, my little blind worms’ (a hint of Edna Everage?), you know there’s really no lag or loss in the translation, and that such stuff just doesn’t die or dry on the page. Konwicki writes about coming round to the style of the actor Zbigniew Cybulski, star of Ashes and Diamonds, after first finding him too American, with too much of James Dean and Montgomery Clift, but his own writing matches Cybulski’s performance in Lourie’s hip and confessional American English.

Konwicki’s latest book, Bohin Manor, really may be his last. The author has been crying ‘Wolf’ and ‘Uncle’ for a long time now, but in a way that becomes more credible for each repetition. Others of his prophecies – the rise of nationalism in a period of global trends, the collapse of the Soviet Union brought about by ‘the collective self-immolation’ of the Poles, and glimmerings of a more hopeful future for Poland – have all come to pass. Now, in his ‘last voyage in literature’, Konwicki has returned to the past and to Wilno and told the story of his grandmother, Helena Konwicka.

It is a tale of decayed gentlefolk, with a will-she, won’t-she marriage plot that might be out of Wodehouse, but acquires a strongly allegorical bent in Konwicki’s hands; Richard Lourie observes that it is his most deeply Polish work. The young woman lives with her father on the small estate of Bohin, having been displaced there (like Poland, shunted this way and that) from their original home of Milowidy. Her mother has died, and her father, a patriotic Pole, has taken a vow of silence following the quelling of the last uprising. In an atmosphere at once paradisal, repressed and mysterious, she finds herself variously courted: by a rich, unenthusiastic neighbour; by the Russian Korsakov, drunkenly guilty about occupying Milowidy; and by a young flame-haired Jew, Elias, a rebel and émigré returned from Paris and Australia (suggestions of the Polish patriot leader, Kosciuszko).

Konwicki picks out her story in fragrant, rather old-fashioned prose, now and then putting in an appearance himself in his lassitude and uncertainty. It is all oddly hesitant and tremulous, like the work of a beginner, a worshipper of the 19th century, a believer in romance, tradition and Poland. Konwicki’s other books are ragged, triumphant shows of the pointlessness, tedium and extinction of pedantic conventional narrative: now he has written one himself! It is a strange and in a way triumphant ending – if it is to be an ending – to a brilliant and tempestuous late career. Having previously described (and welcomed) his ejection and rejection from literature and seen no future for himself but ‘And me? I’ll go looking for a country with censorship, where I can write modern allusive prose for the rest of my days’ – to have gone on to accomplish a sweet, Chekhovian romance that ends happily and with, of all things, himself. ‘Still, it all ended well, because, despite everything, I do exist and am among the living.’ And then, noting the improbability: ‘But how can I be the upbeat ending to any story?’