(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

A Minor Apocalypse takes place sometime in the not-too-distant future. The author makes himself the narrator and protagonist who is importuned by two dissident friends to set himself on fire as a protest against the inhumanity of the Polish government. Hubert and Rysio suggest that Tadeusz Konwicki should sacrifice himself because he is a prominent writer—but not so valuable that his loss would do irreparable damage to the nation. Knowicki would like to ridicule their proposition, yet he is forced to take it seriously because of his own stymied creativity and the demoralizing stasis of the country as a whole. As he says to Jan, whom he has regarded as a moral beacon of the culture, “someone has to break this lethargy.... To wake the sleepers with a wild cry.”

Much of a A Minor Apocalypse is taken up with Konwicki’s efforts to prepare himself for his immolation in the service of the Polish quest for freedom. During his daylong journey around Warsaw, he meets several figures who are representative of the culture, of both the authorities and the Polish underground. Much of the narrator’s own past is also revealed. He is, himself, a compromised figure, having once been a Party member. What strikes him now is how long both the government and its opponents have put up with a stalemated situation. If the Communists have not built a better world through socialism, the opposition has become almost comfortable with its lack of effectiveness. At times, it seems more like a weary game the two sides are playing.

Indeed, Poland has been under the Russian hammer for ages, it seems, and the result is that no one is sure of the country’s own history. Dates vary in the novel, and the narrator is never quite certain which anniversary of the victory of socialism is being celebrated. Time itself has become a political tool. In such vague and ambiguous circumstances, Konwicki wonders—right up to the end of the novel—whether his sacrifice will have meaning.