Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 794
The Polish Complex centers on one of the constants of contemporary Polish life—waiting in line. In this case Poles are waiting outside a jewelry store in Warsaw for gold rings to arrive from the Soviet Union. The entire novel takes place in this line, although there are vivid interludes at...
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- Critical Essays
The Polish Complex centers on one of the constants of contemporary Polish life—waiting in line. In this case Poles are waiting outside a jewelry store in Warsaw for gold rings to arrive from the Soviet Union. The entire novel takes place in this line, although there are vivid interludes at other sites—a remote forest in Lithuania, for example, and a hotel room in another city. In these partly surrealistic and dreamlike episodes, a historical journey takes place as well as a geographical one. The episodes re-create scenes from the unsuccessful Polish rebellion of 1863; the sense of defeat, disappointment, inevitable doom, and eternal struggle suffered by the main characters of these episodes provides a psychological glue that binds past and present, determining individual and national identity. Tadeusz Konwicki himself was a revolutionary, fighting against the Soviet troops who took over his native area of Lithuania in the 1940’s. Like Zygmunt Mineyko, the 1863 revolutionary, Konwicki was unsuccessful in his attempt to keep his homeland free, but his identification with Mineyko in defeat and blighted hopes blurs the temporal distance between the two characters and explains something of the present psychological state of the Konwicki protagonist.
As Konwicki waits in line for the order to arrive from the Soviet Union, he makes the acquaintance of a number of other people. The two major characters he meets are Kojran and Duszek, standing behind Konwicki in that order. The order is symbolic, for these three have followed one another in the past. Kojran followed Konwicki with a death order for a time after Konwicki had dropped his revolutionary sympathies in favor of Socialist leanings. Duszek, in turn, pursued Kojran to torment and imprison him. Now, however, the three men join in a kind of begrudging camaraderie, even going off to have a drink together. They share an unspoken disillusionment over the value of intense political feeling, a sense of futility, and the feeling of being jaded with life, with politics, with experience; their shared feelings render the past almost humorously negligible and enable them to accept their differing roles and past hostilities.
Trivial episodes occur while they wait in line. A woman pretends to be old in order to get ahead in the line. A peasant woman suddenly tries to sell veal. A young man turns out to be a French anarchist who, ironically enough, has fled to Poland to find true freedom. Street musicians play Christmas tunes. There are also periodic announcements by the manager of the store. The three men temporarily leave the line to go for a drink. A girl walks barefoot through the December snowstorm in a dressing gown. A group of Soviet tourists get preferential treatment and go to the head of the line, although why they want to buy Soviet gold rings in Poland is never explained. The manager announces that the awaited rings have not arrived and that the shipment consists of samovars instead. Konwicki daydreams and muses and philosophizes about himself, about his identity, his career, his connection with Poland, his native land, his place in the universe. During the course of the evening he feels the symptoms of a heart attack and subsequently experiences a mild attack. When he comes to, he finds himself with Iwona, a salesgirl, and makes love with her. The episode begins in a gloriously romantic, passionate mood—Iwona is described in beautiful images drawn from nature—but degenerates into the tawdry as the lovers recognize the inevitable futility of their relationship and the manager angrily bangs on the door of their backroom trysting site.
As the novel approaches its end, there is another scene of a defeated revolutionary. This time it is the final good-bye between Romuald Traugutt and his wife in a strange hotel room. They are clearly aware that in assuming leadership of the People’s Government, Traugutt is deliberately marching to his death. Yet he must go. Their last night together is neither romanticized nor idealized, interrupted as it is by news that Traugutt’s passport has been seized by the police and by sounds of rowdy behavior in the adjacent room. This domestic good-bye prepares the reader for the less intimate farewells and dispersal of the people waiting in line. Konwicki rejects the invitation of a lonely woman to spend the night with her, and he heads back to his home. Yet where is home? It cannot be his native land, for Wilno has been seized and there is no freedom there, so it must be the small apartment where his wife presumably awaits his return. Despite the indifference of the universe, he feels the great potential of Poland—Warsaw is a “great massif” and houses “caves full of sleeping knights.” This is the Polish Complex—reality and vision.