POLAND HOLDS OUR ATTENTION now as no other European nation has since V-E Day. We watch the Poles in horror and fascination the way a circus crowd watches a crumbling pyramid of high-wire walkers--transfixed and secretly glad it is they, not we, who are slipping toward catastrophe.
Two contemporary Polish artists stand as spokesmen for their beleaguered nation: film-maker Andrzej Wajda (pronounced VY-dah) and author Tadeusz Konwicki (pronounced Kon-VITZ-kee). Wajda has given us two recent films, Man of Marble and Man of Iron, Konwicki two novels, A Dreambook of Our Time and now The Polish Complex. Together these works allow us to enter the life of Poland and experience its absurdities and contradictions. Through them we view the world from inside the collapsing human pyramid.
The Polish Complex begins in a queue outside a state- owned jewelry store. It is Christmas Eve and the narrator, a thinly fictionalized version of the author, is 23rd in line. Rumor has it that a shipment of gold rings is coming from the Soviet Union. Is he there to buy a Christmas gift? He never says. Nor do we have any clue to the motives of the others except that the rings are precious, and waiting in line is a way of life in Poland. Sharing the queue with Konwicki are a student, a French anarchist, some construction workers, a peasant woman, a police informant, and a mysterious man named Kojran, who holds a plane ticket to the United States.
A shipment arrives. Not rings, but, rather, Russian samovars--electric, no less. Perhaps the rings will come later.
People chat. The mysterious Kojran taunts the narrator, but Konwicki won't rise to the bait. Kojran reveals his connection with Konwicki: In the early '50s he was assigned to kill him. "I followed you for three weeks . . . with my pistol and your sentence written out on a piece of notebook paper. I had ten thousand chances to shoot you but, for some reason, I didn't do it. . . . Then they grabbed me and I did six years. Because I, too, was being followed closely by what was left of the organization, my organization and yours. You might say we were walking Indian file." Konwicki is nonplussed.
A crowd of strangers arrives and the manager sends all of them to the head of the line. Reason: They are privileged Russian tourists.
Konwicki faints and awakens in a back room of the shop attended by the lovely salesgirl. He has had a mild coronary--or was it just angina? We don't know. Undaunted, he seduces her. The empty shop is closing and he leaves.
Passing an alley he is beckoned by Kojran. There in the shadows are some of the others from the queue, hovering near the jewelry shop in hopes that the delivery may arrive after business hours. He joins them and resumes social relations.
The hour is late and they begin to disperse. Konwicki, overwhelmed by world-weariness, climbs up on a high balustrade and asks Kojran to oblige him by tipping him over the edge. Kojran politely refuses to carry out belatedly the death sentence. The somnambulant Konwicki climbs down and stumbles off into the night; the world of the narrative dissolves into the firmament. (There are, in addition, two lengthy, unconnected historical flashbacks and one letter to a friend arbitrarily inserted in the narrative.)
For Konwicki plot is a slim pretext. Time stands still; life evaporates into metaphor. The characters prattle to each other; the author delives meditations to the reader. The action, one realizes eventually, is not in the jewelry store or anywhere nearby, but in the reader's own mind and viscera, for Konwicki is using his thin story to convey a feeling and project his views. The feeling is the heaviness of profound boredom. "Boredom is the secret elixir of our regime . . . its lover, its mother . . . its natural smell. . . . Boredom emanates from the military, the police, from listening devices."
Behind all his views stands a conviction that Poland is forever fated to be a colossal loser among nations. "Russia always had luck. The tsars slaughtered their own people, established the stupidest and most ignorant laws, embroiled themselves in the riskiest of wars, set unreal political goals, and the foolish always became the wise, the reactionary the progressive, and defeat was changed to victory."
Poland, by comparison, had everything going for it: "The nobility of educated monarchs, the energy of intelligent ministers, the goodwill of its citizenry, the homage to mankind's loftiest ideals." It all comes to naught: "These positive, exemplary, copybook values were . . . prostituted, and dragged the venerable corpse of the republic straight to the bottom like a millstone."
Why so? "We know that our 'golden freedom' was our undoing," he answers with bitter irony. "That fierce, mad adherence to the freedoms of the individual citizen, the autonomy and independence of the person."
He cannot bear his fate passively, but neither does he follow his ancestors in making of themselves cannon fodder. He is an orderly in a hospital where a high Party official is scheduled for surgery. He eyes the tray of sterilized instruments laid out for the operation and he knows what to do: "I will . . . fart with all my might on those sacred instruments, from my apocalyptic anus I will fart a horrendous mighty stream of gonococci, white spirochetes, golden staphylococci. I will blast out the billions of bacteria and viruses which have built up in me during my decades of disgraceful slavery."
DDD Konwicki, when he wrote The Polish Complex in the mid-1970s, had at least some hope he could negotiate with the censor and that by allowing some cuts he could salvage a book for the state-owned publishing houses. But the censor eviscerated the manuscript and Konwicki turned instead to the newly formed underground press. The novel was published as the third issue of Zapis (Polish for "censor's notation"), an uncensored (and hence illegal) literary journal printed on primitive, hand-powered presses using pulp paper purchased on the black market. The enterprise was such a success, commercially and critically, not to mention the moral victory entailed, that Konwicki wrote his next novel, Small Apocalypse expressly for publication by Zapis. With 10,000 crude copies printed, Small Apocalypse surpassed The Polish Complex, at 3,000, as a literary event and an act of political defiance in pre-Solidarity days. (An English translation of Small Apocalypse will be published next year by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.)
Konwicki's own life is a paradigm of the way Poles suffer under the burden of historical misfortunes. Raised in the Lithuanian city of Vilno he fought the Germans and then the Russians as a guerrilla in 1944-45. When the Soviets annexed Lithuania he fled to Warsaw. As a young Polish author he belonged to a group of zealous Stalinists called "The Pimpled Ones." They had lived through the war as adolescents and in the moral vacuum and devastation that followed they seized Marxism as an antidote to nihilism. Their rigid beliefs proved brittle under the blows of de-Stalinization and the failed Hungarian revolt and they suffered the trauma of shattered faith. Only then did they write good literature.
The Polish Complex is not Konwicki's best book, and American readers may have difficulty adjusting to the style of the novel cum meditation so familiar to Polish readers. Yet it is bold, imaginative, engaging, and, most important, enlightening. There is no better description of the national neuroses Poles take with the milk of Mother Poland. Anyone hoping to understand the Polish problem should begin with Wajda's Man of Iron and this highly readable translation of Konwicki's The rPolish Complex.
Now more than ever Poland needs Konwicki and his art. His future is uncertain. According to unconfirmed reports he was detained in the first days of martial law, then released.