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Voluntary social marginzalization as a survival strategy in Polish postcommunist accounts of childhood

Svetlana Vassileva-Karagyozova

For the Polish cultural elite the lifting of censorship, decentralization of literary life, and
regained pluralism of public discourse were undoubtedly the most significant consequences of the fall of communism. Polish artists and writers found themselves free to explore the complexity of human nature and the historical taboos previously guarded by the communist regime. Many turned to exploring personal and
local identity, an unsurprising development after forty years of surveillance and discouragement of individualistic thoughts and aspirations.

The search for identity normally begins in the transitional period between childhood and adolescence. Thus most Polish writers have logically adopted the genre of the “initiation novel”[1] to explore the process of identity formation. The growing number of quasi-autobiographical novels whose central theme is the recollection of childhood and/or adolescent experience in Soviet-occupied Poland has come to theattentionof literary critics, who now speak of them as the core of a new trend in post-1989 Polish literature.[2] A list of Polish initiation novels pertaining to this trend includes such works as: Antoni Libera’s Madame; Ryszard Sadaj’s Telefon do Stalina [A Phone Call to Stalin] and Ławka pod kasztanem [The Bench Under the Chestnut Tree]; Andrzej Stasiuk’s Jak zostałem pisarzem. Próba autobiografii intelektualnej [How I Became a Writer: An Attempt at an Intellectual Autobiography] and Biały kruk [A Rarity]; Izabela Filipiak’s Absolutna amnezja [Absolute Amnesia]; Wojciech Kuczok’s Gnój [Bastard]; Zbigniew Mentzel’s Wszystkie języki świata [All the Languages of the World]; Marek Stokowski’s Samo-loty [Airplanes]; Michał Szczepański’s Dzieci sierżanta Pieprza [Sergeant Pepper’s Children]; Jolanta Stefko’s Możliwe sny [Possible Dreams]; Lech Majewski’s Pielgrzymka do grobu Brigitte Bardot Cudownej [A Pilgrimage to the Tomb of the Miraculous Brigitte Bardot]; and Julian Kornhauser’s Dom, sen i gry dziecięce [The House, the Dream and Childish Games].

Most of these works are set in the darkest years of the totalitarian regime: in the Stalinist era of the 1950s and in the post-Solidarity period of martial law; some take place during Solidarity’s initial triumph. They typically feature young male narrators who try to structure their lives under the communist regime. However, communism is not the central theme in the post-1989 Polish initiation novels; rather it serves as a historical backdrop that allows the narrators to reflect on the process of social maturation in a totalitarian state where one is not entirely free to create one’s own identity. In other words, these works do not represent the persecution-type novel characteristic of ťmigrť literature; instead, their retrospective narrative serves a therapeutic purpose as the narrator attempts to come to terms with atraumatic past.

Unlike the postmodern hero who programmatically denies a transcendent and unified self, the characters in the Polish novels under discussion desperately aim at achieving a coherent and autonomous subjectivity.

This new quasi-autobiographical trend is symptomatic of the paradigm shift that has occurred in Polish writing since 1989: the newer Polish literature has taken as its central theme not the sufferings of Poland trapped in the Soviet totalitarian net, but the universal process of initiation into adulthood and social maturity. Critic Dariusz Nowacki points out that “these novels do not join the barren and unwise political dispute about the People’s Republic of Poland because they answer the question ‘how was it?’ by asking the question ‘how was I?’ and not by telling any truth other thana personal truth.”[3] Polish writers have embraced the postmodern historical perspective and abandoned Lyotard’s “grand narrative.” They have chosen to focus on the uniqueness of personal experience, hoping to reveal in the layers of private memory some interesting anecdotes, images, and emotions associated with the communist regime that would provide nuance to the stark black-and-white contrast of contemporary public opinion.

Within this greater context, the present paper focuses on one specific aspect of post-1989 Polish accounts of communist childhood, namely, the various strategies that the young protagonists employ to survive communist reality. These rebellious children clearly recognize the mechanisms of moral relativism that party officials use to remove the weight of moral responsibility from the shoulders of citizens, thereby making them accomplices in the common crime and eventually supporters of the regime. The young protagonists refuse to “buy into” the status quo, refuse to let communist rule corrupt their consciousness, and this refusal drives them to the margins of society.

The traditional framework of the classical western European bildungsroman undergoes radical permutations in the Polish postcommunist variant of the genre. The young Polishprotagonists in the post-1989 literaturerefuse to enter the adult world and become full-fledged members of communistsociety because the totalitarian state deprives them of their traditional right to negotiate their place between modernity and tradition, individual and collective. In the classical examples of the bildungsroman, the trials and challenges thatthe protagonists experiencebring them intotheir social community and serve their ultimate good and social advancement; in the Polish postcommunist initiation novels, the refusal to comply with the communist party’sideologicalframework guarantees the preservation of the protagonists’ personal integrity. The question that logically arises at this point is whether or not their failure to be integrated as loyal members of society means that they “fail” their initiation and do not enter adulthood. What social and intellectual space do they then occupy?

The first part of this paper presents some of the reasons that have conditioned the desire to escape or withdraw from social life. Its second part describes and analyzes the alternative lifestyles that the juvenile protagonists adopt in order to avoid socialization into communist society. Finally, I will discuss the effect of failure to be initiated on the genre structure.

What circumstances lead the main characters of postcommunist initiation novels to a state of mind in which they reject the adult status quo? Some protagonists clearly declare their indifference to politics. Often they come from anticommunist families that have been hurt physically or spiritually by the regime. A good example in this regard is Tadzio, the hero of Zielonka’s eponymous novel, who thinks to himself when recollecting his first intimate relationship with the politically active Iwona, thinks to himself: “It is true that in the summer, I helped her once or twice to disperse some leaflets, but honestly, politics have never interested me.”[4] Tadzio’s indifference is actually a well-masked fear inherited from his father. The taboo topic in their house has always been mandatory military service. Tadzio’s father was emotionally abused and physically injured while serving his time in the army because of his speech style.[5] Now, as Tadzio himself approaches the age when he will have to meet his military obligation, his parents are fearful because they suspect his guttural “r” might bring him the same bad luck it brought his father. The father’s traumatic military experience functions as a synecdoche of the totalitarian regime in the novel as it discloses the essence of the communist absurdity.

Other characters lack politically engaging role models. Bolek (Possible Dreams) and Adam (A Pilgrimage to the Tomb of the Miraculous Brigitte Bardot) are sensitive but emotionally disturbed children who suffer enormously from the lack of a father figure in their life. Although it is never stated directly in the novel, the reader infers that Bolek’s father decided not to return to communist Poland after the end of the Second World War. Forced by the manager of the factory to reveal his political preferences, the juvenile protagonist Bolek confesses: “I am for nobody, just for myself . . . . Besides, I do not like to talk about politics, I do not like politics, I do not like politicians, because they usurp the right to decide how other people have to live, why they have to live, and if they should live at all.”[6] Adam’s father, on the other hand, was a hero, one of the few Polish aviators who participated in the battle for Great Britain during the war, but afterward he was sentenced to prison by a communist court and most probably killed. Adam’s mother does not have the courage to tell her son the truth and creates a story that his father is alive and lives in England. To maintain the myth, she regularly writes and sends postcards to their address as if they came from the father. Terrified of the regime and afraid of losing her adolescent son, Adam’s mother constantly reminds him: “‘Adam, honey, do not engage in politics;’ I am sick and tired of hearing this warning over and over again. Like I am engaged in any political actions.”[7]

Marian (Airplanes) only partially matches the stereotype described above. Like Bolek and Adam, he also comes from an anticommunist family and has lost his father because of the latter’s opposition to the totalitarian regime. Marian’s father is a political immigrant who lives in the United States and anchors a talk show at Voice of America, telling amusing yet revealing stories about his life in communist Poland. As one could expect, the Polish authorities are very concerned about the consequences of his anticommunist propaganda. His radio show not only compromises the regime outside Poland, but it also sabotages it from within, as many Polish citizens secretly listen to the banned radio station. Unable to reach the renegade, the security officers attack his family: Marian is asked to condemn his father’s behavior and to disown him in front of the whole school. His mother is compelled by security agents to take part in a radio program and tell the entire country what a dishonest and unfaithful husband Marian’s father was. The intrusive presence of the secret police in his home turns politics into an everyday reality for young Marian. He starts asking his relatives about communism and goes even further in his dreams: he asks the French president and the Pentagon to throw a bomb at his school and the State Security Office, the two institutions that have caused his family the most pain and humiliation.

By depriving its citizens of private spaces and the possibility of developing decision-making and responsibility-taking skills, the communist state in fact destines them for perpetual immaturity.

Unlike the protagonists mentioned above, Ryszard (A Bench under the Chestnut Tree) and J. (Home, Dreams, and Children’s Games; A Sentimental Tale) have not suffered any personal loss, but they are forced every day to witness their parents’ quiet and self-destructive struggle with the regime because of their heritage (noble descent and Jewish origin, respectively). The family of Ryszard’s mother belonged to the Polish gentry, but in the new circumstances she is forced to earn her own family’s living by bootlegging. His father, a gifted engineer, swings back and forth between periods of creative euphoria and alcoholic torpor because his unwillingness to become a party member has blighted his professional career. Theadolescent Ryszard is absolutely indifferent toward politics. His attitude remains unchanged even after the democratic revolution, when most Polish citizens developed an immediate and consistent interest in domestic politics: “At the beginning I had very little interest in this news, it seemed to me that they were talking about the same things over and over again, constantly repeating the same names: Jaruzelski, Wałęsa, Mazowiecki, Balcerowicz. Politics didn’t appeal to me; however, I evidently knew that General Jaruzelski was from the communist party and Wałęsa from Solidarity which, as my father liked to say, brought communism to its knees.” [8]

J. comes from an educated Jewish family with Silesian roots. His father, broken in spirit, lives the life of an outsider because he lacks the strength to either resist the regime or emigrate to Israel like most of his relatives. J.’s confession about his lack of interest in politics and in clear understanding of the political realm displays no traces of remorse: “Seriously, he [J.] had a very little interest in it. Besides, he did not understand politics very well. . . . If he thought about these matters it was almost exclusively in philosophical categories, not in everyday terms. . . . He was interested in man with no political armor.”[9]

Communism is usually a taboo topic in these fictional Polish families. Parents do not talk openly about politics in front of their children; they try to protect their innocence and safety as long as they can. However, all of the protagonists from the aforementioned novels are sensitive young individuals who unerringly decode their parents’ unspoken message that silence and passivity can speak volumes about one’s perception of reality. By making a conscious choice to avoid politics, they prove that they have learned their parents’ lesson about self-preservation.

For other juvenile protagonists, however, politics is an everyday reality because their fathers are intimately involved with the communist party. Roman (A Phone Call to Stalin) and Marianna (Absolute Amnesia) are children of party authorities. This gives them a close perspective on the manipulative and antihuman nature of the administrative machine and an equally strong reason to despise it. Interestingly, the true rebels in these novels are actually the ones closest to power. Roman’s father is vice-secretary of a regional party committee. The little boy sincerely likes his father and is proud of his important position in the town until he discovers his father’s conflict with his in-laws, Roman’s maternal grandparents. It is not only the generation gap that sets apart Roman’s father and his parents-in-law, but the tragic abyss between the two different social and moral systems they represent. The depiction of the ideological conflict on a family level is not exclusively defined by the fact that the narrator in the novel is a child; the personalization of the official discourse also highlights the profound effect of politics on the private lives of ordinary people. Roman chooses his grandparents’ side and begins to demonstratively ignore his father’s will. His son’s rebellious actions cause the vice-secretary to lose his job at the party committee, an event that represents a turning point in the father’s life. His eyes gradually open to the truth he has been ignoring for a long time.

In contrast, Marianna’s father (Absolute Amnesia), in contrast, seems incapable of any change. Controlling and tyrannical in both his public and private life, he is an embodiment of the communist party itself. It is symptomatic that Marianna never uses her father’s name when referring to him. She calls him “the Secretary,” just as everybody else in the neighborhood does. By observing her father’s behavior both inside and outside of their home, the adolescent protagonist discovers the “true purpose” of institutions like family and school: to deprive the younger generation of free will and systematically to mold their souls and minds so that they ultimately fit within ideologically sanctioned social norms. Marianna’s observation echoes Erving Goffman’s conclusion in “Characteristics of Total Institutions,” that by depersonalizing or deindividualizing their subordinates, totalitarian institutions deprive them of the will to make independent decisions, thus leading them to collective identification with the regime.[10]

One would expect that children’s perceptions of reality would be a function of their parents’ beliefs and experiences, but this is not always the case in these novels. This overview suggests instead that despite their parents’ compliance or non-compliance with the regime, the young protagonists unerringly recognize its immoral and oppressive nature. They consciously choose to stay away from politics; in doing so, they choose aclear political position-whether they understand that or not. Open resistance is not an option for them, because, as Leszek has realized, “even if you are protesting against the system, you become a subject to external influences and turn your life into a constant reaction.”[11] In a totalitarian state, indifference to politics actually means abstention from official forms of public life. Most of the protagonists follow a similar pattern: not only do they withdraw from the political sphere, but they also withdraw from reality in order to create their own fictional worlds that satisfy their longing for freedom and give them some sense of control over their lives.

Withdrawal to where?
Most of these juvenile protagonists are avid readers: Tadzio, Adam, Bolek, Marianna, and J. escape into the realm of literature. Literature allows them to dream and thus replace the unacceptable external world with
an alternative reality; it allows them to experience different lifestyles and human relationships; it shapes their value systems. Tadzio sees reality as “a remote imperfect reflection of the world of his solitary readings and contemplations”.[12] For Marianna the outside world becomes more acceptable when seen through the softening filters of recently-read novels. For J., reading is a special ritual that brings temporary oblivion. Bolek is doubtful whether books make him a better person, but he is certain about their calming effect on him. Often he finds himself craving reading as a hungry man craves food. Leszek (Drift) defines his attitude toward reading in the 1980s statistically: “I read at least five hundred books, which I do not remember, but they are still there, in my subconsciousness, fermenting. . . . I had about three hundred sexual encounters. I am not sure if I want to switch those numbers.”[13]

The abundance of titles, quotations, and references to literary, philosophical, and scientific works is a feature that almost all post-1989 initiation novels share. It might strike one as pretentious at first, but the repetitiveness of the pattern suggests that reading had a great impact on the younger generation in communist times. It will take a separate study to examine the books these teenage protagonists read, but even a quick glance indicates the prevalence of Western authors, ranging from Johann Wolfgang Goethe to Franz Kafka and Jorge Luis Borges. Antoni Libera-literary critic, writer, and author of the critically acclaimed initiation novel Madame [1999]-attaches an even greater meaning to the role of Western culture in the spiritual survival of Polish citizens. He goes so far as to say that, thanks to the Poles’ love of Western literature and culture, the process of the sovietization of Polish society (or at least of its elites) has failed.

Most of the young characters are not only passionate readers, but they are also engage in some form of creative production. Tadzio, Marianna, Mikołaj, Adam, and J. use the medium of the logos/word not to create new and better universes, but to give deeper meaning to the one they live in. The setting in Adam’s novel (A Pilgrimage), for example, is a fictional hotel where his protagonist lives with his favorite Western writers, movie stars, singers, and painters who belong to different generations and even different epochs. He claims he is staying at the hotel to seek his lost father, but Rabindranath Tagore leads him to the realization that he is actually trying to find his own identity. Each one of the celebrities represents a different hypostasis of the father, and they all serve as mediators in Adam’s attempt at self-discovery.

Bolek (Possible Dreams) enjoys drawing as much as he enjoys reading. His dream is to become an architect and build a beautiful and people-friendly capital city in a place where nothing has existed before. In a contemplative moment, he points out that the option of building his dream city on the ruins of an old one is absolutely unacceptable.

Marian (Airplanes) and J. (Home, Dreams, and Children’s Games) adore airplanes and often ride their bicycles to the airport to enjoy the view of the big metal birds and the roar of the motors: “This is not true,” says Marian, “that this place was something ordinary for me. Every time I went there I had the feeling that I was stepping into something completely surreal”.[14] Marian’s passion for flying does not end with airport visits. He diligently studies his collection of Russian aviation magazines and spends long days sketching and constructing his own aircrafts. Marian and his friends even take two imaginary trips: to France and the United States. Interestingly, the first thing he notices after landing at the foreign airports is the immediate disappearance of his inseparable companion: fear. Airplanes are a transparent symbol of escape and freedom in Stokowski’s novel.

Most of the juvenile characters physically survive communist reality, but they emerge from their personal and lonely battle with the regime with damaged psyches and fragmented identities.

The act of creation is a constructive outlet for adolescent artistic impulses and need for self-expression. It is also a way to escape “the absorbing grayness and mediocrity” for a short time. “Because,”-as Leszek (Drift) concludes,-“what else could we do in those dark years and at this puppy age, except create.”[15] The act of self-estrangement reveals, at least to the reader, the illusion that even in the most unfavorable circumstances one might find a way of not compromising one’s personal beliefs. This may sound pathetic, but most of the time the narratives successfully balance pathos with humor and irony.

Some protagonists have discovered that constant movement and changing of location make them feel free and prevent them from surrendering to social pressure: “We cared about our freedom. That is why we walked so much. Days and nights. And we traveled. Months. Until it got really cold. Even then we tried. Sometimes hitchhiking, sometimes riding trains without tickets.”[16] When Bolek (Possible Dreams) and Leszek (Drift) play hooky, they spend the entire day riding random buses or trains to the last stop and enjoying the feeling of being anonymous in the outskirts or in other cities. Bolek usually takes a bag full of books with him, thus combining physical and mental escape routes. Leszek is simply killing time before the first show at the aptly named“Atlantic” theater.

Other protagonists take a larger step and cross state borders: Penguin (Sergeant Pepper’s Children) emigrates to America, following his dream to become rich and famous; starving and desperate, his friend Brzanka joins him for a time. The original purpose of Tadzio’s trip to West Germany is to bring his cousin back to Poland. He fails in the rescue mission, but he succeeds in discovering himself as he experiences his initiation into adulthood at the immigration camp, just like his favorite literary character, Hans Castorp, in the Berghof sanatorium.

After taking his two imaginary trips to France and the United States to rescue his country from the communists, little Marian (Airplanes) decides that it is time to start thinking about his own safety. He prepares a meticulous plan to secretly board a real plane and flee to America to reunite with his father. The inhabitants of Adam’s hotel (A Pilgrimage) collectively reach the decision that their only way out of the collapsing building is to build a rocket and escape to the United States. It is worth noting here that most of these protagonists associate their rescue with America. This is not surprising, given the fact that Voice of America’s broadcasts during the early cold war not only countered communist propaganda by promoting American democratic values, but also nourished hope that the United States would intervene and help the Eastern Europeans destroy the totalitarian regime. As in the classical bildungsroman, the physical escape turns into a journey of self-discovery for some of the adolescent characters.

The attractions of the opposite sex prove to be an even stronger displacing force for the young protagonists. This takes various forms across the novels, ranging from pure platonic love to purely sexual encounters. Interestingly enough, age is not always the deciding factor. Some of the youngest characters (J., Ryszard, Roman) experience sexual initiation and discover the pleasures of the body. Others find the meaning of life in love. Love inspires them to live and evolve, and makes them feel worthy and needed.

The narrator in Madame suggests that he survived communism thanks to his attraction to his exotic French teacher. He mobilizes all his talents to discover a few details about her closely-guarded personal life, and then creatively arranges the individual pieces of information to reveal his feelings for “La Belle Victoire.” This intellectually provocative and sensually charged game fully absorbs the young character’s mind and unnoticeably liberates him from the grayness of everyday life. Emotionally confused and alienated, Bolek (Possible Dreams) is willing to step out of his self-protective apathy only when a good woman enters his life. He eventually marries a girl involved with a children’s charity and becomes the father of her adopted children. Love serves as a maturation catalyst for Tadzio (Tadzio) as well. In the German immigration camp he meets his cousin’s fiancťe, a good-hearted and sympathetic young woman. The friendship between Tadzio and Ela grows at the same pace as the alienation between her and Tadzio’s cousin. When Tadzio’s cousin abandons the pregnant Ela on their wedding day, Tadzio does not hesitate to propose to her, thus saving her dignity and the life of her child. In one of his contemplative moments Adam (A Pilgrimage) realizes that three things could save him from the collapsing building (late communist Poland): his lost father, a religion he could practice, and a woman he could fall in love with.

Unfortunately, not all of the juvenile protagonists engage in constructive escapism. Some of them find comfort in alcohol, drugs, and promiscuity. This means of self-exclusion from the rejected normative society is characteristic of the hippie culture, artistically captured in Drift, Sergeant Pepper’s Children, and How I Became a Writer. Sobczak’s Drift offers arguably the most graphic portrayal of communist absurdity and existential pain of the “lost generation.” The choice of the main character’s family name, Wałęsik, is not random. The verb wałęsać się means “to idle,” and that is exactly what Leszek and his friends do: they waste their time and energy in seeking alcohol, drugs, and women to escape reality: “My friends and I discovered marijuana rather early, long before the reggae wave, and we left beer, red wine, and school for it. . . . I was abusing other substances as well, but none of them helped me to find the meaning of life.”[17] Several protagonists from different novels suggest that in the 1980s, especially during the period ofmartial law, drug abuse among the youth surpassed alcohol abuse, which has traditionally been high in Poland. Mikołaj (Sergeant Pepper’s Children) grows marijuana himself and takes pride in its thickset green bushes, but his friend Brzanka is rather upset about the fact that the “whole city has gone crazy and people smoke pot like they drink vodka.” [18] Drift offers a similar observation: “They took them [the girls] from one party to another, but instead of alcohol, there were green leaves everywhere: dried in a hurry in the oven and smoked in pipes.”[18]

Another means of escape popular among the juvenile protagonists is feigned schizophrenia. Leszek (Drift) openly confesses: “I want to be a schizophrenic on paper.” In order to obtain the desirable diagnosis, he has to demonstrate his insanity in front of a psychiatrist every two weeks for an entire year. The doctor immediately recognizes the ruse, but lets him do his show anyway and finally prescribes diazepam. This episode suggests that Leszek was not the only person who had come up with the brilliant idea of buying freedom and safety in exchange for a diagnosis of “schizophrenia,” which in any normal circumstances would be a stigma.

The narrator in How I Became a Writer recollects his fake suicide attempt (during which he almost dies) in order to escape military obligations. Stasiuk’s character does not, however, succeed in obtaining the desirable diagnosis; he is instead pronounced a deserter and sent to prison. Marianna’s (Absolute Amnesia) high school teacher feigns a mental disorder and finds peace of mind in a psychiatric facility. The juvenile protagonist’s comment about the event is that “I would do the same; however, madness requires a certain firmness and stubbornness and perhaps even premeditation. And I am constantly carried away.”[19] Jaś [(Sergeant Pepper’s Children) represents the opposite case. He is a genuine schizophrenic, but he believes he is feigning it and generously invites his friends to refer to him in case something bad happens.

Little Marian (Airplanes) falls so deeply into the habit of daydreaming as a coping strategy that as time goes by it becomes more and more difficult for him to distinguish between dream and reality. Adam from A Pilgrimage to the Tomb of the Miraculous Brigitte Bardot experiences the same ontological confusion. The fictional hotel where the action of his book takes place is an ambiguous space. First it is a retreat, where he (or his protagonist) socializes with his favorite celebrities, thus escaping the hostile environment; it next appears as a symbol of the disintegration of communist Poland. Adam’s attempt at resurrecting his fragmented self in fiction fails as he in fact recreates the prison he cannot escape in real life.

Despite their efforts to not surrender to social pressure, almost all of the young protagonists have moments of self-questioning depression during which they blame themselves for not fitting into the mainstream. Mikołaj, the narrator and a main character in Sergeant Pepper’s Children, reveals his struggle with depression: “He would start delicately with a cursory balance. Who was he? What did he represent, what could he do, what capacities did he possess? Zero, ladies and gentlemen, a round zero with a hole in the middle. What then was he supposed do with himself? One has to do something in life, find a place for oneself. However, Mikolaj was incompatible with the world or it could be as well that the world was not compatible with Mikołaj.”

Adam (A Pilgrimage) experiences feelings of chaos and fragmentary existence as well as an inability to distinguish between dream and reality: “Because I cannot find unconditional values, I do not have measures, proportions, parameters, and I do not believe in relative ones. . . . The mode of my existence is non-existence.”

The sense of incoherence that the main character experiences is reflected in the fragmented narrative of the novel. The text shares some of the formal features of postmodern discourse, but it should not be completely identified with the latter. Unlike the postmodern hero who programmatically denies a transcendent and unified self, the characters in the Polish novels under discussion desperately aim at achieving a coherent and autonomous subjectivity. The inability to attain a harmonious state of mind leads them to various forms of self-denial.

Some of the younger protagonists declare their desire to disappear unnoticed or never to grow up. A child’s imagination is governed by different rules than that of an adolescent or adult. Little Bolek, for example, believes that closing his eyes will make himself and the whole world disappear. Tadzio realizes later in life that his “desire to run away, slip out on tiptoe without being noticed”[20] was fueled by his fear of the real world. Marianna (Absolute Amnesia) senses what awaits her and makes the decision that “until she finds more convincing arguments to join the adult world, it would be better if she stays little forever. . . . Sometimes adults make her laugh, at other times she is ashamed of them, and even in moments of weakness when she would start dreaming about the privileges promised as she grows up, she would come quickly to her senses.”[21] This links her intertextually with another child-protagonist, Oskar Matzerath from Günther Grass’s novel Tin Drum [1959]. Both Marianna and Oscar are citizens of Danzig and share the same desire not to grow up, not to enter the hypocritical adult world. Adam (A Pilgrimage) is worried about the fact that he is not maturing: “I delay my development, I withhold time (which does not exist), I am still a son. Not a husband, not a father. Eternal childhood.”[22] Adam’s worries convey the psychological stress of living without the ability to create a coherent self and achieve social maturity.

The obvious reason for these writers to adopt the child’s perspective on everyday life under communism is to present the point of view of a true outsider who has not yet been corrupted by the system, thus achieving a defamiliarization effect and enhancing the authenticity of the narrative. But behind the obvious reason for choosing this particular perspective lies a second, more powerful, ideological reason. Adam’s perception of his eternal childhood, for example, suggests that he is in fact modeling the consequences of communist state policy toward its citizens. By monopolizing the patriarchal role and turning motherhood into a state duty, the partylegitimizes its intervention in the private sphere and frees men and women from their traditional obligations to one another so that they can fully devote themselves and their work to the communist idea. The parent-child relationship is adversely affected as communist rule assumes the main responsibility for the upbringing of new generations of faithful communists. By depriving its citizens of private spaces and the possibility of developing decision-making and responsibility-taking skills, the communist state in fact destines them for perpetual immaturity.

This “unbearable lightness of being” leads some of the more sensitive protagonists to self-destruction, as the human body remains the only private zone over which an individual allegedly maintains full control.[23] The more extreme cases of the denial of self are found in the characters who have suicidal thoughts, attempt suicide, or succeed in taking their own lives. The black statistic in these representative novels is that four of the adolescent protagonists try to commit suicide and one dies during his attempt to flee to America. “In the 1980s,” confesses Leszek (Drift), “I made three attempts at suicide . . . and thought three hundred and thirty three thousand times that I did not want to live.”[24] Bolek (Possible Dreams) is even more extreme in his rejection of the life he is destined to live: “If it was up to me, I would have been stillborn. Because life is not worth living at all. . . . I will imagine for myself a peace of mind, because that is what I like the most. One need not take part in life, get engaged in people’s businesses, participate in anything external. I will imagine somebody else who would live my restless, wounded, meaningless, chaotic, and accidental life for me.” [25]


Implications and Consequences
Such self-reflections return us to the question of survival. Most of the juvenile characters physically survive communist reality, but they emerge from their personal and lonely battle with the regime with damaged psyches and fragmented identities, uncertain about the purpose of their own existence, trying to mask their crippling insecurity with cynicism. All of the described examples of internal struggle point to the impossibility of a natural process of socialization. When the aggressive, depersonalizing social pressure of the regime collides
with the stubborn nonconformity of the teenage protagonists, the only possible compromise seems to be voluntary exile (internal or external). However, total liberation from social ties is untenable, even in theory.

The growing uncertainty and need for protection lead the young protagonists to peer groups with similar alternative thinking. These groups provide temporary relief, but in the long term prove to be an insufficient form of social interaction and a limited source of social affirmation. Sometimes they even become a source of anxiety, as the young protagonists observe the reflection of their own social drama in their peers’ conduct. As minority structures, such groups are probably more visible in the dominantculture, and they experience constant pressure from mainstream society to blend in. Furthermore, the ideological platform of these minority structures is based entirely on the rejection and eventually demolition of the existing order, and that is not what most of the protagonists are looking for, consciously or subconsciously. They seek aneutral space and freedom to establish their own identities; they long for positive values to identify with, and they expect acknowledgment of their social utility. Only two of the characters, Tadzio and Bolek, realize these aspirations by discovering love and assuming the responsibilities of husband and father; nevertheless, they continue their refusal to participate in any social structures that might compromise their integrity. Finding a modus vivendi in which both the society and theindividual have at least some of their rights respected represents the final point of the maturation process and attainment of adulthood in Tadzio and Possible Dreams. More to the point, however, is the fact that the only protagonists who achieve partial socialization become fathers of adopted children. This symbolically marks the end of the communist treatment of fatherhood as a biological act and rehabilitates the importance and complexity of the paternal role. It also resacralizes family as a private space in which human subjectivity is formed and protected.

The genre of the bildungsroman was born in late eighteenth-century Germany in the age of Enlightenment. Its emergence coincided with the process of nation formation and sounded “the humanistic concern for the whole man unfolding organically in all his complexity and richness.”[26] The classical Bildungsromane embody the dialectic of the infinite realm of individual potentiality and the finite realm of social practicality by sketching the general processes of acculturation and selfhood formation within a defined social order. The Polish post-communist accounts of childhood subvert the conventions of the bildungsroman (as viewed by Wilhelm Dilthey, who introduced the term into common usage[27]) as they tell the story of failed social initiation. In novel after novel, the children-protagonists fail to mature and to become useful and satisfied citizens; the expected integration into an affirmative society is replaced by alienation from an unacceptable reality.

By monopolizing the patriarchal role and turning motherhood into a state duty, the communist partylegitimizes its intervention in the private sphere and “frees” men and women from their traditional obligations to one another so that they can fully devote themselves and their work to the communist idea.

In Deserters and Soldiers[28] Maciej Urbanowski notes the emergence of a new type of hero (or rather antihero) in contemporary Polish literature, the deserter. His characterization perfectly describes the collective image of the juvenile protagonists in post-1989 Polish initiation novels. The deserter, claims Urbanowski, is a specific type of rebel who refuses to serve any social cause or idea. He is an anarchist and loner by choice. The deserter prefers to be invisible to the world and typically lives on the margins of society. He is an eternal fugitive; if captured he would not fight back since it would mean entering the game, playing by “their” rules.

Thus, unlike the classical bildungsroman that is meant to validate the existing structures of power and valorize the prevailing models of socialization, the Polish postcommunist version of the genre indicates an axiological crisis, a society gone wrong. Initiation into mature adulthood is impossible in the postcommunist novels because the adolescent protagonists seek their identities in a milieu that is threatening, alienating, and lacking in stability and consistency. What is left is fragmentation and incompleteness. This raises the question of to what extent the failed initiations affected the functioning of the communist political system. In “Assumptions about the Learning of Political Values,” Roberta Siegel stresses the importance of citizens’ political socialization for the well-being of the state organism and the far-reaching consequences of the disrupted symbiosis: “The stability of a political system depends in no small measure on the political socialization of its members. A well-functioning citizen is one who accepts (internalizes) society’s political norms and who will then transmit them to future generations. Without a body politic so in harmony with the ongoing political values, a political system would have trouble functioning smoothly and perpetuating itself safely.” [29]

It can thus be inferred from the novels under discussion that communist Poland collapsed because it had lost the approval and support of its citizens. The fathers did not transmit the communist political norms to their sons and daughters. In turn, this younger generation celebrated by the communist regime as the builders and beneficiaries of the bright future, in fact became its gravediggers.

In her study of three African postcolonial initiation novels, Wangari wa Nyatetu-Waigwa borrows the concept of liminality from anthropological theories and coins the term “liminal novel” to account for a specific type of initiation trajectory that significantly digresses from the linear maturation process in the classical bildungsroman. Nyatetu-Waigwa argues that if liminality is the middle phase in the pattern of the rite of passage, “the liminal novel. . . is a novel of coming-of-age in which the rite of passage. . . remains suspended in the middle stage. At the close of the novel the protagonist is still in the middle of the quest, either still moving towards what supposedly constitutes the final stage in that quest or having consciously suspended the adoption of a final stance. This suspension results not from the hero’s desire to take up residence forever in the blessed isle of the unchanging Goddess of Immortal Being but from his inability to complete the quest under his present circumstances.” [30]

The genre of the bildungsroman has been appropriated many times beyond its traditional realm to fit different historical, political, and cultural contexts. Two of its recent variations, postcolonial and postcommunist initiation novels, exhibit remarkable similarities. They both explore how colonialism/communist totalitarianism impaired the developing personalities of the younger generation that eventually resulted in the destruction of the indigenous/national identity and culture. They both tell the stories of characters caught between their colonized/communist past and postmodern present who struggle to reimagine their new selves. Personal accounts allude to a similar process on a communal level-the establishment of a new national identity that explains the emergence of the bildungsroman trend in the postcolonial and postcommunist literatures. Przemysław Czapliński argues that in every transitional period the genre of the “initiation novel” occupies a privileged position alongside parody and pastiche as it facilitates the transformation of the dominant aesthetic conventions. It also frees its readers from the deposed dominant worldview by shifting to a new view ofhistory and knowledge about the world, and finally, it offers an innocent re-discovery of reality.[31]

What is the future of the Polish postcommunist initiation novels? Dariusz Nowacki suggests that the vitality and attraction of the theme will soon wear out as a new generation of writers steps onto the Polish literary stage. For this new generation, the “People’s Republic of Poland” will be a phenomenon known exclusively from history textbooks. Perhaps we should be more optimistic (or more pessimistic!) than Nowacki and believe in the longevity of this topic. Polish society has by no means come to terms with its communist past. Not even one generation has passed since the Soviet army moved out of Poland. The past and its issues are tenaciously enduring in Polish culture. The Soviet communist occupation and its visible and invisible marks will continue to absorb people’s minds for years to come.

Research for this paper was supported by the University of Kansas General Research Fund, allocation # 2302097.


1. The terms “initiation novel,” “bildungsroman,” and “coming-of-age novel” will be used interchangeably further in the text.

2. Przemysław Czapliński, “Wobec biografii. Nowa proza- rytualy inicjacji” in Ślady przełomu. O prozie polskiej 1976-1996 (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1997), 63-85.

3. Dariusz Nowacki,“Widokówki z tamtego świata” Znak 7, (2000): 28-47.

4. Jurek Zielonka, Tadzio (Kraków: Znak, 2000), 22.

5. The injury was caused by a cruel sergeant Fonfary who was constantly picking on Tadzio’s father because of his guttural French “r.” Fonfary associated this articulation problem with bourgeois degeneracy and effeminacy, and was merciless towards people having it. The irony and misfortune was that the sergeant himself suffered from the same speech impairment and was very ashamed of it. He never doubted that Tadzio’s father was making fun of him.

6. Jolanta Stefko, Možliwe sny (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 2003), 124.

7. Lech Majewski, Pielgrzymka do grobu Brigitte Bardot Cudownej (Kraków: Universitas, 1996), 64.

8. Ryszard Sadaj, Ławka pod kasztanem (Kraków: Znak, 2000), 78.

9. Julian Kornhauser, Dom, sen i gry dziecięce: Opowieść sentymentalna (Kraków: Znak, 1995), 104.

10. Quoted by Aleksandra Bault, “Jak korzystać z wolności? O sytuacji młodego bohatera w prozie lat 90” in Literatura polska 1990-2000, vol. 2, edited by Tomasz Cieślak and Krystyna Pietrych (Kraków: Zielona Sowa, 2003), 131. For Goffman’s essay see <>.

11. Jan Sobczak, Dryf (Czarne: Czarne, 1999), 5.

12. Zielonka, 7-8.

13. Sobczak, 10.

14. Marek Stokowski, Samo-loty (Warszawa: Jacek Santorski & Co, 2005), 44.

15. Sobczak, 43.

16. Andrzej Stasiuk, Jak zostałem pisarzem (Próba autobiografii intelektualnej) (Gładyszów: Wydawnictwo Czarne, 1998), 18.

17. Sobczak, 8.

18. Sobczak, 14.

19. Izabela Filipiak, Absolutna amnezja (Warszawa: Tchu, 2006), 188. This issue of sanity/insanity and incarceration in psychiatric facilities in communist countries is an enormous topic with many ramifications: personal, political, cultural, scientific, and literary.

20. Zielonka, 7.

21. Filipiak, 15.

22. Majewski, 251.

23. Monika Brzóstowicz, “Pod presją ideologii,” in: Wizerunek rodziny w polskiej prozie współczesnej, 99-132 (Poznań: Biblioteka Literacka Poznńskich Studiów Polonistycznych, vol. 8, 1998).

24. Sobczak, 10.

25. Stefko, 5-6.

26. Martin Swales, The German Bildungsroman from Wieland to Hesse (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1978), 14.

27. The hero of the classical bildungsroman engages in the double task of self-integration and integration into society. Under ideal conditions, the first implies the second: the mature hero becomes a useful and satisfied citizen. Viewed in this way, the bildungsroman is a fundamentally affirmative, conservative genre, confident in the validity of the society it depicts, and anxious to lead both hero and reader toward a productive place within the world. Quoted by Todd Kontje, Private Lives in the Public Sphere: The German Bildungsroman as Metafiction (Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1992), 12.

28. Maciej Urbanowski,“RP Dezerterzy,” in Dezerterzy i žołnierze. Szkice o literaturze polskiej 1991-2006 (Kraków: Arcana, 2007), 31-34.

29. Roberta Siegel, “Assumptions about the Learning of Political Values,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 361(1965):1.

30. Wangari wa Nyatetu-Waigwa, The Liminal Novel. Studies in the Francophone-African Novel as Bildungsroman (New York, Washington D.C./Baltimore, Bern, Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Vienna, Paris: Peter Lang, 1996), 3. “Wobec biografii: Kryzys autentyku i sylwy” in Ślady przełomu. O prozie polskiej 1976-1996 (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1997), 192-224.


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