A Minor Apocalypse
Tadeusz Konwicki’s A Minor Apocalypse (published in Poland in 1979 as Mala apokalipsa) exhibits as symmetrical structure as ever was diagrammed on a blackboard. Its action confined to a single day, the novel begins with the first-person narrator confronting the reality of death—in particular, the inevitability of his own death, sooner or later. It is not, however, death itself that preoccupies him; rather, an awareness of death prompts reflection on the meaning of life.
The meaning of life is a subject that only ministers, gurus, and the like are accustomed to approach head-on; the average story in The New Yorker, for example, tacitly assures the reader that such a potentially embarrassing topic will never be broached. By contrast, Konwicki is both bold and devious in his metaphysical quest. He refers repeatedly to this novel as his “testament,” his “last will,” his “farewell to the world,” and he addresses his readers with uncommon candor, yet one such solemn declaration is followed by carefully written-out prescriptions for two dandruff remedies (“I would like to be useful in some small way”).
It is morning in Warsaw as the novel begins, and the narrator has just awakened, haunted by a recurring vision that lasts only for a fraction of a second—a vision in which, “before falling asleep or perhaps in the first passing cloud of sleep,” he begins “to understand the meaning of existence, time, and the life beyond this one.”
The narrator’s early-morning reflections are interrupted by the unexpected arrival of two old literary acquaintances, Hubert and Rysio, who come to him with a bizarre request: At eight o’clock that night, in front of the Communist Party’s Central Committee building in Warsaw, they want him to set himself on fire à la the Czech martyr Jan Palach.
At this point, an odd and arresting feature of Konwicki’s novel should be noted. It is immediately established that the narrator is a writer, and before long the reader concludes that—just as in Konwicki’s previous novel, Kompleks polski (1977; The Polish Complex, 1982)—the narrator is Konwicki himself, not a fictional character who resembles him but the author in his own person. Thus, the conventional distinction between author and narrator cannot be observed in summarizing the novel’s action.
Although Konwicki argues with his acquaintances, he takes their proposal seriously, allowing himself to go along with preparations for the event while conducting an inner debate. The bulk of the novel is given to his wanderings in Warsaw, occupying the hours between his morning meeting and his night-time appointment with death.
The Warsaw of Konwicki’s narrative is a strange compound of the fantastic and the real; as to the exact proportions of the mixture, a non-Polish reader is not competent to judge. Reviewing the novel, a Polish émigré noted that “Mr. Konwicki’s description of [Warsaw] is so meticulous that the narrator’s journey can be followed on a real map,” yet the tenor of the novel is clearly surreal. The very seasons of the year are confused: In the same day, it is autumn, winter, and summer. No one knows the date; the day on which the action of the novel takes place is variously identified (on banners, on television, and elsewhere) as the thirty-fifth, fortieth, fiftieth, and sixtieth anniversary of the Polish People’s Republic.
This anniversary is significant to the plot, for it is to be the occasion of Poland’s loss of even nominal sovereignty as an independent nation. On this day, Poland is to become merely another “republic” in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, suffering the same fate that befell her Baltic neighbors, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, shortly after World War II. Thus, one of the meanings of the novel’s title is that a minor apocalypse (with an ironic inflection on “minor”) is taking place: It is not the end of the world, but it is the end of Poland.
In the course of his wanderings, Konwicki meets the group of dissidents who are to supply him with gasoline and matches (the occasion of much black humor). Among them is a young Russian woman, Nadezhda (whose name means “hope” in Russian); she and Konwicki are immediately attracted to each other, and their enigmatic love affair—if so a relationship of a few hours’ duration can be termed—is central to the novel. He also encounters various figures who are, according to the gifted...
(The entire section is 1850 words.)