Tadeusz Konwicki: A Minor Apocalypse; Translated by Richard Lourie; Farrar, Straus & Giroux; New York.
Contemporary Poland, for many reasons, disquiets the West. To those who nurture visions of a painless and peaceful accord between the Soviets and the United States against the supposed “common enemy” of nuclear weapons, the squashing of Solidarity to placate Moscow forms an unwelcome reminder of Soviet imperialism which it has long been fashionable to ignore. Similarly, the spectacle of real tyranny reveals the rhetorical hollowness of the domestic cant about “repression” heard whenever there is resistance (nearly always sporadic and feeble) to some new cultural assault on traditional ways. Nor can the helplessness of the West in the face of Poland’s misery be anything but frustrating to those who entertain no faddish illusions, who know that if the Cold War is ended it was finished largely by a unilateral act of Western self-deception.
Tadeusz Konwicki’s A Minor Apocalypse deals with repression; like the news from Poland, it is disturbing. However, Konwicki’s jaggedly intense novel explores dimensions of repression not captured by television shots of tanks and troops challenging striking workers or by journalistic accounts of mass arrests and forced newspaper closings. As a novelist Konwicki charts the emotional and spiritual deformations wrought by years of enforced submission to the official falsehood that structures Polish life. Written before the Solidarity uprisings, the book take the form of a first-person account of what, if he keeps to his purpose, will be the last day of the narrator’s life; for his two dissident friends persuade him that morning to immolate himself at eight in the evening before Congress Hall, scene of a massive Communist Party gathering to “celebrate” Poland’s 40th (or whatever) anniversary of socialism (i.e., of Soviet imperial control). This terrible goal gives a needed measure of unity and suspense to the episodic movement toward his grim destination, a journey another character aptly likens to the stations of the cross. Before the day is over, Konwicki sardonically unfolds the dynamics of the spiritual crucifixion of a people forced to live what all know to be a lie. Systematic untruth engenders boredom and despair; but to resist nihilism, under such conditions of oppression, is to expose oneself to pain without hope of relief. Yet the narrator does resist, though A Minor Apocalypse is anything but a comforting, easily affirmative book.
To the reader unfamiliar with the details and nuances of Polish life, A Minor Apocalypse will have its strongest impact as a laconic satire on official Marxist unreality. Everywhere he goes the narrator encounters huge banners boasting “We Have Built Socialism” — an unintended but constantly painful irony to a people living amid physical and sometimes spiritual collapse. The Warsaw through which Konwicki’s narrator moves resembles a city under bombardment: apartment complexes are abandoned unfinished, streetcars simply give out, chunks of buildings tumble into the street, bridges collapse. Amid the wreckage vehicles whisk delicacies to the insulated party elite.
But the enemy attacking the city is within — the socialist tyranny that is lauded from every disintegrating edifice. The external chaos objectifies the emotional and moral disorder; in matters small and large, futility, absurdity, and entrapment sap the human spirit. Perhaps a sign of the hunger for truth, people avidly buy and carry the newspaper, yet nobody reads the Trybuna Ludu, the official party organ and a conduit of programmatic unreality. More serious is the gnawing sense of futility surrounding opposition to the regime. Such resistance, a moral necessity, enjoys some obscure degree of toleration; indeed, an opposition of some sort appears desired by the state, perhaps to demonstrate some of the “liberalization” Western observers so much want to find. In this atmosphere self-doubt and self-hatred fester. Thoughts of biological determinism, suggesting that anything one does is part of some system beyond one’s control, haunt the narrator. Indeed, part of the regime’s terrible, inert strength lies in the very bankruptcy of the Marxist dogmas it officially and fulsomely propounds as its justification. For where even the state officials know the charade of state socialism, what point is there to protest? Public protest, as we understand it, rests on the assumption that the sight of superior dedication and sacrifice either can demoralize if not convert the oppressor or can move some compassionate third party to intervention. But where ruthless superior force blocks both outside intervention and internal rebellion and where the proxy government is already demoralized, what can sacrificial gestures accomplish? On this dilemma turns much of the novel’s severe comedy. Thus when a remorseful party hack begins to turn his televised speech into a denunciation of the party, nobody can hear him, for people routinely watch these propaganda spectacles with the sound turned down. His speech — planned and memorized for years in secret — has less impact than his crazed attempt to undress before the cameras — itself “proof” of his need for institutional confinement on psychiatric grounds. Even more bizarre are the rationalizations of a government censor who maintains that in supporting the Marxism that stultifies Russia he is covertly keeping Poland from being engulfed altogether by its more powerful neighbor whose dynamism is negated by stale 19th-century ideas. In the Orwellian doublespeak of a government interrogator comes an analogous point: “We are free because we have imposed our own slavery.”
The disturbing qualities of A Minor Apocalypse are not, however, limited to its depiction of a tyranny at once bereft of legitimacy yet mindlessly strong. The book also disorients some of our usual expectations of “the novel.” American readers are likely to have accustomed themselves either to the extreme demands of technique in the “serious” novel (the hyperallusiveness of Pynchon, for instance) or to the easy conventionality of popular thrillers, potboilers, and the like. Konwicki’s novel is different in ways fitting neither category. Where we have come to be alert for ironical distances between the author and characters, here the author, narrator, and hero merge. (The translator sees this as an avant-garde tough, but it may strike many as old-fashioned, harkening back to the fiction of earlier centuries in which authors freely addressed their readers.) Here the narrator frequently engages in moral and metaphysical speculations partaking more of what we may think belongs in the essay or diary than the novel until we recall that the novel has always been something of a catchall form, easily incorporating elements of these and other types of writing.
A more serious problem than our overly problem than our overly neat notions of novelistic purity is the matter of particularity or topicality. Most readers know next to nothing about the specifics of life in Poland; thus, considerable portions of Konwicki’s novel will remain annoyingly opaque. Readers can tell, even without the introduction’s guidance, that certain characters the narrator meets are intended to represent particular figures in Polish intellectual circles (often ones with whom Konwicki, a filmmaker as well as a writer, has disagreements). Yet the identities of these people and the precise nature of the quarrels will remain closed to most readers. A longer introduction than Richard Lourie’s two pages of useful comments would help Konwicki’s work receive the wider readership it deserves in this country; even so, obstacles would remain. We need, for example, to know more about the political situation of intellectuals in Poland, and especially of the position of Konwicki in regard to the authorities; but knowing the names of his targets is not likely to make more meaningful to an American audience the author’s frequent thrusts at other Polish cultural figures. Fortunately, the suspense in the plot and the graphic nature of the exposure of the depredations of totalitarianism hold the attention of readers puzzled by certain encounters.
Konwicki’s mixture of straightforward realism with satirical exaggeration — not in itself an unusual technique — has about it a deadpan quality that, given our likely ignorance about Polish life, makes it not always clear where the depiction of dismal reality ends and satiric fantasy starts. At times the demarcation is clear: the notorious party habit of manipulating statistics to fulfill five-year plans and the like becomes, in Konwicki’s novel, entirely surreal — nobody knows even the correct day, month, or year. But, for example, do Poles usually watch televised party-propaganda binges with the sound off? In a world where official lies are both pervasive and transparent, this seems plausible, though one cannot be sure it is not another satiric touch.
Generating the strength as well as the difficulties of the book is a fierce immediacy, a desire, as simple and as old as the novel itself, to know and tell the truth. Such urgency breaks through distinctions between essay and prose fiction, realism and fantasy. Truth of any sort — whether simple factual accuracy, honest interpretation, or personal integrity — is scarce in Konwicki’s world. Hence the narrator’s anguished hunger for a hold on reality drives him to list recipes, to berate other intellectuals (particularly those devoted chiefly to formal artistic pursuits), and to wrestle with the meaning of existence. Seemingly unable to derive sustaining comfort from Poland’s strong Catholicism, Konwicki nevertheless struggles to retain human dignity amid what appears to be triumphant institutional falsehood. At times the bitter, high-strung voice verges on suicidal despair:
I am approaching the finish line.
I am in the final turn. I would like to say farewell to you somehow or other. I long to howl in an inhuman voice
so that I
can be heard in the most distant
corner of the
planet and perhaps even in the
constellations or where the Lord God
Is that vanity? Or a duty? Or an
Instinct which commands us castaways, us cosmic castaways, to
Shout through the ages into starry space.
A Minor Apocalypseis, finally, more than a howl against the darkness. Its human victory lies in not capitulating to amorality, unreality, and nihilism in spite of the narrator/author’s tormenting sense of the helplessness of his own position, of the Polish people, and, at another level, perhaps of humanity itself. The quirky, distraught tone, the attendant narrative shifts, the leaps from narrow topicality to metaphysical anguish — all these features, difficult at times for an American reader, join to create a compelling depiction of a man and a society in extremis yet spiritually unconquered. Though the hope has no concrete object, there is hope in the novel. Nothing, it seems, can rescue Poland from its nightmare of suffering; yet in the very suffering of the people, the narrator comes to believe, may reside the seed of some final triumph, some apocalyptic reversal of the darkness holding the land.
Konwicki has created no characters of major imaginative dimension. Nor is his satire, though powerful, likely to achieve the stature of Orwell’s classic rendering of the totalitarian hells of our century. Nonetheless, A Minor Apocalypse is important and worthwhile. It takes us where cameras and reporters cannot go and gives us the emotional, moral, and spiritual feet of a world frighteningly unlike our own. And in so doing it accomplishes what good writing should: it clarifies life. What little of the clever convolutions of style and structure familiar to readers of the apocalyptic fantasies of, say, Vonnegut, Coover, or Pynchon, Konwicki’s novel should bring to mind the difference between the self-indulgent, masochistic imaginings that make men cry for the release of catastrophe. To rescue from fashionable trivialization the meanings of “imperialism,” “repression,” and “apocalyptic yearning” is to uncloud the reader’s mind — a worthy goal for a good book. cc