Like the majority of Polish writers of his generation, Tadeusz Konwicki went through a period of “mistakes and misjudgments” in his Stalinist youth before he was able to find a more authentic voice of his own. When he entered the literary arena in 1946, however, he brought with him the burden of his past—his experience of fighting Soviet troops in a home army guerrilla unit—which he had to repudiate in a painfully self-denying way in order to reconcile himself with the new political reality. This inner moral conflict caused Konwicki to lead a double life as a writer during the immediate postwar years: While publishing propagandistic literature and reportage, he was secretly writing a novel about his guerrilla experience. He was able to publish that novel, Rojsty, eight years after its completion. The year 1956—the year of the famous “thaw” in Polish political and cultural life—marked Konwicki’s authentic debut; since that time, he remained true to his underlying obsessions and recurring themes.
The constant subject of his novels is the reality of contemporary Poland, but reality seen in a highly subjective way, through the eyes of an individual who obsessively confronts it with his personal memories and with what he knows about his country’s historical past. Moreover, a characteristic device of Konwicki is his frequent use of a first-person narrator who does not fully belong to the reality he describes; thus, his primary task is to find a key to a world that seems alien and absurd to him. This strategy is carried out in a variety of ways. The narrator, for example, may be a child whose perversely naïve way of seeing things as they are exposes the hypocrisy of the adult world (The Anthropos-Specter-Beast); he may be a man who mysteriously wakes up in a remote town where he has never been before (A Dreambook for Our Time) or who regains consciousness after having been beaten up by hooligans in the center of Warsaw, only to discover that he has lost his memory (Wniebowstąpienie).
The common effect of these various points of departure is the cognitive and narrative situation of an outsider, who perceives the surrounding realm of everyday life as something absurd and incomprehensible. This perception makes him view the existing world (and particularly the reality of contemporary Poland) in a way that is as grotesque as it is apocalyptic; the absurdity he encounters provokes his nervous laughter as well as his eschatological fear. A world so absurd cannot possibly exist for long, and thus there is only one conclusion: Doomsday must be nigh.
A Dreambook for Our Time
A Dreambook for Our Time became an instant sensation in 1963 because Polish readers, used to reading between the lines, quickly grasped the intrinsic paradox of Konwicki’s art: It was precisely his intensely subjective way of telling the story that enabled him to give the fullest account of the objective reality of postwar Poland. What had happened to Poland since World War II was a nightmare—and this nightmare could be related only by a novelistic “dreambook” with all of its nightmarish rules of narration and plot construction.
At the outset of the novel, the main character wakes up from a poison-induced coma (he has attempted suicide) in a sleepy provincial town somewhere in Poland. Trying unsuccessfully to find some common ground with the twisted characters that inhabit the place, the hero feels increasingly overwhelmed by the absurdity of their lives. At the same time, he is chased by his own memories, which time and again rouse deeply hidden feelings of guilt apparently connected with his guerrilla past. The narrator’s continuous flight from himself coincides agonizingly with his attempts at understanding himself and the surrounding world. Justly described by Miosz as “one of the most terrifying novels in postwar Polish literature,” A Dreambook for Our Time is, however, by no means a nihilistic revelation of the void: It is, rather, a tortuous search for the meaning of...
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