Poles apart

Trans-Atlantykby Witold Gombrowicz

Yale University Press. 192p $15

Witold Gombrowicz (1904–69) began his monumental Diary, spanning the years 1953 to 1969, with the words “Monday / Me. // Tuesday / Me. // Wednesday / Me. // Thursday / Me.” While the statement might appear to be an expression of unbridled egocentrism, it also signals the author’s commitment to escape the role of the writer as a prophetic bard, a voice of the nation, which is so common to Polish literature. Gombrowicz will always remain himself. Not only does he wage a battle against Polishness and what he calls Form—patterns of thought and behavior others aim to impress upon us—but also against his own desire to fit in, to be accepted. Gombrowicz remains relevant because he embodies the existential aches and pains we all experience in one degree or another.

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Gombrowicz began and ended his writing life by speaking out against the prevailing norms and customs of Poland, but his voice only grew louder once he was cut off from his native country. When as a young writer he accepted an invitation to take part in the maiden voyage of The Chrobry, the Polish fleet’s jewel ocean liner, to Argentina in 1939, he had no idea that he would never see his homeland again. With the news that World War II had broken out on Sept. 1, a decision was made to send The Chrobry (the name means “The Brave One”) back to Europe, but to everyone’s surprise and dismay, Gombrowicz decided to stay in Buenos Aires. For the next 23 years Gombrowicz wrote in order to create a new “Gombrowicz,” one that constantly redefines himself vis-à-vis tradition, narrow-mindedness and parochialism.

Many writers periodically strive to rid themselves of cultural and political baggage, but Gombrowicz turned this endeavor into a life-long project. As a novelist, essayist and playwright, he railed against Poland and its complexes, conservatism and anachronistic modes of life. Instead of self-pity, which would have been justified by his penurious circumstances in Argentina, we get formal experimentation and endless polemics. Though his first novel, Ferdydurke, remains the most popular of his works in the United States, this new translation of Trans-Atlantyk, based on the revised version Gombrowicz himself had approved, rather than an earlier edition, should win him more admirers among today’s readers. They might finally see what John Updike meant when he called Gombrowicz “one of the profoundest of the late moderns.”

In the words of Trans-Atlantyk’s translator, Danuta Borchardt, this work is “Gombrowicz’s most iconoclastic novel. It tells the individual and society (not only Polish, but society in general) to rise above its mores—nationalistic, patriotic, sexual—and to liberate itself from its societal manners and constraints.” The threadbare plot merely serves as a backdrop against which the author recounts his own experience of exile, including his exasperation with the Poles he meets in Argentina. He ridicules them, but he cannot free himself of their overbearing presence. Borchardt renders Trans-Atlantyk’s baroque first-person narrative, which resembles a freewheeling “fireside chat” by a half-cracked uncle, in an English that brings to mind the works of Laurence Sterne and Samuel Pepys.

What lurks beneath Trans-Atlantyk’s verbal pyrotechnics and jeering is Gombrowicz’s wish to tame his bewildering surroundings—a desire known to all émigrés and displaced persons. The protagonist, named Gombrowicz, finds himself stranded in Argentina, with only $63 to his name. Though his future looks bleak, the Polish émigré community sees him as a world-famous writer; it is their duty to take him under their wing. This is a dig at the Poles’ undue reverence for poet-prophets, which has sometimes led to disastrous acts of valor. In Gombrowicz’s view, however, the local Poles are “Evil, they’re No Good, plague-upon-them, they’ll just keep biting you ’til they bite you to death.” Gombrowicz longs to be independent, but “the hope of a steady and perhaps even a good income” forces him to remain within their orbit, even though he sees “a strange sluggishness in their movements as if of fish in a pond.” Their ensuing co-existence, which borders on toxic co-dependency, is what gives the novel its equally comic and tragic heft.

Gombrowicz, our cantankerous protagonist, does meet a man who arouses his interest—the puto Gonzalo, a flamboyant and wealthy native. The arrival of this character, who challenges the Polish notion of masculinity with his very being, leads to a number of hilariously petty but rapidly escalating squabbles. Gonzalo is eventually challenged to a duel by Thomas, one of the Polish patriarchs, who suspects him (we surmise) of sexual predation on or, worse yet, tempting his son Ignacy (“Iggy”). Here the Romantic ideals of Polish masculinity, patriarchy and honor will be defended once and for all. Alas, the pistols are loaded with blanks. The duel, and the ideals that have led to it, plays out as a farce. Embroiling his characters in sexual intrigue, betrayal, generational conflicts and downright slapstick, Gombrowicz endlessly ridicules the Poles’ inflated sense of self-importance and cultural superiority, which he summarizes with piquant irony: “a Pole is beloved of God and Nature for his Virtues, but mainly for that Chivalry of his, for his Courage, Nobility, Piety and that Confidence of his.”

Meanwhile, the progress of World War II is broadcasted occasionally in the background. Thus, when the émigré Poles praise the heroism of the Polish nation, they echo the call to arms issued back in their home country, with the words, “Berlin, Berlin, on to Berlin, on to Berlin, to Berlin!” But instead of advancing toward the German capital, the Poles follow Gonzalo to his sprawling hacienda, where Gombrowicz succeeds once again in pushing everyone’s buttons by having the host show up wearing a skirt. While the Poles look on in disgust, he explains that the heat makes wearing a skirt more comfortable than regular clothes, before adding “and I have likewise powdered myself a bit, because my skin chaps from the heat.” Eventually, Gombrowicz tells Thomas that he and Gonzalo had rigged the duel, which sends Thomas into a frenzy of vengeance. Gombrowicz then pits Iggy against Thomas, evidently hoping that the Son will kill the Father and all for which he stands. In the end, we are left to ponder the “Terrifying Lack of Terror” expressed by the protagonist and the farcical fit of unstoppable laughter that spontaneously overwhelms the other characters. Who’s the butt of the joke? Trans-Atlantyk is indeed an uproarious book, but it is also deadly serious, exploring the dire straits into which blind allegiance to tradition can lead us.

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