March 2004

Liz Ptacek


Trans-Atlantyk by Witold Gombrowicz

Although I compulsively read them, I hate introductions in general, and especially those written for works of fiction. Recent attempts to tone down this distasteful reading habit have led me to jump to the first chapter as soon as I sense a spate of spoilers. In the case of Witold Gombrowicz's Trans-Atlantyk, though, I wish the introduction had focused solely on Stanislaw Baranczak's explanation of the philosophy that drove much of the action in this novel. The missing philosophy that would have given me a compass in much of the ensuing chaos.

Back in 1939, Gombrowicz traveled on a cruise ship from his native Poland to Argentina. It was a business trip. He and his colleague, both journalists, were on the maiden voyage of the Boleslaw Chrobry, a ship that celebrated the rebirth of Poland after the first World War. Gombrowicz was to act as a representative of this new Polish culture, to reassure the large community of Polish emigrants in Buenos Aires that their homeland had not been truly destroyed.

Unfortunately, the arrival of this cruise ship coincided almost precisely with the German invasion of Poland. When the travelers reached Argentina, many turned around immediately to defend their country. Gombrowicz, on the other hand, remained in Buenos Aires for 24 years, attempting to cull a living from his writing and, more successfully, from a job at the Polish Bank.

Trans-Atlantyk was Gombrowicz’s first novel, and it didn’t have a prayer at generating much revenue from the Polish émigré community. He told a story about a man named Gombrowicz, who traveled to Argentina on a cruise ship and decided not to return to Poland at the outbreak of World War II for dubious reasons. While unimaginable terrors beset his home, our hero berates Poland, chanting out to the returning ship as it sails away from him, “Sail to your St. Slug that she might ever more enslime you!”

I should also mention that Gombrowicz chose to write his novel in the Polish equivalent of Old English, thus ensuring that he only alienate those Poles who were willing to battle difficult syntax.

While Trans-Atlantyk was doomed to fail in immediate commercial terms, however, it was also destined to secure Gombrowicz’s place among the great novelists of central Europe. Apart from being a good read, Trans-Atlantyk embodies a philosophy of life that Baranczak clarifies remarkably well in the introduction. The cliffs notes are as follows: the individual is in constant conflict with society (the old Man v. Society, for those of us who took notes in English). As Gombrowicz sees it, man is torn between submitting to the will of society, which robs him of all freedom, and following his own will, which entails breaking with society altogether. Neither extreme is attainable, so we are stuck murkily in between.

My synopsis is inelegant, but this philosophy comes to life as the narrator struggles to break with his homeland and finds himself isolated in a foreign country. Gombrowicz cannot reject his ancestry when his first hope is to find a relocated relative, nor renounce Poland when he finds himself reporting to the foreign consulate. The novel is filled with decisions and reversals like this, many times condensed in a few brief sentences (“I approve of your Resolution or disapprove and well you did to remain here, or perhaps you did Not.”)

While I was reading the novel, I didn’t have any clear idea what could motivate a writer to intentionally obscure his meaning. All I had were the foreboding explanations in the translators note -- always read the translator’s note, just on the off chance that it won’t be intensely boring -- where Carolyn French and Nina Karsov beg you to “bear with” their choice to render this book in seventeenth century English with purposefully complex sentence structures. Armed thus, I found myself entranced from beginning to end.

Turns out, Gombrowicz truly is a master of controlled chaos. Normally when the reader unravels a tangled word cluster, she is rewarded with meaning. Very rarely can she be denied this reward and still come away satisfied. Gombrowicz’s prose, the translation of which is a spectacular feat of its own, often takes irrevocable turns but never does so ignorantly. Gombrowicz has succeeded where so many beatniks would later fail; he creates his own language so that his meaning can be found in the very syntax of his book. His technique is enjoyable, beautiful in fact, to observe.

Trans-Atlantyk by Witold Gombrowicz
Yale University Press
ISBN: 0300065035