Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1062
Tadeusz Konwicki (kon-VIHK-ih), talented as a short-story writer, novelist, filmmaker, and journalist, is a major literary figure in Poland. He has also attracted considerable notice in the West, his reputation growing as the number of his works available in English translation increases. Konwicki was born on July 22, 1926, into...
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- Critical Essays
Tadeusz Konwicki (kon-VIHK-ih), talented as a short-story writer, novelist, filmmaker, and journalist, is a major literary figure in Poland. He has also attracted considerable notice in the West, his reputation growing as the number of his works available in English translation increases. Konwicki was born on July 22, 1926, into a working family in Nowa Wilejka. His love for the land developed early and formed the nationalism that became a motivating factor for his later military, political, and artistic activity. The fate of his native region could be said to have shaped his writing career. In 1939 the Soviet Union annexed the eastern provinces of Poland, including Wilno. In a few weeks Wilno was ceded to Lithuania, but in June of 1940, Lithuania was taken over by Germany. During the Nazi occupation, universities and high schools were closed, and the publication of periodicals and books written in Polish was prohibited. Konwicki and his family evidenced the independence and resistance that were to become important themes in Konwicki’s later writings by his finishing high school despite the interdiction, attending a clandestinely run school. After the Soviet army drove out the Germans, Konwicki joined the Home Army fighting the Soviet troops; from July of 1944 to the spring of 1945, he was a soldier in a guerrilla unit. Konwicki later moved to Poland. His values, his sense of politics, and his philosophy about life were shaped during this period of powerless fluctuation in his native region as Lithuania and Poland became helpless pawns in the game played by larger powers.
Konwicki’s first novel, Rojsty (marshes), was written in 1948. It draws on Konwicki’s experience as a revolutionary fighting with the Home Army. It satirizes the ideals of a young man who dreams of being a national hero. The young man’s attempts to save Poland from Soviet occupation are futile, just as Konwicki himself had experienced defeat. The novel was not published until 1956, however, because of the sensitive subject matter and state restrictions, which were partially lifted in the 1950’s. It signals important themes in Konwicki’s work—a sense of futility and defeat that the individual faces because of the nation’s ineffectiveness.
For a brief time Konwicki became a Communist, and he wrote a number of short stories that supported the Party and lauded the workers who were contributing to the spread of socialism and growing industrialism. Wadza (power) was a Socialist Realist novel published in 1954. For it, Konwicki was awarded the State Prize in Literature. During this period of Communist affinity Konwicki was under threat of a death warrant by the Home Army, a situation that turns up in one of his most powerful novels of the 1970’s and points the way to his strong sense of the ironies of fate and the reversals of fortune. During this period Konwicki was also writing film scripts. He directed a short film, Ostatni dzie lata (the last day of summer), and a full-length film, Salto; his work in film has been critically acclaimed. It focuses his talent for the visual; the vivid, graphic quality of his novels and the collage techniques are clearly strengthened by his work in this alternate medium.
It was A Dreambook for Our Time, however, that earned for Konwicki an international reputation. Published in Polish in 1963 and in English in 1969, the novel was “a major literary sensation,” according to Czesaw Miosz. It seemed to tap into humankind’s deepest feelings of fear in response to the absurdities of the modern world it had created. The book presents a nightmarish world filled with personal torment, fear, guilt, and isolation in the major character, Oldster, who has survived World War II. There are flashbacks and surrealistic episodes—literary techniques that Konwicki would continue to exploit in later novels. A Dreambook for Our Time turned the tide of Konwicki’s writing career and made him a powerful world literary figure.
The Polish Complex is the cornerstone novel in the Konwicki canon. The novel was officially banned in Poland, so Konwicki published it in the underground samizdat (the clandestine publishing industry). The novel presents a devastating picture of contemporary Poland and its national character. The dismal realities of everyday life are graphically portrayed, and the problems engender a settled, cynical despair that is pervasive. Further, individual character is shown to be inevitably and inescapably determined by national history. The defeat of Poland over and over again, the generations of hopeful, idealistic patriots who have been destroyed by the whims of international politics and the power of invading armies, weigh upon contemporary Poland and make human life meaningless, hopeless, and futile.
The only source of hope, a slim one, is the novel’s Christmas Eve setting. A miracle occurred on this day once, and narrator Konwicki says he is waiting once again for a miracle. All the everyday circumstances of the novel conspire against the possibility of a miracle, yet such is the Polish national suspension of reality, Polish national idealism, perhaps even their foolish romanticism, that they hold onto the slimmest rays of hope despite the tawdriness of everyday life. The shallowness of such hope is emphasized by Konwicki’s collagelike method in the novel. There are no transitions between scenes; a reader can be in the vividly realized present one moment and in a surrealistic historical episode in another. The inner workings of the central character, Konwicki, glue the fragments of the novel together. The result is an enormously powerful work that ultimately asks essential questions about the meaning of human life in the modern world.
Konwicki’s subsequent works continued his vivid portrayal of the grim reality of life in Poland under Communism and a strong condemnation of the moral and spiritual condition of the country. The reader feels Konwicki’s personal anguish over his country’s lapse from the high ideals it had always cherished. Politics and passion, government and goodness—all were hopelessly obscured and ambiguous in a land whose values and faith and future were trammeled. Konwicki had become the spokesman for Poland’s loss. He spoke not only to his countrymen but also about his countrymen to the rest of the world. With the fall of Communism, his works became more easily accessible in the West, and Konwicki became more widely recognized for the graphic power of his descriptions of social reality and for the intense passion behind his personal philosophy.