The Polish Complex

Tadeusz Konwicki

translated from the Polish by Richard Lourie
Dalkey Archive Press 1998 [1977]
A book review by Danny Yee © 2004
In The Polish Complex the narrator — who has the name Konwicki — spends Christmas Eve waiting in line at a Warsaw jewellery store which is expecting a delivery of rings. His fellow queuers are not as they seem. One claims to have followed Konwicki around for several weeks in 1951 with orders to kill him (part of a conflict within a WWII organisation about which we learn little more). A queue-jumping peasant woman turns out to be ultra-fashionably dressed under her coat and kerchief. And then there's a French anarchist, a terrorist, some construction workers, a police agent provocateur, and more.

Our narrator's mind is not entirely on his companions, however; even a heart attack and an erotic encounter with a shop employee fail to focus him on the here and now. His thoughts wander to politics and history and the state of Poland, as well as to humanity's place in the universe and his personal search for transcendence. This never gets out of control, however: pretensions to grand meaning are undercut by the narrator's weaknesses and foibles, approaches to tragedy by comic episodes, serious history by the interjection of cliches about the Polish national character, and so forth.

A large part of The Polish Complex consists of embedded pieces, some of which we have to suspect were unfinished works that Tadeusz Konwicki happened to have lying around. The two largest are stories — one of novella length — about Polish patriots during the 1863 uprising. And there's a letter from someone in hospital, written to a friend in the West and smuggled out by a "decent non-Party physician".

Despite the fractured narrative and the juggling of moods and perspectives, The Polish Complex maintains a steady pacing and keeps us engaged. A problem for foreign readers may be the assumed knowledge of Polish history, from the 1863 revolt to the status of Poland as a Soviet satellite state in the 1970s. But this is perhaps what some want: in one extended digression Konwicki bemoans being labelled a Polish writer despite his aspirations to universalism.

"How did it happen that I am an author of Polish books, good or bad, but Polish?"
In this case the book is unquestionably Polish as well as remarkably good.

August 2004

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%T The Polish Complex
%A Konwicki, Tadeusz
%M Polish
%F Lourie, Richard
%I Dalkey Archive Press
%D 1998 [1977]
%O paperback
%G ISBN 1564782018
%P 211pp