Reviewer: Agnieszka Gutthy
By Witold Gombrowicz. Translated by Bill Johnson. New York: Archipelago Books (www.archipelagobooks.org), 2004. 275 pages. ISBN 0-9728692-9-8. Paper.
Bacacay is a collection of twelve short stories written between 1928 and 1953. The initial seven stories were first published in 1933 as Gombrowicz's literary debut, Recollections of Adolescence. Two additional stories come from his first novel Ferdydurke, and three had previously been published in various periodicals. Bacacay was first published in Poland in 1957 following a short period of political thaw. The collection discussed in this review is the first English translation.
Linguistic playfulness, an important part of Gombrowicz's craft, makes the translation difficult. Bill Johnston succeeds in capturing Gombrowicz's "buffoonery," his sense of whimsy, and his constant provocation. Johnston further succeeds in reproducing the artistry of Gombrowicz's language. The collection closes with an excellent Afterword in which the translator introduces the stories. Gombrowicz's stories are sometimes wildly imaginative, and they present absurdity in a realistic disguise. The characters are obsessive, the stories are often nightmarish, hilarious, disquieting, and the humor is macabre.
The first story in the collection, "Lawyer Kraykowski's Dancer" describes a sadomasochistic relationship between a lawyer and a very lonely and sick man who is starving for any kind of human contact. The sick man tries to buy his tickets without waiting in line, and the lawyer pulls him away from the ticket window in order to put him back in line. This gesture can hardly be considered as revealing any human interest, but it was enough for the man to start building his destructive plan for both the lawyer and himself. He inserts himself into the lawyer's life, interfering whenever possible, and becoming his devoted fan and stalker.
The protagonist of "The Memoirs of Stefan Czarniecki" is another solitary, unwanted, and rejected man. No matter how hard he tries, he cannot find his place in any group. Always an outsider, he is not strong enough to impose his way of thinking on anybody.
In "A Premeditated Crime," an investigating magistrate exerts so much pressure on the family whose father died of a heart attack that not only does the innocent son admit to the parricide, but also "strangles" his father's dead body in order to provide the evidence of his crime.
"Dinner at Countess Pavahoke's" is a satire against the pretentious aristocracy and the plebeian who strives to become part of their world. Macabre humor lurks through the story: a peasant boy named Cauliflower disappears shortly before a cauliflower dish is served up during a supposedly vegetarian Friday dinner at the home of Countess Pavahoke.
Unlike most stories in the collection which have first person narrators, in "Virginity" a third person narrator tells the story of Alice, a young girl brought up in a good and affluent family. The girl requires constant care owing to her delicate constitution, and her family shelters her from the dark sides of life while at the same time imposing their views on her. Yet the "maidenly" Alice feels an uncontrollable need to crouch down next to a stray dog and gnaw on the dog's bone.
"Adventures" goes back to a first person narrator who imagines that he is followed by pirates and lepers. His persecution mania leads him to passivity and to an acceptance of the others‘ will. The story begins with the narrator falling from a ship in the Mediterranean and being picked up by another ship. Its captain uses him as if he were a toy, tossing him into the sea first in a glass bubble and later in a steel sphere. Throughout, his adventures continue to follow an odd mix of the real and the absurd.
Zantman, the protagonist of "The Events on the Branbury," has a similar problem of being unable to act or to show any resistance. The narrator is also on a ship, but he boarded a wrong one. Now he is with a group of sailors who amuse themselves by inventing cruel games.
The two stories that follow, "Philidor's Child Within" and the much shorter "Philibert's Child Within," are two frame stories from Ferdydurke. Both describe absurd duels: in the first tale Philidor, professor of Synthetology battles an equally outstanding Analyst. In the second story, it is a tennis match that degenerates into a violent fight.
The narrator of "On the Kitchen Steps" is a successful diplomat who is perversely obsessed with ugly housemaids. In "The Rat," a retired judge seeks out the perfect means of torture for a bandit and also the means of civilizing him. In "The Banquet" the ministers of the state are astonished by King Ganulo's corruption.
The year 2004, or the hundredth anniversary of the author' birth, was officially designated as the Year of Gombrowicz in Poland. Scholarly conferences were held in Poland, France, and the United States in honor of this author. Three new English translations have also appeared: two by Bill Johnston, Bacacay and Polish Memories, and one by Benjamin Ivry, A Guide to Philosophy in Six Hours and Fifteen Minutes. ∆
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