Hospital of the Transfiguration Analysis

Stanislaw Lem

Hospital of the Transfiguration

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 7)

Hospital of the Transfiguration is Stanisaw Lem’s first novel. He completed it in Kraków, Poland, in 1948; however, the book was not published until 1955, in a rewritten, state-approved version. The original title was Szpital przemienienia; it constitutes the first volume of the trilogy Czas nieutracony (time not lost, or time saved). Eventually, the original version appeared in Polish and in German. This is the first English translation.

In 1939, after German forces have overrun Poland, Stefan Trzyniecki, having just completed medical school, searches for his place in life. Amid the chaos of an occupied country and the encroaching terror of Nazi ideology, he tries to discover what he values and what he should do. At first he drifts; a series of coincidences brings him to a job he did not actively seek at Christo Transfigurato, a rural mental asylum near the town of his father’s birth.

At the asylum, he gradually learns, through his relationships with major and minor characters, what his fundamental commitments are. These are expressed most succinctly in his dazed question, while he and a fellow doctor wander away from the asylum after Nazis have exterminated the patients and taken over the facility for an unspecified purpose: “How can they do such things and live?” In the asylum, Stefan has confirmed for himself in multiple ways the affirmation that life matters. Those who think otherwise are the truly mad. In one of the many philosophical conversations between Stefan and the hiding poet Sekuowski, the latter tells of a mad writer who “for one good metaphor” was willing to “annihilate a book and its author.” Sekuowski says that this writer really believed in nothing. Believing in nothing, he was mad, missing the counterweight of ethical common sense that is necessary to mental balance.

Sekuowski’s story helps define the madness of the Nazis who take and purge the asylum. Thiessdorff, the Nazi psychiatrist, explains: “Every nation is like an organism. Sometimes the body’s sick cells have to be excised. This was such an excision.” This insane metaphor stands in opposition to several metaphors Sekuowski presents in his conversations with Stefan. In one of these, the body is a flower garden in which tuberculosis bacteria are multiplying flowers. They succeed in overwhelming the garden’s protective plants, the leukocytes, only to find that the garden then sinks away beneath them, so they too must die. Different metaphors produce opposing views of how human life may be valued. A metaphor that demands the destruction of human beings must ultimately be self-destructive. If, as in Thiessdorff’s metaphor, the purpose is to separate the mentally healthy from the diseased, or the superior from the inferior, this purpose must eventually shatter on the rock of the realization that such definitions are arbitrary. Even the atheistic and cowardly Sekuowski values human life above all mere ideas; therefore, he appears more sane than his executioners, who shoot him out of simple disgust and blood lust, justified by a racist ideology.

The central portion of the novel presents Stefan’s education in the value of human life. His main teachers are his experiences in the asylum and his conversations with Sekuowski. The asylum teaches him the relativity of mental illness and health.

Stefan needs only a short time in the hospital to see that there is very little difference between the staff and the patients. Untrained, often clumsy and cruel, the nursing staff tends to see the patients as problems rather than clients. One doctor speculates that asylums attract staff who are fascinated by abnormality. Stefan is sure of his own neurosis, and each doctor seems at least mildly abnormal to him. Stanisaw “Staszek” Krzeczotek, the medical school friend who brings Stefan to the hospital, naïvely believes that they will be safe there from the Nazis and the effects of occupation. He is almost continuously partially debilitated by being hopelessly in love with someone. Nosilewska, the beautiful doctor whom Staszek yearns for, seems indifferent to anyone’s love, though she proves most calmly effective in the crisis of the Nazi takeover. Orybald Kauters, the staff neurosurgeon, delays operating on a classic brain-tumor case so he can observe the complete course of the disease. He proves to be German-born and so moves comfortably from the Polish to the German administration of the hospital. Marglewski, another doctor, fills his spare time with research to show that genius and madness are virtually the same. He stages a demonstration to prove that...

(The entire section is 1892 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 7)

Booklist. LXXXV, November 1, 1988, p. 448.

Chicago Tribune. October 23, 1988, XIV, p. 7.

Kirkus Reviews. LVI, September 1, 1988, p. 1266.

Library Journal. CXIII, October 1, 1988, p. 101.

The New Republic. CXCIX, November 7, 1988, p. 39.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIII, October 30, 1988, p. 26.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIV, August 26, 1988, p. 76.

The Washington Post Book World. XVIII, October 30, 1988, p. 11.