I’ve always been a fan of those publishers who carry out the often thankless task of bringing us European classics in translation, from Pushkin Press and Melville House to NYRB. But in the UK at least, the only publisher with the clout to really bring these titles to a wide audience is Penguin. Cheers, cheers then for their series of Central European Classics, ten primary-coloured volumes of – based on my reading so far – unadulterated bliss.
The series incorporates novels, memoirs, essays and short stories. It was with only a little shame that I decided to begin my reading with one of the shortest titles in the series, and one which made me smile with its opening paragraph:
In this remote village of ours we are in the grip of terrible ignorance and superstition. Here I am, wanting to go outside to relieve myself, but at this moment hordes of bats are flying about, like leaves blown by an October wind, their wings knocking against the window panes, and I am afraid one of them will get into my hair and I will never be able to get it out. So I am sitting here, comrades, instead of going out, repressing my need, and writing this report for you.
Sławomir Mrożek‘s The Elephant (1957, tr. Konrad Syrop) is a collection of very short stories and sketches – more than 40 in 160 pages – offering parody and satire of Poland under a totalitarian regime. Mrożek is predominantly known as a playwright, but these stories, written in his mid-20s, show a full talent for prose. His writing is described by one critic as “grotesque-philosophical”, which is another way of saying that it combines comedy with (sometimes brutal) satirical intent. In ‘Birthday’, a wealthy couple keep “a live progressive” as a pet:
“Perhaps he’s longing for freedom, or action…” I suggested timidly. “After all, he’s a progressive.”
“Come, now. He’s never had it so good,” objected the lawyer. “He has a roof over his head and assured food, peace, no trouble whatsoever. We’ve trained him to eat out of our hands – you saw for yourself. He isn’t dangerous. We let him out for the National Day celebrations and for the anniversary of the Revolution, so that he can get some exercise. But he always comes back. Anyhow, this is a small town; there’s nowhere for him to hide.”
In the title story, the director of a zoo decides, as his “modest contribution to the common task and struggle,” that “we can make an elephant out of rubber, fill it with air, and place it behind railings. … In the notice on the railings we can state that this particular elephant is exceptionally sluggish. The money saved in this way can be turned to the purchase of a jet plane or the conservation of some church monument.” We are in a topsy-turvy world where children are questioned by officials about the political intentions behind the snowman they built, where meteorologists are made to lie about the weather (“We shan’t tolerate any defeatism!”), and where orderliness (of a sort) reigns:
[A]uthors have been put into uniform and awarded suitable ranks and distinctions. In this way, chaos, lack of criteria, unhealthy artistic tendencies and the obscurity and ambiguity of art have been removed once and for all.
It’s not always subtle, but it is highly entertaining, and the stories are so short that if you don’t like one, there’ll be another along in a minute. The rules of Mrożek’s world extend beyond 20th century Poland: ‘The Lion’ takes us back to the Roman Empire, where a lion explains to its keeper why the rulers rely on his kind to kill Christians instead of doing it themselves:
“Because of the new truth that is gaining ground. One has always to watch what’s new and growing. Has it never crossed your mind that the Christians could come to power?”
“They – to power?”
“Yes. One has got to be able to read between the lines. It looks to me as if Constantine the Great is likely to come to terms with them sooner or later. And then what? Investigations and rehabilitations. Then those up there in the amphitheatre will be able to say: ‘It wasn’t us, it was the lions.'”
These stories frankly lack traditional literary qualities such as characterisation, and are all the better for it. Instead, Mrożek’s stories come on, get on with it, and get off without overstaying their welcome or oversaying their piece. However, cumulatively, richer qualities do build up: the pathos of the ordinary man against the party machine, the sadness of lives limited. Sometimes the surreal elements are curiously touching, as in ‘Spring in Poland’, when hundreds of civil servants are overtaken by the urge to leap from their office windows and fly around the city. In the last, and longest, story, ‘Chronicle of a Besieged City’, when the narrator offers the following exhausted plea, he is really calling for change more fundamental than his immediate surroundings.
Life in the city tires me. I feel that it is time to make an excursion, to lie somewhere on the grass, with only clouds above my head.
Books like this face such natural opposition from our worst instincts as bookshop browsers: the odd name, the ‘bitty’ structure, the feeling that a book about life under the regime cannot be entertaining. But The Elephant is entertaining, it is a riot, and did I mention that it is beautifully illustrated by Daniel Mroz too? There is no question that, if the day comes when writers really are “put in uniform and awarded suitable ranks and distinctions,” that Sławomir Mrożek will be ranked a General. I just hope the power doesn’t corrupt him.