A Minor Apocalypse
by Tadeusz Konwicki
"I could still run away to my little mouse hole. I still had one last little morsel of time. To hide in some hole, like Stargard, change my name, join the Party, start a new family. Save myself a few years for Nadezhda; that is Hope. But that way I would only lose her. She would die in my arms or in my mind." (p 226)
This is a novel about the "end of the world" for an aging Polish writer named Konwicki who has built a reputation as a representative of the people in their battle against the oppressive Communist government and its Soviet allies. As we meet him he thinks about his night . It was one that when he went to sleep he began to "understand the meaning of existence, time, and the life beyond this one. I understand that mystery for a fraction of a second, through an instant of distant memories, a brief moment of consolation or fearful foreboding , and then plunge instantly into the depths of my bad dreams. . . I would give everything I possess -- to see that mystery in all its simplicity, to see it once and then to forget it forever." (p 6)
Konwicki is in reality doomed to forfeit his life for the cause, the uprising of activists, writers like himself, and other compatriots who oppose the State in Poland at the end of the 1970s. He is approached early on this day by his friends Rhysio and Hubert with the decision , made by others in his absence, that he must that evening immolate himself in front of the Congress building of the government.
This is not an act that he can agree to but neither is it one that he rejects. He spends the rest of his day, one that may be his last, thinking about the meaning of this act. At some point he acquires a can filled with specially prepared gasoline that he carries with him like a cross. As he walks through Warsaw he is challenged several times during the day by various levels of State police to prove his identity by providing his papers and answering annoying questions. The quotidian details of his day provide a picture of the rigid society in which he lives. He also meets another friend, Tadzio Skorko, and the love of his life Nadezhda.
At one point his last two friends walk past him without saying hello and he thinks, "I really do have one foot in the grave." (p 107)
The satire is present and heavy at times. The police are portrayed as buffoons yet the one time he is interrogated the scene is filled with brutal reality, both physical and mental. The State apparatus is clearly aware that something unusual is planned for this day.
The mixture of the quotidian details of the day and Konwicki's fleeting memories of his past relationships and writing provide a fascinating background for the impending horror of his death. There are allusions to Dante and Savonarola but the most pertinent and poignant is the following literary reference:
""You were created by this regime. You were excreted by the system, you're part of this tyranny's flesh and blood. You're like a character from Dostoevsky's The Possessed*, not from a Zeromski story or one by Strug.""(p 138)
As the day proceeds Konwicki's meditations on his existence and imminent death become more serious and, for the reader, more thought-provoking.
"A reckoning with my conscience. My act of contrition. Regret for my sins. My life story in the colors of mediocrity. At first I hated that mediocrity, disdained it, but in the end I made my home in it. Greatness in mediocrity. Mediocrity as the highest form of aristocracy. Mediocrity as asceticism, as proud isolation amid vulgarity, the gray habit of a proud monk. Mediocrity as the final stage of exaltation."(p 143)
I could conclude with that statement, for it is one that includes his life - greatness - the culture in which he lives - vulgarity - and his own isolation and coming exaltation. But the novel is not without lyrical passages, in spite of the gray vulgarity of living in that society. Not surprisingly it is Nadezhda who inspires the best of his lyricism:
"Saying nothing, without a single word, we rose from the cement step which was already absorbing the late-afternoon chill and we entered the silent nave of the editorial offices' ruins. . . The remains of the walls, partitions, and ceilings were lying in the middle of the building, piles of picturesque rubble which seemed arranged by some romantic architect. Astonishingly luxuriant vegetation had entwined itself around those hunks of cement and brick, those dunes of withered lime. The sun's oblique light made the large, blackish burdocks glow; it gilded the handsome ferns and lit the deadly nightshade bushes on fire. Even fall asters had stolen into that enchanted garden, which had overgrown the junk pile of what once had been editorial offices.
The stairs invited our eyes to the sky, which had grown distinctly opalescent now." (p 170)
This is a beautiful novel about the ultimate moment in one man's life. The narrator says it best:
"My testament. My lavish legacy to those I loved."
*Also translated as The Demons.
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