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The Library of Babel

A Spin-off of http://bookwormshead.blogspot.co.uk

A Minor Apocalypse - Tadeusz Konwicki
I had very high expectations for "A Minor Apocalypse" and am now quite undecided on how to rate this book.
On the one hand this novel is an excellent allegory of the state Poland - read Warsaw - was in at the end of the 1970s and is full of glittering literary inventions.
And yet, on the other hand, after a quite promising start the book derails into a sort of grotesque parody à la Grosz where it becomes really hard keeping track of what's going on: at least for me.

Konwicki wrote "A Minor Apocalypse" in 1979 at the end of the Gierek era. Wikipedia states that the then first secretary of the Communist Party helped in raising up the standard of living for many Poles, but I was also told by reliable Polish sources that - in doing so - Gierek indebted Poland a lot.

And one cannot ignore the riots, the rise of inflation and the social turmoil which eventually led to the rise of general Jaruzelski with the introduction of martial law and night curfews in 1981. From that low point on, little by little, things start to get better for Poland.

The Warsaw Konwicki walks and wanders through in this novel is a city where foreign currency is hard to get, Arab oil-tycoons book the nightclubs and disguised police agents patrol Nowy Świat, one of the most important streets in town. It's a Warsaw of dairy bars, clandestine meetings, intellectual speculations and drinking marathons; a quite exciting place indeed for those who can look at it without the need of filling up their bellies or entertain themselves with self-despising, sarcasm and disillusion.

This is a lost Warsaw which many don't miss but which fascinates me quite a lot. During my most recent visit in town, I did seen many Polish editions of books by Konwicki in bookstalls, but discovered how the dairy bars are all but gone replaced by gastropubs, banks or offices, the clandestine meetings are now sponsored gatherings.
As for intellectual speculations and drinking marathons the only place where I experienced them was on the verge of closing down due to the opposition of the local mayor who didn't want an "anarchist lair" in the middle of the branded Euro 2012 hosting Warsaw.

Even the awful, scary but nonetheless imposing Palace of Culture "donated" by Soviets (would be the perfect set for a European remake of one of the best scenes of Ghostbusters) was in a bad shape: surrounded by parking lots ready to host "football supporters zones". I even watched a movie inside the monster: what Władysław Gomułka would have said about this?
And what happened to the tiny apple shrubs, to the cauliflowers and currants which grew in patches around the socialist moloch in the 1970s?
I wonder what 86 years old Tadeusz Konwicki himself thinks about this. Does he like this new clumsy pop side of the loathed Palace of Culture? I bet he does not.

Back to the book now. "A Minor Apocalypse" is essentially a stroll around a long bygone Warsaw with an oil can on your left and a dog on your right. But it's also one day in the life of Tadeusz Konwicki as seen by himself after many a vodka too much. It's a farcical tale about some extinct specimen of human beings and their thoughts and their feelings. It's a political message delivered between and beyond the lines. And much more, I guess.

Whereas the name of the Czech student Jan Palach who sets himself on fire in Prague to protest against the Russian presence in Czechoslovakia is now a famous one, I'd like to know if you've ever heard of his Polish predecessor, Ryszard Siwiec.
Did you? Well, Tadeusz Konwicki did and this novel, in all of its deranged flow, is at the same time a critic and an eulogy to all those who committed self-immolation behind the Iron Curtain.
I'm not Polish and I'm sure there is much here I failed to understand, but this novel brought me back to messy times which I'd like to know in a better way.