Jerzy Kosinski is a refugee from Poland who, like Conrad, writes with great fluency and precision in an adopted language. Like other serious contemporary writers, he works within the boundaries imposed by literary existentialism; he adheres to its formulae and to its clichés. It is obvious that he owes much to Sartre, Camus, and Kafka. That he is commercially successful is due in part to the forcefulness and clarity of his writing, particularly in those earlier works which first brought him widespread acclaim and, subsequently, the National Book Award.
Passion Play is a picaresque novel in which the adventures of Fabian, an itinerant polo player, are recounted. Fabian is presented to the reader as a knight-errant who is driven by two obsessions: combat and sex. He closely resembles Kosinski’s other protagonists. A loner, an outsider, so deliberately anonymous that we learn only his last name, he moves freely through his world and manipulates it to his own ends. He is intensely private and gives nothing of himself to others; if he has thoughts beyond those of the moment we do not become aware of them. He dominates and he values unlimited personal freedom. Isolated and uncommunicative by preference, he exists only for himself.
The structure of Passion Play, already familiar to readers of Kosinski, is one of fragmentation. It is a series of episodes, anecdotes, and vignettes, fluid in terms of time and space. As in much other contemporary fiction, the real and the unreal exist side by side, with one breaking in upon the other from time to time. Separation of these elements is more clearly defined in Passion Play than in many of its counterparts; Kosinski adheres to realism in episodes of horsemanship and polo, reserving irrealism for erotic passages and for Fabian’s own peculiar version of knight-errantry.
Fabian is not a team player. He specializes in one-on-one combat, a duel between individuals. He takes his skill seriously, plays to win, and is entirely willing to kill his opponent if he deems it necessary. This violent life of the playing field is portrayed with authenticity and power, demonstrating Kosinski’s talent at its best. The episodes, which include an encounter with a Latin American dictator, seem in most cases to be parodies of Hemingway; the exception, equally convincing, satirizes the type of story exemplified by National Velvet.
The world of Passion Play is essentially one of exploitation, in which the daughters of illegal aliens are rented or sold, and in which women and horses are trained by similar methods for equivalent ends. Fabian is himself an exploiter: he initiates the immature females in his equitation classes and then returns a few years later to complete their sexual education. His sexual contacts are numerous, and the reader is allowed to play voyeur at many of them.
In current literature—as in current speech—sex, intimacy, and lovemaking have become synonymous terms. This is an unfortunate misuse of words because it blurs certain distinctions that should be kept in mind when we examine Fabian and others like him. Intimacy implies a closeness, a mutual sharing of inner selves; lovemaking is an intimate process, by definition an act of love, in which the selves are merged. Sexual gratification, although intensified and given meaning by intimacy and by love, requires neither of these elements; and in the existentialist world, neither element exists. Nor, for that matter, do human kindness and compassion. It is a mechanistic world.
Kosinski has lavished much care on his erotic passages, which are largely flights of adolescent fantasy, and has employed for this purpose a form of turgid prose he does not use elsewhere. In them he details Fabian’s obsessive search for the limits of physical sensation. These episodes are extravagant, kinky, and bizarre; in their cumulative effect they tend to numb the sensibilities. Read merely for their ability to shock or stimulate, they convey nothing that has not been stated, and overstated, as effectively before. Read more perceptively, they are deeply disturbing.
It is borne in upon the thoughtful reader that these scenes, and the people in them, are in fact mechanical. Fabian’s partners are machines: he turns them on, tends them, and notes with a professional eye that all the parts are working efficiently. With the same clinical detachment he observes and studies the operation of his own machinery. He shares nothing but his expertise and a few basic tools, and we find ourselves witnessing a dance of robots. In one of these episodes, Fabian and his current trainee visit a sex club; here they wander through a multitude of inhuman entities, all of whom are mindless, gross, and brutal. The reader is reminded of maggots in a corpse, or of Virgil conducting Dante through Hell.
When Fabian’s activities are examined further, we realize that all his compulsions are essentially mechanical. His elegant motor home is a carefully tended machine that provides him with security and is vital to his chosen existence. His two horses are also machines, equally essential to his livelihood and to his survival; they too are carefully maintained; but these mares, in common with all other horses in Passion Play, are always referred to as “it.” The fusion of horse and rider, like the fusion of man and woman, is never that of two sentient beings in intimate association: it is always the symbiosis of man and machine.
The horses in Passion Play are trained, often by women, with a cool and detached brutality. Weights, chains, surgery, and chemically induced ulcers are utilized to produce a refinement of gait or stance that is...
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