Sławomir Mrożek: The Elephant

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.


  1. Great stuff, John. What a cracking series this is. Well done, Penguin. For skinting me yet further.

  2. That is a gorgeous collection of books! I’d like to buy them all. Thanks for your review of the Mrozek book, it’ll be the first one I buy. Having lived under the Polish Communist regime for the first 11 years of my life, it’s something that fascinates me.

  3. Milosz said something that has had an enormous impact on me:

    Comparing Robinson Jeffers to other writers, he said: “They had lost the ability to be simple; they were afraid that if they called bread bread and wine wine they would be suspected of a lack of refinement….”

    1. It’s statements like these (and so much more) that made Milosz the lovable genius that he was.

  4. Agree John. These are a pleasure to sell. Interesting that Simon Winder mentions Handke who is surely due a revival in this country. It’s a long time since my mother was sent, by an assistant, to the sports section in Foyles for a copy of the Goalkeepers Fear of the Penalty Kick.

  5. Quite, Jonathan – if there are more in this series (and I want there to be, so, go buy them, people) then I’d like to see some Handke: though it’s not clear from Winder’s comments whether the Handke was one that there wasn’t room for, or whether there were rights issues.

    Shelley and Kinga, the Miłosz in this series is a selection of his essays. I see there is further mention of Robinson Jeffers (er, who he?) in the last section, ‘From Notebook‘.

  6. Enjoyed the review, but above all it’s great to see that I’m not alone in being excited by these! (And, yes, it is partly that they look great.) The difficulty is deciding which one to read first…

  7. These are absolutely gorgeous. I hope they’ll be released in the U.S. with the same covers… maybe it’s me but they do have a groovy retro-Central European-feel to them. Great job Penguin (as usual)!

  8. Funny, the covers are irritating me – they’re so over-the-top retro it almost feels patronising…? (Then again, The Snows of Yesteryear is beautiful, it looks like a movie poster.)

    I absolutely loved Skvorecky back in the day – The Engineer of Human Souls was the book that got me onto him, it completely blew me away for quite a long time. The Cowards is also great.

    And you’re sadly right about the clout thing, I’m sure, John – but I think Alma Books deserve a little cheer here, they do wonderful work.

    1. Oh dear, this made me laugh! How can someone called MsBaroque think these are over the top!! I am usually a less is more person, but I think these are so of a time/place that I love them – all of them seem like riffs on 50s movie posters (to me)

  9. If you like Handke, here are a lot of links to material by and about him on the web:Here is a bunch of Handke links: the handke.scriptmania project contains the site
    handkefilm.scriptmania with lots of things about WINGS: 2010 SPRING STATUS













    [moravian nights discussion, etc]


    [dem handke auf die schliche/besuch auf dem Moenchsberg, a book of mine about Handke]


    With three photo albums, to wit:








    Member Seattle Psychoanalytic Institute and Society
    This LYNX will LEAP you to my HANDKE project sites and BLOGS:


    “Sryde Lyde Myde Vorworde Vorhorde Vorborde” [von Alvensleben]
    “Siena me fe, disfescimi Maremma.” [Dante]
    “Ennui [Lange Weile] is the dreambird that
    hatches the egg of
    [Walter Benjamin, the essay on Leskov.]

  10. Thanks for the comments everyone (and for the exhaustingive list of Handke sources, Michael).

    Tolmstead, I think it’s unlikely that this series will be released in the US, as one or two of these titles are already in print there with other publishers (for example, Rezzori’s The Snows of Yesteryear is available from NYRB Classics). True, though, that most of them, like Gyula Krudy’s Life is a Dream, Skvorecky’s The Cowards and Mrozek’s The Elephant, don’t seem to have been available in the US for 20 years or more. I’m sure you could order them from the Book Depository, however, with free delivery.

  11. Illustrations John? As in interior art? Could you expand on that? I’m a sucker for a book with illustrations.

    Other than that, I probably wouldn’t have got this one but you do make a good case for it. It’s a lovely series and the covers are beautiful. I already have the Capek (in another imprint) and I have an unread Rezzori, but the rest are very tempting.

  12. As a result of this post I have ordered two (for a start anyhow) from the Book Depository. Can’t wait to see them – thanks for bringing them to my attention.

  13. Great series with horrible and phoney covers.
    I also wonder if Penguin would publish Mrozek’s “Elephant” back in 1957.

  14. Which two did you order, whisperinggums?

    Waldemar, I’m not sure if you’re asking if they did publish it back in 1957, or if they would have. As far as I know, it was previously published in the UK in 1962, though I don’t know who the publisher was. I’m guessing this is the same translation, as the type is lifted from an earlier edition rather than being newly set.

  15. Having ordered & just received Milosz’ book of essays, I feel no shame in admitting I like its cover which I don’t find to be horrible or phoney. In what sense a book cover could be a phoney book cover I’m not sure.

  16. Have now read, and thoroughly enjoyed, The Elephant. I look forward to your views on all the books. I’ll probably continue with War With The Newts – I’ve felt I should have read this for a while.

    On a related note, I couldn’t find any of these in either Waterstones or Blackwells in Edinburgh (hardly small branches) – they seem more interested in publishers repackaging books that most of us who love books will have already read or rejected. These, on the other hand, seem a chance to promote something new for exactly those regular readers.

  17. I quite agree, 1streading. My own Waterstone’s has only War with the Newts (which I’ll be reviewing next week; it’s terrific, is the executive summary). But then this is a branch of the UK’s leading (only!) book chain which has in stock one copy of one book by JM Coetzee, but two shelves of Clive Cussler and three of Nora Roberts.

    I don’t know that I will be reviewing all the Central European Classics, though. I haven’t read any more yet after The Elephant, Old Masters and War with the Newts. But you never know, so watch this space.

  18. this is a branch of the UK’s leading (only!) book chain which has in stock one copy of one book by JM Coetzee

    I counted three separate titles, one of each, when I was in that Waterstone’s last week. The big Glasgow store has all ten titles in a display along with a few NYRB Classics as part of the European Fiction stand. I have been so tempted by them, but have yet to bite that particular apple.

  19. Waterstones to a degree has to follow the money. They’d be insane not to stock more Cussler than Coetzee for example.

    They do try though, it often depends on the local branch manager but a lot of them do try to slip stuff in. There’s even a couple of times I’ve been introduced to new authors by staff picks and so on.

    If you compare them to WH Smith books, that really is a cultural desert.

    Glad you liked Newts John, I think it’s a tremendous novel.

  20. Point taken, Max, but do they really need to have fifteen times more Cussler than Coetzee? I bet Coetzee’s backlist ticks over pretty nicely when it’s actually in stock, and Cussler strikes me as the sort of author whose new books sell in bucketloads but whose older stuff isn’t going to be read in years and years as Coetzee’s will be. I could be wrong about that. But my point is that Waterstone’s is supposed to be a cut above WHSmith (I must check my local branch, I bet they have as many Coetzees as Waterstone’s do). Having said that, their ‘mission statement’ 🙄 commits them to

    providing customers the widest choice, great value and expert advice from a team passionate about Bookselling. Waterstone’s aims to interest and excite its customers and continually inspire people to read and engage in books

    Not ‘good books’, you’ll note, and not ‘passionate about books’, but ‘passionate about bookselling’. But then as my local branch has a prominent display of board games and DVDs rather closer to the tills than its display of translated fiction, I shouldn’t be surprised.

    Oh and I’m told that Foyle’s have a good stock of the Central European Classics, and I’m sure Bookseller Crow does too (that’s where I get all my books that my local Waterstone’s doesn’t have). Of course I still support my local Waterstone’s as it’s the only bookshop in the city centre, and I don’t want to lose that.

    Grump over.

  21. You never know who’ll be read in the future, Cussler could end up being proclaimed as a Dumas-esque writer of quality thrillers. History is odd that way.

    That said, they may well be overdoing it. I do wonder what the turnover is on some of the older titles. Still possibly greater than Coetzee though.

    A team passionate about bookselling could potentially be just as passionate about selling boardgames, t-shirts or stationery. Thankfully some of their staff ignore that and are just passionate about books, which is quite different.

    The ground floor/entry area of Waterstones is aimed squarely at non-readers in my experience. It’ll have travel guides for the local area, stationery, current bestsellers and offers likely to appeal to the casual reader or present-buyer, other items someone going in to buy a present for someone else might take instead of a book (literary mugs, boardgames, whatever) – it’s all aimed at folk who basically aren’t into books.

    Those who are actually there to buy books for themselves (and who read more than one or two of them a year) will look for them inside the shop and on other floors than ground, the entry area is for those who either want to buy the one book everyone else is buying or to buy an easy birthday or christmas present.

  22. I go in my local Waterstones fairly regularly, though less regularly than I used to, for a very good reason: it’s shite. Don’t get me wrong: there are some great books in there, and that’s good enough reason to have a wander around. But I’ve already got most of them. The only reason I have for going in there now is to have a catch-all glance at what the new hardback editions are like before I shell out for one. Max, it’s the same in my case: a shelf of books ‘about’ or tenuously linked to the area (featuring, I’m sad to say, a lot of ropey books); Penguin Classic mugs in your face; moleskin notebooks at surreal prices, etc. There’s a decent shelf with staff recommendations on it but basically, forget it. And as John mentions, you know, a zillion Bernard Cornwell and others and ONE William Gaddis and Robert Coover, NEITHER of which are The Recognitions or The Public Burning. Gnnnn!

  23. One of the things I like about the better independent bookshops (I may make a general post on that topic actually) is that they tend to have most of an author’s works but one copy of each.

    The truth is there’s rarely a rush on a particular novel from the back catalogue requiring ten copies, but heavy readers often want that one particular book. It’s a way of achieving breadth of coverage within often tight space restrictions.

  24. That’s all you need, isn’t it? One copy of each of a major writer’s works. I know I’m perhaps retrospectively harking back to better Waterstones days but now you’re lucky if there’s one or two. Georges Perec: they had (last I looked) Species of Spaces (a relative oddity – great little book, mind) which, for those that may just have heard of Perec, is fairly useless as they’d be looking for Life: A User’s Manual or W: A Memory Of Childhood. There’s no apparent system in place. I know they can just Amazon it but it’s a shame. There’s a preponderance of homegrown and Palahniuk/Ellis-aping type crap filling the shelves, not enough small press stuff, not enough geographically disparate stuff, not enough etc etc. I assure you, most of my ire derives from plain disappointment that someone just getting into a serious literature kick might have a paucity of choice that dampens their ardour: they may pick something bobbins up in the absence of, say, The Book Of Disquiet, no Pessoa in, no Recognitions in, no Javier Marias Your Face Tomorrow, so they now randomly get the new Yann Martel instead…you know what I mean.

  25. I do Lee. It’s in part about discovery versus the obvious. If the store just stocks obvious books, there’s no reason to go there over Amazon.

    Waterstones trades on accessibility and convenience increasingly. It doesn’t offer a lot that Amazon doesn’t do better. I’ve not been to Bookseller Crow, but from their website I can already see they’re doing stuff Amazon doesn’t.

  26. I like the LRB shop for the ‘one of everything’ aspect: indeed, they cut out the Cornwells and Cusslers altogether and just have one of everything that you might actually want to read. Bliss.

    (EDIT: In fact I see you mentioned the LRB shop for this very reason in your blog post, Max!)

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