Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 553
A Dreambook for Our Time opens with Paul’s attempted suicide. He thinks that he can no longer live with his guilt and despair. He feels guilty for his mother’s arrest by the Nazis and her subsequent death, for his accidental killing of a young comrade he mistook for a German, for surviving the war when so many of his friends and countrymen did not, for his failure and that of his society to live up to their potential. He has seen too much death, too many broken promises. Tormented by his memories, he sees his past in the often-accusing faces around him: “I look for meanings everywhere. Every face I see grows over with the thicket of memory. I shall never extricate myself from it.” While the villagers can find some respite in religion, Paul cannot: “I don’t need a faith from outside. I want to find peace in myself.” Tadeusz Konwicki offers little hope of his character’s ever finding it.
Paul is an idealist who has lost all of his ideals. Count Pac tells him, “You wanted to set the world right, make people happy. You swallowed any amount of these ideas, and they’ve eaten you up inside. Only have to touch you with one finger, and you all fall apart, like rot.” Paul’s decay is presented as that of Poland. He fought the Nazis and the Soviets to preserve his country’s integrity. Then he joined the Communist Party, only to be disillusioned.
Paul thinks that if he confronts Joseph Car his torment might be somewhat alleviated. Yet this mystic only adds to his confusion by first admitting that he is the man Paul wounded during the war and then claiming that he is not. Paul wants to save himself by proving that he can care for another human being. “I’ll make you a gift of the last remains of my feelings,” he tells Justine. When she refuses to leave her husband, Paul’s sense of hopelessness grows.
Joseph Car is Paul’s psychological double, a reflection of Paul’s past. “The same sin links us, the same memory,” Paul tells him. Car says that Paul sees only his guilt, is motivated only by his desperation to reassemble some of the pieces of his broken life. Car does this himself by unifying the villagers in a cult through which he hopes to release them from the burden of their pasts.
Like Joseph Car, most of the characters are primarily symbols, representing different types of victims. Because she is an orphan who knows neither her true identity nor her nationality, Justine must be loyal to her husband, the only stability she has ever known. Accepting her fate, Malvina hides behind homilies and claims that she has chosen not to be happy. Her brother, Ildefons, blames the world’s troubles on humans trying to be wiser than God. He attempts to escape by writing stories about fantastic animals and plants, yet when his sister reads and criticizes them, he destroys years of work. The most complex of the characters, Regina, wants affection but fears intimacy. No longer able to bear her loneliness, she leaves the village only to return to marry the dull Debicki. She is the character most capable of sympathizing with Paul’s pain.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 862
Paul, the narrator, an antihero who wanders Poland in an effort to escape his largely undeserved feelings of guilt, to find some meaning in his life and that of his war-ravaged country, and to awake from the nightmare of his unfinished past that includes the death of his parents and his experiences during the war in the Polish underground. Equating belief with surrender, he remains aloof, struggling to be loyal to himself without having to betray anyone else. The novel begins shortly after his attempted suicide and ends with his leaving the remote Polish village alone, his desires for love, forgiveness, and meaning still unfulfilled.
Regina (reh-JEE-nah), an attractive but no-longer-young manager of the village grocery cooperative. She leaves the village in search of a better life only to return and marry Debicki, a railroad foreman. Paul describes her stock of cosmetics as “a secret arsenal of female captivity, of female hope. A laboratory of forgery.”
Joseph Car, the “Baptist,” a tall, dark leader of a local cult that is a more or less secular, or nonfaith, religion of hope. Car, an epileptic, is, or appears to be, the informer that Paul was ordered to execute during the war but could not, associating him in his mind with his own dead father. Car is the figure Paul would like to forget but cannot.
Justine, Car’s wife, an orphan and self-proclaimed enchantress. Paul is drawn by her “lustful softness” but fails to convince her to leave Car and the village and begin a new life with him.
Miss Malvina Korsak
Miss Malvina Korsak (mahl-VIH-nah KOHR-sahk), a sixty-five-year-old woman. She and her brother own the house in which Paul rents a room. One of Car’s most ardent followers, she repeatedly urges Paul to join them in their daily prayers. Although she also urges him to forget his past, she keeps her own past very much alive with endless nostalgic references to her previous life “back home in the East.”
Ildefons Korsak (ihl-deh-FONS), her brother. He has fought for the czar, the kaiser, the Bolsheviks, and the Poles. More recently, he has been writing a book in which he claims to have put everything everyone has forgotten, but he destroys the manuscript when he discovers that his sister has secretly read it. Like most of the other villagers, he has gotten used to living in the village, which a dam project will soon flood. He does not want to leave and does not know where he will go.
Jasiu Krupa (YAH-syew KREW-pah), known as “the partisan” and suspected of being a Jew. He is a man embittered by the loss of an arm, the murder of his family, dismissal from a position of power in the postwar government because he had no education, and the spurning of his amorous advances by Regina. Vodka and the special painkilling tea he brews are his sole escapes.
Count Pac, a stuttering and long-faced man who denies his aristocratic background and goes out of his way to espouse the new creed of democracy.
Romus (RAH-moos), a slow-thinking, slow-footed villager who is suspicious of anything or anyone that is new, especially Paul, whom he urges to go away.
Szafir (shah-FIHR), the usually reticent local Communist Party official. Trapped with Paul in an abandoned house that they assume will soon be swept away by the swollen Sola River, he divulges his most secret thoughts about the need to help one another and about the burden of regret. Although they survive their ordeal, Szafir dies soon afterward, apparently of consumption, the disease that killed Paul’s father.
Huniady (hew-NYA-dih), the pseudonym of the once legendary but now largely forgotten partisan-turned-bandit who, refusing the amnesty that Krupa and the other partisans accepted, lived—perhaps continues to live—alone in the Solec forest.
Father Gabriel, a monk and farm laborer. He invites Paul to visit the monastery to see the collection of old books and liturgical vessels and to find refuge from the flooding river.
Sergeant Glowko (GLOV-koh), an incompetent local policeman. He spends much of his time either hurrying back to his ill-tempered wife or hiding from her.
Korvin, one of the men for whom Paul is searching. Korvin is his code name from the Polish underground, in which he worked first under the command of Paul (“Oldster”), then later, after Oldster disobeyed his superiors and ordered Korvin to murder German prisoners, as Paul’s commander. Korvin believed he had to find and kill his brother, a Bolshevik, who betrayed the underground; only in this way will he, Korvin, be able to free himself of his burden of guilt and shame.
Debicki, the foreman of the railroad work crew that includes Paul, Pac, and Krupa. He marries the desperate Regina, mistakenly believing that they will be able to make a new life. The building of the railroad typifies the absurdity of his and the other villagers’ situation and that of postwar Poland. The line is completed just as the entire area is about to be flooded by a government dam project.
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