Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

“Apocalypse” is not usually associated with the word “minor.” “Apocalypse” means some kind of prophetic disclosure or revelation. If Konwicki’s self-immolation is a “minor apocalypse” in that it involves only one person, it is also, perhaps, an ironic recognition of what is true for all human beings, who have their self-destructive urges. Near the beginning of the novel, he lights a cigarette and notes, “Everybody shortens their existence on the sly.” By putting a match to himself in public, the narrator acknowledges what he knows to be true of people in private.

As he walks around Warsaw, the narrator sees over and over again signs reading we have built socialism! These ludicrous, self-congratulatory messages seem more amusing every time they are mentioned, since no one behaves as though anything has been accomplished. On the contrary, the system seems to be dying of its own inanition. Comrade Kobialka finds himself in the same torture chamber as Konwicki and asks the novelist if he believes that the Communist government is coming to an end. “Everything’s coming to an end. Water, coal, the whole world,” Konwicki replies, for this is a world that has lost faith in itself.

Except for Jan, who serves as a reminder that even the most stalwart humanists may succumb to disappointment and old age, Konwicki’s characters, including himself, approach the seeming hopelessness of the Polish situation with incredible zest. Konwicki has time for a love affair on the last day of his life and goes through several police interrogations with most of his humor and resilience intact. Tadzio doggedly follows Konwicki, gas can at the ready, to do his literary master’s bidding. Somehow the act of stripping has made Comrade Kobialka quite lively in his delineation of Polish entropy. There is, in the end, something irrepressible about the human temperament that compensates for the catastrophe of Polish life. As Jaroslaw Anders puts it in his review of the novel in The New Republic: “Konwicki’s protagonist clings to the belief in the immortality of the world, and this belief makes him accept his own, seemingly absurd death as the only human conclusion of the day of humiliations and reckonings.”