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 …

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