A Minor Apocalypse
by Tadeusz Konwicki, translated by Richard Lourie
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 231 pp., $16.95
“There is no example, no inspiration. It is night. A night of indifference, apathy, chaos.”
So speaks a character in A Minor Apocalypse, first published in Poland four years ago; so might speak a character in almost any other novel coming out of Eastern Europe. Despair is built into the literatures of that part of the world, but since despair, at least of a collective or national kind, cannot be sustained for very long, the question facing both the people and the writers is: What next? We know part of the answer. Most people burrow into privacy, improvising a mixture of withdrawal, opportunism, and small resistance, and hoping, in fundamentally hopeless circumstances, to keep themselves from being eaten away by “indifference, apathy, chaos.”
What writers can make of this situation is one of the more urgent literary problems of our moment. A novelist may show, as Milan Kundera does in The Joke, how the Party dictatorship’s stupidity backfires; he can look with grief, as George Konrad does in The Loser, at the recent history of his country. But after the satire and the indignation have been exhausted there remains the sadness of martyred countries. How is it possible to write about national demoralization without having it seep into the work itself? The creative imagination is likely to find answers that the rational intelligence can’t foresee, but meanwhile, reading a novel like A Minor Apocalypse, one is overcome by the sheer weight of these problems.
Tadeusz Konwicki is an experienced and talented writer. His book came out in Poland just before the upsurge of Solidarity, and to some Polish readers during those great days it must have seemed excessively sour, even defeatist. For despite its bouncy absurdist surface, A Minor Apocalypse is a novel saturated with weariness—weariness with falsity, weariness with having constantly to expose falsity, weariness with continuing nevertheless to live in a world of falsity. Now that Solidarity has been suppressed, Konwicki’s book again seems urgent, perhaps even in some grim sense “vindicated.” “Here comes the end of the world” is its first sentence. Here comes the breakdown of Poland.
The opening chapter is brilliant. A moderately famous writer—let’s call him K.—has been suffering a period of sterility. He gags on bad vodka, bad smells, bad faith. One morning he gets a visit from two representatives of “the opposition.” This is the very day on which the Party is holding its congress, and the porcine first secretary of the fraternal Soviet Party has come to give his blessing in an interminable speech. As a countermove, the opposition proposes that K. set himself on fire in a Warsaw public square. The country needs an extreme gesture to stir people out of lethargy; Warsaw, right now, is “a city of people who are evaporating into nothingness.” And as for the opposition itself, “We’ve grown old, we’ve gone to pot putting out all those semilegal bulletins…which are read by next to no …