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The Polish Wake

The Polish Complex

by Tadeusz Konwicki, translated by Richard Lourie
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 211 pp., $12.95

When in 1977 a group of Polish dissidents managed to establish a semiclandestine publishing network called “Nowa,” Tadeusz Konwicki was one of the first writers to send them a manuscript—his new novel The Polish Complex, now published in English translation. This book, soon followed by Konwicki’s The Little Apocalypse,* became one of the major events of the Polish “alternative” cultural life that started to flourish after the formation of the Committee for the Defense of Workers (KOR) and other informal dissent groups. It also opened the road for others, who after the years of intimidation by state control of ideas and of artistic expression decided to defy the censors by writing for unofficial presses.

The novel moves back and forth between historical episodes from the uprising of 1863—the most misguided and tragic of Polish insurgencies of the nineteenth century—and scenes from contemporary Polish life. The modern story brings together a mixed yet typical group of Poles from the early Seventies: disenchanted intellectuals, tired workers, police informers, con men, communist upstarts—all observed by the narrator and the main character, the Polish writer Tadeusz Konwicki. They meet in a line outside an empty jewelry shop which is supposed to receive a shipment of Russian gold rings. In the faltering Polish economy gold rings are a frequent item of speculation as well as a supposedly “sure” way of preserving one’s life’s savings. Waiting in a queue is an almost perfect metaphor of life under communism. A queue portrays the tedium and apathy, the total dependence upon the centrally distributed “goods,” the hidden code of permissible cheating and superficial egalitarianism.

Very little happens on the surface of the novel. A group of people are stranded in a chilly Warsaw street. It is Christmas Eve and they all wish they were somewhere else—with their relatives and friends. Yet they have suspended their real lives for the vague promise of a lowly reward. They quarrel, reminisce, try to trick their way closer to the empty counter. Some of them sneak out to a nearby dive where illegal vodka is served by an invalid ex-war hero, and a band of street musicians is rehearsing Christmas carols.

One of the men on the line, the proud owner of an American visa and a plane ticket, introduces himself as Tadeusz Kojran, Konwicki’s former comrade in the Home Army, who after the war was ordered by a secret organization to execute the writer for his collaboration with the communist government. With him is a fat ex-policeman called Duszek (in Polish meaning “brownie”) who apparently arrested Kojran many years ago during the time of Stalinist purges and tortured him in prison. Later he clung to his victim like a lifelong buddy, waiting patiently for absolution.

There are others: a young plainclothesman who models himself on characters in American police movies, a French anarchist who wants to become a Polish citizen, a peasant woman who turns out to be the heiress to an American fortune, a beautiful shop assistant called Iwona/Basia (we never learn her real name), who is seduced by Konwicki in the shop’s staff room.

As the group waits, several Soviet tourists arrive. They also want to buy gold rings. They are friendly and polite, yet take for granted their right to go to the head of the line. One of them is recognized by the narrator as Kaziuk, a relative from his native Lithuania, now content to work on a collective farm. He happens to have with him a family memento, a stone seal used by Polish rebels in a penal colony in Siberia. Finally, instead of the gold rings the customers are offered vulgar electric samovars with a special bonus—the chance of winning a free trip to the Soviet Union. Ironically, the prize goes to Kojran, who was about to depart for America, leaving him worried about where he should go first.

As the people gradually reveal their life stories—with Konwicki as their medium, their confessor, as well as an offstage commenting voice—it becomes clear that their failures and frustrations have deeper roots than the everyday hardships and humiliations of postwar Polish life. Most of them, like the narrator, Konwicki himself, are tormented by a real or irrational sense of guilt, by feelings of utter degradation and the wish for death.

Listen to what happened to me, Konwa,” says Kojran. “I was once the boy from the fairy tale. I was Janek the musician, the sorcerer’s apprentice, a young Byron. How did I hit the skids? What was the mix-up that left me a primitive old codger? Must have been a lack of training. My consciousness, my perception system, my sensibility, the tendons of my soul, the lenses of my clairvoyance, they all remained dormant. I never practiced or perfected or encouraged any of it. And that’s why it withered away and died in me before I was even dead myself. I condemned myself to an animal existence. Or could that have been fate?”

Something went wrong in the lives of these people—a long time ago or just recently—something involving not only individuals but the Polish community. An act of betrayal was committed—Konwicki muses—yet no one wanted to be a betrayer. A destiny was sabotaged, yet no one was clear what the destiny was. What, then, is the real source of the agony of Konwicki’s characters?

The answer can be found in the historical sections of the novel, as well as in the author’s personal reflections which occur throughout the book in a seemingly random way.

The two historical sections of The Polish Complex set in the nineteenth century—almost self-contained short stories inserted into the novel—concern two heroes of the long struggle of independence against the Russian empire. One of them is Zygmunt Mineyko, the ill-fated young soldier who toward the end of the uprising of 1863 tries to organize partisan units in Lithuania. The other is Romuald Traugutt, a Polish patriot and a former officer in the Russian army, who is appointed the leader of the same uprising in its final, hopeless phase.

Both men throw themselves into the struggle when the chances for victory are practically nil. The uprising is burned out and the terror of repression has paralyzed the civilian population. Mineyko, left without arms, money, or support, continues to train a handful of enthusiastic but ill-prepared youths who disperse and go home after the first shot is fired in a trifling encounter. Mineyko himself is betrayed by peasants who turn him over to the Russians. Traugutt, after taking leave of his wife, heads for Warsaw to assume his post, although he knows that the entire patriotic movement is infiltrated—some say controlled—by agents of the Russian secret police, and that his arrest and execution are unavoidable. Both heroes accept their destinies with courage and with resignation, as if obeying a historical compulsion that is darker and less comprehensible than the patriotic maxims they repeat. They cannot change their fate because they feel they are not only historical figures, but also phantoms from a dream that has been sustained from generation to generation by crushed, hopeless people like those passively waiting in front of the jewelry shop.

Trapped for centuries in a political deadlock, the Polish people have lived with a sense of thwarted ambitions and political failure. Since history itself provided little hope, their will to survive took an ahistorical, apolitical form—that of a romantic dream which could be boiled down to a myth of a unique spiritual “Polishness” and to something that Konwicki himself calls a “religion of freedom.” This was the unshakable belief in an ultimate liberation and the fulfillment of national longings, past, present, and future, the promise of a final national redemption that will take place in an indefinite future or in some higher, metaphysical realm.

Like most religions, the Polish “religion of freedom” proved to be a source of astonishing moral power in times of crisis, yet it also created its own orthodoxy, bound its followers by an overwhelming sense of guilt, and demanded a constant ritual of sacrifice. Nowhere was its presence more clearly demonstrated than in the tradition of Polish insurgency. The “Romantic Uprisings”—a term used by Polish historians not only for the repeated attempts at liberation during the nineteenth century but also for the Warsaw uprising against the German occupiers in 1944—usually started as military ventures based on political calculations and a sense of attainable goals. Yet after the rebels ran up against the overwhelming force of the enemy or faced a political stalemate preventing them from reaching their goal, their struggles turned into rituals of sacrifice that served to transform physical defeat into moral victory, to create a legend that would take hold of future generations. What for dispassionate observers often looked like masochism or senseless acts of desperation was perceived by Poles as the only strategy of survival.

However, the romantic dream had also a negative side. Born of a sense of failure, it included failure as a part of its mythology. It marked bold political undertakings with a certain fatalism and extremism, and tended to undermine limited, yet realistic projects. After some time the sarcophagi of national symbols started to issue the poisons of hatred and frustration. The irresistible flood of the national will rushing against a wall of historical impossibility left behind the sour heat of wasted energy and inaction, with their sediment of memory.

The modern plot of The Polish Complex portrays this final phase of the Polish historical cycle. The characters gathered on Christmas Eve—for Poles especially a time of remembrance and hope—represent different forms of moral decomposition and failure. Yet at the same time these people seem the crippled children of such heroes as Mineyko and Traugutt. Their thoughts and drunken confessions recall the same romantic creed, debased and caricatured as they are, like the slogans about the uniqueness of the Polish character mouthed by Duszek or the blurred words “Honor and Fatherland”—the battle cry of Polish knighthood—that are tattooed on the arm of Kojran, who dreams now only about inheriting a gas station in America.

Hence, “was it worth it?”—the inevitable question uttered by Mineyko as he is taken to be executed—resounds in the contemporary story of The Polish Complex. Did the tradition of resistance and sacrifice confer upon the Poles special spiritual powers—as they themselves like to believe? Or is the Polish fate “…a fate which causes degeneration, like every misfortune, every calamity”? The group of people waiting for gold on a December night provides evidence for the sadder of these views. Yet was there any alternative that was overlooked or ignored?

The history presented in The Polish Complex has a quality of déjà vu. It is experienced as a cycle, repeating itself with a striking regularity. At one point, as if talking to the ghost of Mineyko, Konwicki recalls his own involvement in the partisan struggle toward the end of the Second World War:

And before you, just as it would be before me half a century later, lay the future—unknown, mysterious, majestic. Your unknowable fate, the country’s Golgotha. A hot, sultry hope; an inspiring, ardent premonition: You were twenty-three years old. You were five years older than I, and eighty years younger….

What were we thinking about on that invisible threshold of time? Ourselves? Poland? I don’t remember anymore and I don’t know how to summon it up from the past now dead or rather fixed forever, those moments of inconceivable selfenchantment and humility, audacity and fear, greedy hope and foolhardy uncertainty. In just the same way I do not know how to summon back that Poland which we bore within ourselves like the overwhelming pain of the first spasm of a coronary. That incorporeal Poland, Poland, that hypnotic phantom.

New actors come on stage to pick up the same, familiar script. The choice of roles is, as usual, a limited one: Martyr, Skeptic, Traitor. Such a disturbing vision of history poses the question of what ultimate human or metaphysical sense it may make. This question hovers over the events presented in The Polish Complex. And although no answer is finally given, Konwicki the writer persists in his search: “I write because in my subconscious there stirs a spark of hope that somewhere there is something, that something endures somewhere, that, in my last instant, Great Meaning will take notice of me and save me from a universe without meaning.” So do people freezing in a Warsaw street. At the end of the book the line refuses to disperse even when it becomes clear that the gold rings will not be delivered. The pointless vigil becomes a symbol of the eternal Polish wake, a wait for a miracle of understanding and rebirth.

The problem with The Polish Complex, like that with most contemporary Polish writing, is that it is often cryptic. Konwicki himself calls it “writing on the blackened walls of a cell.” Writing on prison walls is a compulsive activity, a desperate attempt at communication with invisible partners—the person who wrote on the wall before and the one who will come later. It is a code, a language reduced to symbols easily recognizable by those who share a similar experience, but an act of disdain toward those who were lucky enough to avoid it. “I am an individual who is not understood by his fellow men on the Tiber, the Seine, or the Hudson,” says the author. “They may understand faithfully translated major or minor sentences of mine, they may grasp the meaning of a metaphor, flickering moods, but they will not be able to empathize with my fate or embrace the meaninglessness in my meaning, which will seem to them unrealistic, alien, lacking motivation, and thus completely incomprehensible.”

Such a presupposition—not uncommon among contemporary Polish writers—can unnecessarily hamper the clarity of their books. The prose of The Polish Complex is highly allusive. References to Konwicki’s own life, and to Warsaw gossip about him, as well as to little-known facts of Polish history, may puzzle anyone who was not brought up on the banks of the Vistula. The characters appear as contours to be filled in with the stuff of the reader’s own experience. Unfortunately, their vivid, saturated language, which in Polish suggests their social status, and sometimes their past, sounds somehow flat and unconvincing in English translation. Nevertheless, The Polish Complex is a powerful and engaging book, demonstrating how in the less fortunate parts of the world history becomes a private obsession, and how the collective subconscious can determine the fates of both individuals and nations.

History itself has added an unexpected and dramatic point to Konwicki’s novel. It was published in the United States just after the military attack on Solidarity. Tadeusz Konwicki was one of the first writers arrested in the roundup on the first night of martial law. The events of the last two years showed the vitality of romantic thinking and courageous action in Poland; yet the old scenario was followed, scene by scene, toward its gloomy ending. History once more trapped people in the fixed pattern of gestures and responses. As Konwicki seems to suggest, what is needed is an utterly new gesture that would break the spell of fatalism. Meanwhile the Poles continue to wait in the cold.

  1. *

    To be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux later this year.

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