New World Avenue and Vicinity
by Tadeusz Konwicki, translated by Walter Arndt
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 212 pp., $24.95
Too Loud a Solitude
by Bohumil Hrabal, translated by Michael Henry Heim
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 98 pp., $16.95
Helping Verbs of the Heart
by Péter Esterházy, translated by Michael Henry Heim
Grove Weidenfeld, 111 pp., $15.95
Woe betide the writer who finds himself cast as a hero. In the West, where even artists do not take art seriously, we look upon the “dissident” as somehow more authentic than we could ever hope to be, with our word processors and benevolent editors and Guggenheim Foundations. The dissident, of course, is always someone who dissents elsewhere, “over there,” behind the Curtain or the Wall or under Table Mountain. Compared to them, to these brave ones, our rebels seem like noisy children drumming their fists and refusing to be good. How can we be serious, we ask, how can we be truly grown-up, without the burden of political oppression, without a great cause to which we might lend our singing voices? So it is that at times when it was fashionable to be of the soft left, for instance in the Thirties and the Sixties, we paid fealty to figures such as Solzhenitsyn—a brave, perhaps even a great man, but no lover of liberal causes.
And rarely do we wonder what it is like to be regarded always as a dissident—that is, as a dissident first and an artist second. Anyone who has been to any country in what we used to call Eastern Europe will have heard that groan of mingled boredom and resentment when the talk turned to the matter of politics and art: I am sick of being a protester, the writer will cry, I want to write and think about the private world, not the public. And why not? As Kierkegaard has pointed out, there is no such thing as an epic theme; Homer was not great because he had for a subject the Trojan War—on the contrary, it is because Homer was great that this local squabble has taken on the proportions of an epic.
Now that the Wall has fallen and the Curtain has been drawn back, perhaps the writer in Eastern Europe will be allowed, along with other freedoms, the freedom to be discontent not because he is politically downtrodden, but because love fails and hope flags and death awaits him—in a word, because he is human.
The books considered here span a geographical arc from the Baltic down into the heart of Mitteleuropa, yet all three share a remarkably similar tone. It is the tone one might detect in the outpatients’ department of a run-down hospital, in the waiting room of some anonymous state bureaucratic institution, in a food queue stretching a hundred meters back from the shop door along a snow-swept pavement. There is despair and desperation in it, an impatience that keeps spilling over into rage, and also a kind of throwaway hilarity that precludes self-pity. These are strong, impressive, sly, and, dare one say it, entertaining voices: there is something wonderfully bracing in the spectacle of a writer indulging in a monumental grouse.
Tadeusz Konwicki is one of Poland’s leading intellectuals (though even as I say it I can hear him emit …