(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

As fate would have it, the Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz was stranded in Buenos Aires at the beginning of World War II. He had achieved sufficient literary celebrity within Poland as the author of Ferdydurke(1937; English translation, 1961) to interest the proprietors of a pleasure cruise line. Invited to lend his nascent prestige to the maiden voyage of a ship bound for Argentina in August, 1939, Gombrowicz set off on what should have been a brief vacation. Within days, however, Poland was overrun by the German Blitzkrieg, a withering onslaught of tank and air power—met with the last great cavalry charge of modern history.

The outcome of such a lopsided contest was a foregone conclusion, and Germany, with the Soviet Union’s help, rapidly completed its conquest, ending Poland’s independent existence. When word of war reached Argentina, it was expected that Gombrowicz would return to London, seat of the Polish government in exile. Never one to conform to expectations, however, he chose instead to remain in Argentina for what turned out to be an exile of twenty-four years (and then he returned to Europe, but never Poland).

He was considered a coward or worse by many. Far from being shamed, however, Gombrowicz turned the table—or more accurately overturned the table—in Trans-Atlantyk, his account of his first days in Argentina, which viciously lampoons the empty pretensions of Polish national honor. Born into the Polish aristocracy himself, he resisted the straitjacket of its provincialism. In fact, he repudiated his very Polishness, which ironically only involved him more deeply in the argument about Polish national identity when the novel was published in Paris in 1953. It caused considerable controversy in the French Polish émigré community (at the same time that it marked Gombrowicz’s return to the Polish literary scene), since the novel, set in 1939 when the Germans conquered Poland, appeared when the Soviets had replaced them as hated overlords. Naturally, it was widely considered every true Pole’s duty to uphold the dignity of the nation, not denigrate it.

Poland was especially sensitive to the question of nationhood, since it had achieved independence following World War I after centuries of domination by Germany, Austria, and Russia. Until the reemergence of a free Poland between the world wars, Poles maintained a sense of national identity and pride though patriotic myths about their history, a habit quickly revived under German and Russian occupation. This Romantic ideal was closely associated with the landed gentry, and the offensiveness of Trans-Atlantyk was compounded by the novel’s style, based on the gawęda, an oral storytelling form that reached it highest development during the century of Poland’s partition, when it flourished in aristocrats’ estates. As if intending maximum offense, Gombrowicz chronicled the collapse of the aristocracy in 1939 with its pet genre, slangy, discursive, intimate, flowery—and worst of all, impudently amusing.

This style posed a nearly impossible obstacle to translation, which accounts for the forty-year gap between the original edition and this translation. The present translators have chosen seventeenth and eighteenth century English for their basic model, which creates a challenge to the reader. Once oriented to the slightly twisted syntax, however, the reader will find that the novel zooms along, with incidents flashing by like shocks in a fun house from which there is no escape.

Gombrowicz is generally considered a difficult writer, but he becomes less so with a little familiarity with his style and themes. This is provided in the translators’ note and excellent introduction by Stanisław Barańczak. The latter delineates the very serious system of beliefs beneath the clownish irreverence that offended so many Poles. The purpose of Gombrowicz’s mockery is to open up a little breathing space for personal identity within the suffocating confines of “the interhuman church.”

Language, behavior, and even thought are determined by interaction with other people who are themselves interacting with others in the social system, making any distinct identity nearly impossible. For purposes of stability, society imposes Form, as Gombrowicz terms it, on the individual, who must create himself from unformed Chaos. Naturally, society holds up an ideal of the mature, superior person for the immature, inferior child to develop toward.

This goal is desired but also resisted, since the rigidity of Form is as lethal as the dissolution of Chaos. Personal identity is determined by a web of desires and repulsions resulting from the natural human quest for contradictory goals. Each wants freedom but also security, just as each wants to be mature without foregoing the playful pleasures of immaturity. The paired opposites that abound in Trans-Atlantyk—maturity-immaturity, age-youth, father-son, Poland-Argentina,...

(The entire section is 2028 words.)