Thursday, March 22, 2012

ON THE AVENUES: Two books by Polish writers.

ON THE AVENUES: Two books by Polish writers.

A weekly web column by Roger A. Baylor.

Dyngus Day is almost upon us, so here are my book reports. Is it Spring Break yet?

"Cosmos", by Witold Gombrowicz

Most often, the act of writing is purely vocational, although conveying coherent thoughts in memos, reports, post-it notes and tweets is a certifiable skill, one not always as simple as it seems.

Instruction manuals are a prime example. Most of them are illustrated with drawings, lest mere words fail in their intended purpose – or in case the product’s purchaser is unable to read the directions, whether owing to illiteracy in a native language or speaking a different tongue altogether.

Obviously, writing can be a forum for artistic expression and experimentation. This is the genre of writing as art, which human societies tend to value just enough to keep the idea alive amid the everyday vulgarisms of popular cultures everywhere.

As an example, there is Witold Gombrowicz’s “Cosmos.” It was the exiled Polish writer’s penultimate novel, published in 1965, and although not every reader takes the time to peruse introductions and forwards, the new edition’s comments by translator Danuta Borchardt are very much worth reading.

Borchardt’s translation was prepared directly from the original Polish language edition (not subsequent French and German translations used for the original release of “Cosmos” in English), and this is especially important for a novel that above all else explores nuances of language, perception and expression – hence its experimental nature, and an overall theme paralleling that of the old Seinfeld television series: In the end, it’s about nothing.

“Cosmos” has been described as utterly plotless, and while there is one, it is quite sparse. At an indeterminate time (probably the pre-war 1930’s), two students from Warsaw arrive in the southern Tatra Mountains to spend their summer holiday. They randomly board with a local family, and quickly are drawn into the household’s daily life. Eventually they accompany their hosts for a weekend outing in the woods, and abruptly, the story comes to an end.

As recounted by the narrator, who is one of the two students, the novel’s progression is resoundingly interior and solipsistic, occurring within his own increasingly meandering consciousness, as opposed to taking place in any setting approximating the world outside. Far fewer real-life interactions are recounted than episodes of brooding and imagined ruminations. It is almost as though a dazed victim of malnutrition or high fever is describing the altered state of reality as it seems to him, which may or may not jibe with actuality.

Philosophically, it makes perfect sense: Is there a reality outside our minds, and can we ever know anything about it?

In “Cosmos”, this search is by turns comic and tragic. The city-dwelling students react to their own ennui and the relative boredom of their bucolic interlude by concluding quite early in the narrative that a vague conspiracy is taking shape around them, and they become tantamount to bumbling detectives, self-assigned to track obvious clues to their source.

These clues include a dead bird, literally hanged by wire from a tree branch (who would do such a thing?), suggestive patterns of water stains on a ceiling, a scar that has shaped the mouth of the plain housekeeper into something suggestive, the way her altered mouth is suggestively linked to the mouth of the young married daughter’s, and a pile of haphazardly jumbled garbage in the shed. Their conclusions lead to minor, awkward mishaps (and one more serious), but little of consequence comes from it.

The only true jolt comes at the end, has nothing whatever to do with the expanding conspiracy inside their heads, and is barely mentioned.

The novel’s characters occupy perfectly normal spaces in a mundane world, and do their best to define themselves accordingly. They fail – and life goes on. For those properly respecting the value of melancholy in daily life, “Cosmos” is an unsettling read. It left me contemplating vignettes from my own past, times of irresolution and disgruntlement, especially when exhaustion or weakness had convinced me to invest more psychic energy into imagining an outcome than might possibly justify a conceivable result, even if it were to happen (and never did).

In “Cosmos”, no one is saved. Then again, we seldom are.


"In Search of Lost Meaning: The New Eastern Europe", by Adam Michnik

While the Communist-era career paths of Adam Michnik in Poland and the late Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia were not precise mirror images, both played epochal roles in their respective countries as the Iron Curtain wound inexorably down. As indicated by Havel’s forward to this collection of essays, there always existed considerable mutual professional admiration between the two noted revolutionaries, even if Michnik did not become head of state, or found himself cast in the position of rock star, like Havel.

Instead, Michnik was the supreme revolutionary multi-tasker, performing a series of invaluable jobs for the Solidarity-led opposition to Poland’s Communist regime, generally in a subordinate position. He served as journalist, jouster, jester, rabble rouser, intellectual, organizer, virtual poet laureate and all-purpose public figure, eventually assuming a role approximating that of being his country’s conscience, and appropriately, these essays are primarily concerned with the conscience (and consciousness) of Poland’s history both before and since socialism’s collapse in 1989.

Clannish fractiousness in Poland is the stuff of European legend, and Michnik confronts it head-on, tracing the origins of “gutter” (or “septic tank”) politics from the inception of modern Poland in the aftermath of the First World War to the institutionalized abuses of Communism, and recurring during the past twenty years. Irrespective of ideologies and governmental forms, Michnik sees his country as a place where a pathological need do settle past scores too often usurps all future considerations.

He would feel right at home in New Albany, wouldn’t he?

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