Tadeusz Konwicki Konwicki, Tadeusz (Vol. 8) - Essay

Konwicki, Tadeusz (Vol. 8)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Konwicki, Tadeusz 1926–

Konwicki is a Polish novelist, short story writer, and film director. Although he has written many novels, he is known to an English-language audience on the basis of a single translated work, A Dreambook for Our Time. This novel, with its continuous flashbacks, nightmarish images, and shifting realities, is a terrifying study of a war-shattered mind.

[Neither] Konwicki nor his novel [Wladza (The Power)] differ in any significant way from the clichés of socialist-realist fiction produced on a mass scale in Poland in the early 1950s and modeled on Soviet novels of the same period. Despite the fact that Wladza was never finished, it won the [State Prize] and was most favorably reviewed by the critics, who encouraged the young author to continue along the same path, which brought success for political rather than artistic accomplishment. (pp. 485-86)

When Rojsty (The Marshes) appeared in print in 1956 it did not win a state prize; nevertheless, we should consider its publication a turning point in the novelist's literary career. (p. 486)

In Rojsty Konwicki gives a fictitious, often self-mocking account of the year he spent with the guerrillas. Superficially satirical, in fact it pronounces a sad post mortem tribute for the young men who opposed the Soviet invasion, fighting for their native land, taking no orders, expecting no help, hoping against hope that "at least their courage would be remembered by someone some day." And indeed, while the official Polish historiography either remains silent or dismisses that chapter in the country's postwar history, Konwicki's novel provides an almost unique literary document of it…. [It] begins with a rather satirical picture of a young man desperately trying to become a hero, but as the political situation changes so does the style of the novel. The narration grows more dramatic, the scenery more somber, and the characters undergo a dramatic transition, emerging as mature, embittered men whose idealism and hopes have been shattered. Konwicki's style, initially light-hearted and casual, changes too, evolving toward a more complex, symbolic vision of reality. The image of rojsty, the local name of quicksands and marshes, dominates the novel as a symbol of doom for all hopes, sacrifices and aspirations. Rojsty provided the young Konwicki with fictional themes and motifs which have gradually emerged and taken over and finally created Konwicki's own nightmarish world. (pp. 486-87)

The motifs of an impending doom, the impossibility of sharing one's own past, and the futility in seeking lasting happiness—enhanced with images and visual symbols, which Konwicki as a film director [in the late 1950s] was able to realize perhaps more clearly than he could have at that point as a novelist—all come to the fore in his major novel Sennik wspólczesny (1963; A Dreambook for Our Time, 1969). Virtually everything Konwicki's world has been made of appears in that novel in a new and revealing light of sudden understanding of those internal and external forces which have created it. The very first lines of the novel set up the weird atmosphere of suspense made up of the dreams and reality experienced by a nameless protagonist who narrates his own story:

I didn't open my eyes, and, like a man awakened from an afternoon doze, I did not know where or who I was. The venomous taste of bile burned my mouth, the ticklish centipede of pulse ran across my temples. I was lying in a ponderous sack of pain and sweat.

As it turns out, he is an escapee from the frustrating hustle of urban life in contemporary Poland, a temporary settler in a symbolic valley whose days are numbered, for it will be flooded as soon as a new water reservoir is completed. The new construction project, the sign of a new era, threatens the very livelihood of the valley, where a strange collection of phantomlike characters vegetates suspended between bitter recollections of the past and inevitable destruction in the immediate future. The protagonist, whose memory is constantly tormented by his terrible war experiences, lives among them trying to find his own place in that strange world, but, as Czesław Miłosz correctly remarked, "this is a novel about guilt, and since the feeling of guilt oppresses men with distorted, even monstrous recollections, everything bathes in an aura of torment; situations, people, landscapes create a nightmarish web of metaphors." That feeling of guilt, as it will be explained later, which emerges in Sennik wspólczesny as the main motif, also appears in Konwicki's subsequent novels, threatening the very fabric of human existence, or at least its sanity. Although the protagonist eventually seems to get rid of his obsession with the past and hopes to return to "normal" life, it is obvious that the psychological wounds inflicted by the war and the years of horror immediately following it can never be healed.

Such a dramatic change in the novelist's philosophy is clearly reflected in the style of the novel. Every scene and every character acquires a deeper, symbolic meaning, the descriptions and dialogues become more metaphorical than ever before, making the novel tense and coherent. The initial image of a man submerged in a half-dream eventually changes into a more conscious quest as expressed by the protagonist: "What I've lived through up to now is like a handful of stones brought up from the riverbed. Now I shall forever be fitting them into new configurations and search for the meaning behind all this." (pp. 487-88)

His movie Salto (1964) presented virtually the same problem—a man entangled in a nightmarish web of haunting memories, fears and terror with no escape, no hope and no redemption. Salto signifies a further step into the exploration of the existential night descending upon the world, which Konwicki has been painstakingly creating since 1948—or perhaps the world which created Konwicki and his fiction in the years preceding that date.

His novel Wniebowstapienie (Ascension), published in 1967, seems to point it out quite eloquently. Set in contemporary Warsaw, the novel introduces another uncanny cast of characters for whom the capital of Poland serves as a purgatory they have to pass through before being doomed forever…. Konwicki leads his [ghostly] characters through the streets, restaurants, parks and jails but most frequently gathers them together in the empty marble halls of the [Palace of Culture],… juxtaposing their enormous size and deserted spaces with the ugliness and pettiness of everyday life in contemporary Poland. Such an ironic twist adds a grotesque flavor to that somber and masterfully written novel, in which realistic presentation of characters and scenery achieves another dimension of supernatural and symbolic vision.

In a manner resembling that of Bulgakov's Master and Margarita, Konwicki succeeds in combining the realistic, often humorous scenes of contemporary Warsaw with a terrifying vision of evil reigning over all human lives. Now the horrors of war memories give way to the torments of life in the corrupted post-war society, life frustrated in an inescapable trap of human bondage. Ever-present, suspicious policemen replace the oppressors of the past while victimized people either seek forgetfulness in drunken stupor or turn into ghostlike phantoms populating the city. The protagonist, a man who has lost his memory and in a series of flashbacks tries to imagine who he could have been had the circumstances not prevented him, moves among the drunken crowd of human wrecks. (p. 488)

Konwicki … comes from those regions Poland lost to the Soviet Union in the aftermath of World War II, and therefore the accute sense of irreparable loss of his native land has always been present in his writings. The land of his childhood, that paradise lost—in this case quite literally—to which he constantly returns has grown into [a] haunting motif of major proportions. Paranthetically one might remark that the Eastern territories, which Polish writers had not been permitted to write about for almost fifteen years after the war, recently have been making a dramatic comeback in Polish literature…. Konwicki, [like other Polish writers], makes a sentimental journey to that land of his youth in one of his minor novels, Dziura w niebie (A Hole in the Sky, 1959) but only in his major works does he transform it into an everpresent image of major importance.

It has become a basic structural motif in what so far is his best and most ambitious novel Nic albo nic (Nothing or Nothing, 1971), the winner of a readers' plebiscite for the best novel of the year. (pp. 489-90)

Nic albo nic epitomizes Konwicki's haunted world more and better than anything he has ever written, for it explores all the passions, obsessions, fears and complexes he has inherited from the violent past and which he sees in the present. In that novel, perhaps more violent and cruel than his previous works, the guilt complex comes to the fore, transferred into an image of sexual violence leading to death. Death appears in that novel as a dominating force, an ultimate culmination of all those motifs he has explored before. It is always there, in the novel's imagery, in its scenery, in the minds of its characters, and one may safely assume that the protagonist in Nic albo nic has become the author's porte-parole when he says:

I know … how to sense the nearness of those who have departed, how to get in touch with their existence, how to be swamped in their silent presence. I do not have to call them in. They are always around me, near me, in me. Some of them I love, some I respect, I hate some of them, and some I despise. They participate in my daydreams and in my dreams at night, in my memory and in my premonitions, in my hopes, and in the spasms of terror.

And indeed, that acute sense of terror transposes Konwicki's world into a nightmarish, haunted realm. Philosophically close to existential thought, Konwicki, not as a moralist but as an accomplished artist, has put his finger on the very source of the anxieties and fears of the modern world, laying them bare in a relentless exploration.

The road he has covered in the last twenty years exemplifies the direction of contemporary Polish literature perhaps better than any other writer's work in the same period. From a superimposed interest in political power to an almost complete defiance of the values established by that power, a nothingness, an all-embracing nada, Konwicki's haunted world has become an important part of modern literature, the literature of our violent, cruel and yet uniquely fascinating century. (p. 490)

Jerzy R. Krzyzanowski, "The Haunted World of Tadeusz Konwicki," in Books Abroad (copyright 1974 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 48, No. 3, Summer, 1974, pp. 485-90.

[A Dreambook for Our Time] is a deliberately unapproachable fable of contemporary Polish life. (p. 31)

The difficulties of Konwicki's A Dreambook for Our Time stem from the dreamlike vision of the contemporary world in which the narrator finds himself, a vision predicted by [Tadeusz Borowski in This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen. Like Borowski's narrator], this man is also a guilty survivor. In the war, which in Poland involved a bloody civil conflict (partisans against Communists) as well as the defense against the Nazis, the narrator like many other young men betrayed and murdered his countrymen for causes which were increasingly confused. When he wakes after an unsuccessful suicide attempt at the beginning of the novel 20 years later he wakes into another dream where the present is still clouded by the confusions of the past. In one last effort to sum up the meaning of his experience he sets about investigating his surroundings; they are his only materials. The village and its environment are thick with the unorganizable fragments of history. Its inhabitants come from all over Poland, but they are presently caught up in a deracinated religious cult which seals off their pasts from his investigations. The township itself has been destroyed and rebuilt so often that no trace of history or tradition survives. Its forest is crowded with the unmarked graves of centuries of war, and its monastery's museum displays a ragtag collection of minerals and fish from foreign climes, all of which points to nothing except a tradition of transience and destruction, a dumb randomness out of which a man tries vainly to wrest some explanation.

The plot moves back and forth between the narrator's recollections of the war and the events of his current life. The connections he does manage to make between landmarks here and in his past or between persons then and now do nothing to control the randomness of his findings. Events and landscape duplicate and reduplicate themselves in the narrative without leaving any trace of a pattern. And suppose he does correctly identify a man or a place from his past, will he gain any explanation beyond the baldness of the coincidence itself? Apparently not as each of these co-incidences swells in importance distorting itself as it does so, and then bursts. The novel ends with his wilting hope to wake at last into an "ordinary, commonplace day, with its usual troubles," and one thinks that Tadeusz Borowski too would have settled happily for something like that. (pp. 31-2)

Elizabeth Pochoda, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1976 by The New Republic, Inc.), April 10, 1976.

Polish writing of the last two centuries has a coherence and relevance that are without parallel elsewhere. In consequence, it is for the foreigner both difficult and private, intricately traced with historical and literary allusions. There is no comparison with the lucid humanism of the modern Czech novels. With the exception of the experimental theater of Witkiewicz and Mroźek—and not all of that—there are very few first-class works of Polish literature that do not require an explanatory introduction.

Dreambook is given such an introduction by the philosopher Leszek Kolakowski. While it is not autobiographical in a precise way, its themes are the themes of Konwicki's own life and Kolakowski summarizes them….

[Konwicki's] narrator awakens after a suicide attempt, surrounded by inquisitive faces in the remote village to which he has drifted. We understand that he is a solitary, crushed and bewildered by memories of the war and the postwar years to which, although some fifteeen years in the past, he can still give no meaning. But the other inhabitants are in the same pass. Nothing is happening in this somnolent place, malarial with sinister memories of violence and mystery. From the forests, an occasional shot resounds. The legend is that "Huniady," a last survivor of the anticommunist bands, still wanders there with his rain-rusted weapon. (This background—the forest which harbors a mythical partisan, part-menace and part-savior—is a Polish convention: it is, for example, the setting of Kazimierz Brandys's marvelous novella "The Bear.")

Gradually, the narrator begins to associate with the people of the village…. Three personalities stand apart from them. One is Szafir, the silent and contemplative party secretary, who lives ostracized in his own house and broods on the coming fate of the valley. The others are Joseph Car and his wife Justine. From his house down by the river, Car brings the people of the village together in a strange redemptionist cult.

We begin to learn more about the unnamed narrator, as he is drawn close to Car and attracted to Justine, herself an orphan from forgotten massacres. His own past, hideously vivid and yet meaningless as a dream which cannot be banished, is materialized by flashbacks, disordered and out of sequence but slowly coming together as the novel develops….

Still poisoned by guilt and hatred, he is searching. He is obsessed by one man, one swarthy face: the face of a man whose arrest during the occupation he failed to prevent, of the man whose execution after the war he failed to carry through. The narrator is still fighting in these dead struggles, like Huniady. It comes to him that the mythical Huniady is perhaps one Korvin, his sergeant in the Home Army and then his commander in the anticommunist guerrillas. And it comes to him that Joseph Car is that swarthy man, his victim and his betrayer, the man who must be confronted if his own torment is to be resolved. Delicately, Konwicki indicates that this man—or two, or three men: the dream is never explicit—is a Jew. The appearance, the persecution, the detachment converge with Joseph Car's remark: "It isn't easy to be an alien among your own people." But in fact all the villagers, and the narrator, have become such aliens, and Car through his cult seeks to release them from the original sin of the past.

Soon, the waters will cover everything. Since the fall of Stalinism after the war, the Poles have had the longest period of stability that the nation has been granted since the First Partition. Men and women born since the occupation are entering their thirties. The generation of those who survived the apocalypse, for whom all was decided by which forest you fought in, what color of brother-Pole you fired on, whether your exile was in Russia or the West, is beginning to pass away. At a party in Warsaw last year, one of that generation said to me: "At last, the age of biographies is over." Konwicki was in the room, his sharp face closed behind heavy spectacles, offering no comment. But his many novels, of which I believe this to be the best, are helping to terminate that age with the mercy and ceremony he allotted to Joseph Car. (p. 14)

Neal Aseherson, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1976 NYREV, Inc.), May 27, 1976.

Punishment deferred is the theme of … Tadeusz Konwicki's A Dreambook for Our Time, which is directly about the psychological costs of war and the fate of survivors. (pp. 761-62)

This is indeed a dreambook for not only does the past inhabit the present with inescapable recollections but present events themselves dissolve in a dreamlike haze of uncertainty. Here, as in Borowski's stories, the terrors of war lead to emotional anesthesia, though here too is a blurring of perception. As in a play by Beckett, the simplest acts are performed with maddening difficulty, and the most routine thoughts and recollections are achieved only through a tedious grappling with the will to forget. Mental life is involuntary while the present is suffocated in folds of anesthetic cotton.

And it is no wonder that Konwicki's hero reports back from within such a haze of sense, for the history he has witnessed is a rebuke to the senses. His generation was one that saw and felt too much, for which one remedy is the mortification of sense and the comparative comfort of autism. Comparative, since life also issues commands and they too must be satisfied: …

The road of sterile vegetating, a state of dullness brought on by the biological rumination of days, cheating the memory by senile little pleasures in pushing checkers about. Is this the only alternative?

The book doesn't really answer that…. (p. 762)

Mark Shechner, in The Nation (copyright 1976 by The Nation Associates, Inc.), June 19, 1976.

The past holds [all the characters of A Dreambook for Our Time] prisoner, for their attitudes toward the present have been conditioned by their experiences before and during the German occupation. The hero's consciousness is permeated by a double sense of betrayal. On the one hand, he has "betrayed" his mother (arrested in his stead during the war) and his fellow countrymen (in bloody reprisals against Communists after the German retreat). On the other hand, he has felt himself "betrayed" by the superior officer who expels him from his partisan unit for insubordination.

After the end of hostilities we know only that the narrator has joined the Communist Party, but he seems to have lost his affiliation with it by the time the novel's action begins. Tormented by guilt and traumatic memories, he is led to commit self-destructive acts which serve only to intensify his sense of alienation. Doomed to relive the frustration and failure of wartime days, he seeks understanding and possibly expiation through attempts to relive the past. Fragments of his earlier life are shown in unchronological flashbacks. These alternate with a somewhat fragmented succession of events in the present. A witness to evil, he finds himself drawn into the role of participant, then victim. Human relationships can offer him little solace; indeed, his sense of hopelessness is only intensified by a desultory and morbid love affair.

The main characters are defined in terms of certain recurring types who seem familiar to the narrator but whose personality traits are often blurred and contradictory. It is a universe basically hostile to any notion of Christian or romantic love. Nature—brooding, sinister, occasionally poignant—mirrors in its own excesses (a heat wave in November, followed by a cold and torrential flood) the perverse and obscure emotions of the actors. Superstition, myth and longing for the past sustain their feelings of resentment toward the new social order. Even Szafir, the local Party official (who is presented as a decent enough humanitarian), dies a victim of the pointless and irrational universe around him.

All in all, Konwicki's Dreambook projects a gloomy and nihilistic view of humanity. His grim caricatures perturb and sometimes amuse the reader, although they evoke little sympathy. This was possibly the author's intention: in any case, the novel's message is highly symbolic. The dream atmosphere, visual, pungent, yet impressionistic, inclines us to accept the work for what it is: a montage of apocalyptic events seen and relived by an obsessive and guilty imagination. (p. 464)

Reuel K. Wilson, in World Literature Today (copyright 1977 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 51, No. 3, Summer, 1977.