The Polish Complex

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 13)

The evocative title of Tadeusz Konwicki’s latest novel (first published in Polish as Kompleks polski, 1977) is surely meant to capture the many different senses in which a nation and a people are Polish. A complex results from the intertwining of a people’s responses and their history—in this case, of the Polish past and present, which are inextricable. Thus, Konwicki’s story of a group of Polish characters waiting in a long line in front of a jewelry shop to purchase Russian gold rings is interrupted by divagations into Polish history, into the uprising against the Russians in 1863, into the author’s wartime service in 1943, and into the post-World War II years. Without ever saying so, Konwicki demonstrates that the long line is the chain of Polish history in the sense that its characters have their links with the Polish past and share a Polishness that is itself another kind of complex, an intricate blend of Romanticism and fatalism, of tragedy and buffoonery. Set on Christmas Eve, with its promise of hope and rebirth, the novel explores what it means to wait in line in Poland, to wait, really, for “a miracle,” as Konwicki calls it, one that would make the waiting worthwhile by providing some sign of deliverance. The miracle does not occur in The Polish Complex, but the future is left open and “indecipherable.”

If, as a number of reviewers have noted, Konwicki’s novel demands of its readers at least a cursory acquaintance with Polish history, such a demand is not unreasonable, for, as Daniel Singer put it in his review of The Polish Complex, “It is important to learn about Poland’s recent past, for it is relevant not only to the future of Eastern Europe but to our own future as well.” Konwicki’s evocation of the Christmas spirit at the beginning of the novel is saturated with Polishness: “Every year Christmas Eve brings us Earthlings a certain magical hope, awakens strange, exciting forebodings in us, and stirs our longing for our primal, unknown homeland.” There is nostalgia in this statement, for behind it lurks the Pole’s yearning for historic Poland, for a kingdom that once was whole. As Poles tell it, Poland was once a land of a “golden freedom” that was more tolerant and more individualistic than its European neighbors, until one of them, Russia, pushed ahead and trampled over Poland—just as the Russian tourists rush past the line of Poles and get preferred treatment from the jewelry shop manager.

As a result of their fragmented state, Poles are divided against themselves, and some of them try to edge past others to the head of the line. Quarreling and fighting, Konwicki makes clear, are commonplace in such lines, and the small betrayals are paralleled by much larger accusations of selfishness and deceit. Konwicki himself is singled out by a character whom one reviewer has called his “shadow self,” Tadeusz Kojran, as particularly egotistical, as having been disloyal to friends and political allies. Kojran’s charge is both exceptional in its vehemence—he will not let Konwicki alone—and not so unusual, since Poles have learned to suspect one another as government informers and have come to expect the presence of characters such as Grzesio, who is repeatedly identified as a “stoolie.” For all his criticisms of Konwicki as a person and a Pole, however, there is a curious friendliness in Kojran’s attacks, as if his very familiarity with Konwicki’s failings has forged a bond of understanding between them. Similarly, Kojran, a fierce anti-Communist, is accompanied by Duszek, his inseparable friend, formerly a government official who tortured him.

Polish identities are indeed complex and are as likely to amuse Konwicki as they are to depress him. For example, there is the Polish peasant woman—at least that is what she first appears to be. Slowly and humorously, Konwicki exposes the details of another self: “Her kerchief had slipped from her head, revealing a fashionable holiday hairstyle straight from London.” Later, the peasant woman walks toward him “exuding Dior perfume.” Still later, she unbuttons her coat and reveals “a silvery evening gown.” Eventually she will offer to take care of the author, explaining to him about her improbable marriage to “an American billionaire,” now dead, and describing her farm outside Warsaw, where she and Konwicki could share a cozy life together. That is what one learns...

(The entire section is 1813 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Anders, Jaroslaw. Review in The New York Review of Books. XXIX (March 4, 1982), p. 16.

Baran, Henry K. Review in Library Journal. CVII (March 15, 1982), p. 650.

Baranczak, Stanisaw. “The Polish Complex,” in Partisan Review. LI, no. 3 (1984), pp. 433-441.

Choice. XX, February, 1983, p. 798.

Krzyzanowski, Jerzy R. “The Polish Complex,” in Polish Perspectives. XXV (1979), pp. 98-110.

Nation. CCXXXV, September 11, 1982, p. 214.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVII, January 10, 1982, p. 3.

The New Yorker. LIX, February 21, 1983, p. 126.

Publishers Weekly. CCXX, December 18, 1981, p. 61.

Times Literary Supplement. October 1, 1982, p. 1063.