Tadeusz Konwicki Konwicki, Tadeusz (Vol. 28) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Tadeusz Konwicki 1926–

Polish novelist, short story writer, filmmaker, and journalist.

Konwicki has emerged as a leading literary figure in post-World War II Poland. His work reflects the grim realities of modern Polish life, including the devastating effects and lingering memories of the war and the subsequent Communist domination. Critics have especially praised Konwicki's analysis of what he has termed "the Polish complex," which he develops through characters who are bored with the present, foresee a bleak future, and are haunted by both the romantic idealism and the tragic events of the Polish past. Konwicki assesses Polish history as a series of failed attempts to gain freedom and independence. Because his writings and films project such dismal images of life in Poland, Konwicki has had difficulty having some of his work produced.

Konwicki gained critical acclaim in Poland for his initial works of socialist-realist fiction. With Rojsty, written in the late 1940s but not published until 1956 when state-imposed restrictions on literary content were gradually eased, Konwicki abandoned socialist-realist literature, primarily because of its tendency to portray the triumph of Communism. A satire, Rojsty depicts a young man who desperately wants to become a hero but who dies anonymously while attempting to impede the Soviet invasion of Poland. Konwicki later won international recognition with Sennik współczesny (1963; A Dreambook for Our Time), whose protagonist Oldster, a tormented survivor of World War II, struggles to endure his bleak, godless existence. Based on a theme of Joseph Conrad's, "we live as we dream—alone," Dreambook is related by flashbacks to past experiences through the blurred perception of Oldster. Nightmarish episodes and a reliance on inner monologue give the novel a surrealistic quality. Czesław Miłosz spoke for many critics by calling Dreambook "a major literary sensation." Some critics, however, have found the novel nihilistic and incapable of arousing sympathy.

As with Dreambook, Konwicki won critical acclaim in the West with Kompleks Polski (1977; The Polish Complex), a novel which was officially banned in Poland. The novel portrays a group of Poles waiting in line for a shipment of gold rings from Russia; the people represent various types of Polish personalities and their situations reflect the state of life in contemporary Poland. Critics have found the novel to be a powerful statement on the degrading effects of totalitarian government and a poignant analysis of the Polish condition. The image of the Poles waiting for gold has been read as symbolic of the Polish people anticipating the deliverance of their idealized homeland. The historical digressions in the novel, including accounts of failed uprisings in the past, reveal an unending cycle of thwarted ambitions. Most critics agree that The Polish Complex features Konwicki's finest literary qualities—a skillful use of surrealist techniques, distinctive Polish character types, and an ability to reveal the role of history in shaping the modern Polish psyche.

(See also CLC, Vol. 8 and Contemporary Authors, Vol. 101.)

George GöMöRi

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Tadeusz Konwicki is one of the best-known living Polish novelists. Mała apokalipsa [published in the United States as A Minor Apocalypse] … is his ninth novel and his second one published in samizdat [an "underground" system for circulating dissident literature]…. His previous book in samizdat, Kompleks polski (1977), was an amusing though somewhat chaotic account of a day and night of encounters in the Warsaw of the seventies. His new novel goes further: it is Konwicki's first attempt to portray an anti-utopia that takes place in a vaguely defined future.

And a very grim future it is: Poland is on the verge of being incorporated (with the consent of the Polish Communist Party, of course) into the Soviet Union; it is a seedy, forlorn, half-awake land steeped in drunkenness where shadows from the past live on in a social and cultural vacuum. Technology and services are breaking down, but nobody seems to care; money has completely lost its value, a simple taxi-ride costing 5,000 złotys. The state controls not only information but time as well—nobody knows the exact date; it is a top state secret, and all calendars are falsified. Most people live in a near-somnambulistic state of complete apathy, although some kind of an Opposition still keeps functioning. It is this (officially tolerated) Opposition that orders the narrator of Konwicki's story, a writer like himself, to...

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Eva Hoffman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

An Eastern European writer does not have to look far to find his subject. The subject, most often, chooses him. In Poland, the Second World War, the country's turbulent history, the conditions created by an artificially imposed and often intolerably oppressive system—these are the given, the almost inevitable, matters which an author must confront if he is to understand his own and his countrymen's condition. They are matters which have preoccupied—even obsessed—Tadeusz Konwicki, one of Poland's eminent and more difficult writers. in his previous novels, such as "The Dreambook for Our Time,"… he treated "the Polish question"—or "the Polish complex"—with gingerly indirectness, often through fragments of personal and veiled memories. [In "The Polish Complex"], he approaches it head on, with full philosophical steam and not an ounce of rage held back. The result is a novel that has the energy and the weaknesses of obsession—and that did not pass the Polish censors.

At times the novel comes close to being a tract. But it's a powerful tract—an impassioned, furious polemic on Poland's impossible condition. Konwicki, who continues to live in Poland, forgoes all the techniques of coding—allegory, symbolism, allusion—that Polish writers critical of the system have been forced to resort to. He writes like a man who has nothing to lose—and who wants to use that freedom for the primary and urgent task of speaking the raw, unmediated truth.

But "The Polish Complex" is also a comedy of manners. The entire present-time action takes place in that most ubiquitous of Polish institutions, the queue. This one has formed on the day before Christmas, in front of a Warsaw jewelry store where a shipment of gold rings from the Soviet Union is supposed to arrive. The queue is made up of a motley crew of ordinary citizens, most of them intent upon pulling off some small con in the perennial Polish game of outwitting the system. There's a woman who feigns old age to get a better place in line; another who, under her peasant garb, is wearing a caracul coat and who, from her shopping bag, unearths several legs of veal for sale; there's a Government "stoolie"; a vaguely opportunist student; and a French anarchist who has come to Poland because he wants to dedicate himself to the revolution—any revolution that might come along. The line also contains three more important characters: Tadeusz Konwicki, a well-known author and the novel's narrator; Kojran, the narrator's pursuer and shadow self, who during the war fought in the same partisan resistance organization and was supposed to carry out a death sentence imposed on Konwicki by his former comrades when he changed political allegiance; and Duszek, another stoolie and Kojran's pursuer, part of whose task, it is hinted, has been to torture Kojran, the old anti-Communist. Waiting in line, in this novel, means in one sense taking one's place in the chain of victimization and oppression.

In spite of such a divisive past and a fractious present,...

(The entire section is 1245 words.)

Jaroslaw Anders

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The Polish Complex] moves back and forth between historical episodes from the uprising of 1863—the most misguided and tragic of Polish insurgencies of the nineteenth century—and scenes from contemporary Polish life. The modern story brings together a mixed yet typical group of Poles from the early Seventies: disenchanted intellectuals, tired workers, police informers, con men, communist upstarts—all observed by the narrator and the main character, the Polish writer Tadeusz Konwicki….

As the people gradually reveal their life stories—with Konwicki as their medium, their confessor, as well as an offstage commenting voice—it becomes clear that their failures and frustrations have deeper roots than the everyday hardships and humiliations of postwar Polish life. Most of them, like the narrator, Konwicki himself, are tormented by a real or irrational sense of guilt, by feelings of utter degradation and the wish for death. (p. 16)

Something went wrong in the lives of these people—a long time ago or just recently—something involving not only individuals but the Polish community. An act of betrayal was committed—Konwicki muses—yet no one wanted to be a betrayer. A destiny was sabotaged, yet no one was clear what the destiny was. What, then, is the real source of the agony of Konwicki's characters?

The answer can be found in the historical sections of the novel, as well as in the author's personal reflections which occur throughout the book in a seemingly random way.

The two historical sections of The Polish Complex set in the nineteenth century—almost self-contained short stories inserted into the novel—concern two heroes of the long struggle of independence against the Russian empire. One of them is Zygmunt Mineyko, the ill-fated young soldier who toward the end of the uprising of 1863 tries to organize partisan units in Lithuania. The other is Romuald Traugutt, a Polish patriot and a former officer in the Russian army, who is appointed the leader of the same uprising in its final, hopeless phase.

Both men throw themselves into the struggle when the chances for victory are practically nil…. Both heroes accept their destinies with courage and with resignation, as if obeying a historical compulsion that is darker and less comprehensible than the patriotic maxims they repeat. They cannot change their fate because they feel they are not only historical figures, but also phantoms from a dream that has been sustained from generation to generation by crushed, hopeless people like those passively waiting in front of the jewelry shop.

Trapped for centuries in a political deadleck, the Polish people have lived with a sense of thwarted ambitions and political failure. Since history itself provided little hope, their will to survive took an ahistorical, apolitical form—that of a romantic dream which could be boiled down to a myth of a unique spiritual "Polishness" and to something that Konwicki himself calls a "religion of freedom." This was the unshakable belief in an ultimate liberation and the fulfillment of national longings, past, present, and future, the promise of a final national redemption that will take place in an indefinite future or in some higher, metaphysical realm.

Like most religions, the Polish "religion of freedom" proved to be a source of astonishing moral power in times of crisis, yet it also created its own orthodoxy, bound its followers by an overwhelming sense of guilt, and demanded a constant ritual of sacrifice. Nowhere was its...

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John Updike

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"The Polish Complex" is as zany as [Benedict Erofeev's] "Moscow Circles" and as intellectual as [Milan Kundera's] "The Joke." Konwicki, born near Wilno, which is now part of Soviet Lithuania, fought as a teen-age Partisan in 1944–45, and in his early writings supported the new Communist order. A screenwriter and director as well as a productive author, he until "The Polish Complex" expressed his disillusions obliquely enough not to rouse the censors. Here in this banned novel, which was published in the underground Polish press in 1977, he seems to express a personal crisis as well as political exasperation; the Konwicki persona drinks too many "binoculars" (two tall hundred-gram glasses of vodka), has chronic pain...

(The entire section is 769 words.)

David J. Leigh, S.J.

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Like Milan Kundera, the Czech novelist and critic, Konwicki has gained the attention and support of American writers like Updike and Roth for his mixture of satire, surrealism, humor, and political complexity. Despite some lapses into sentimentality and verbosity, [A Minor Apocalypse] shows Konwicki at his best and provides evidence of his potential for moving from the Italian Mondello Prize to greater achievements. Only his lofty popular status and the inner conflicts of the present regime seem to protect him from reprisals for his open flaunting of the communist bungling of Poland in the 1970's.

A Minor Apocalypse, composed in 1979 after the collapse of Gierek's bourgeois-socialist...

(The entire section is 465 words.)