Theme:  Eastern Europe


For Hardcore Bibliophiles Only!

by Witold Gombrowicz is one of those books that I wish I could read in the original language because I know that then I would be reading the true essence of the book.  And in this case, a probable masterpiece.  But after having read this translation, I can only recommend it to people who must read all Gombrowicz, Polish literature fanatics and those people interested in homosexual literature at all costs to patience.  This  is a tough read.  Not because of the style itself, but because of the translation of the style.  The translation was done by two women who took pains to translate this as closely as possible to Gombrowicz’s sense of aesthetic.  He himself wanted to create with Trans-Atlantyk something that would not be translatable, something solely for Poles.  That said, it just makes for a frustrating read.  Perhaps it really is untranslatable.  Perhaps it is just as challenging in Polish.  But more likely, I think the effort of the two translators to stick with a 17th century English style hurts the novel overall.  True, it was based on a gaweda which is a oral tale in a stylized literary form using colloquial language and is full of digressions.  Still, I doubt that it reads this choppily in Polish.  At times, with translations, there may be subject/predicate inversion or phrasings that English readers are unfamiliar with processing.  Usually when this happens though, the reader acquiesces to the cadence and different style without too much trouble.   With this translation, I felt like I was reading everything backwards.  Reading ten pages took twice the time and without twice or even equal time without the reward.

The premise makes for rich fodder – a Polish writer(Witold Gombrowicz-yes, it is semi-autobiographical) newly arrived in Argentina just before the outbreak of World War II.  Attempting to fit into the Polish emigre community, he visits a friend who directs him to ‘the Legation’ for work.  You can see the style in this passage where he is offered a job with the Legation:

“Gombrowicz,” I say.  Says he:  “Oh yes, yes, I’ve heard, I’ve heard…How could I not have heard if I am Pacing before you, Speaking…One should come to your aid somewhat, Your Honour, since I am aware of my duty towards our National Literature and as Minister needs must come to your aid.  Ergo, as you are an author, I could have you write for the papers here some articles, the which would praise, glorify our Great Authors and Geniuses; and for this, to beat a Krakowian bargain, I’ll pay you 75 pesos a month…as more I cannot.  A tailor cuts to the cloth.  A dam is fitted to the pond!  You ca praise Copernicus, Chopin or Mickiewicz…Fear God, we have to praise Our Own else we will be swallowed!”  Cheered, “Well said, ” he says, “and ’tis most Appropriate for me as Minister and likewise for you as Author.”

Even through the muddled translation, one can see the humor and satire aimed at war, patriotism and the cost of nationalism.  What I also liked about this slim novel is the fact there is a homosexual character, Gonzalo, as a major player.  He befriends Gombrowicz and takes him on a chase to woo a sailor he lusts after.  It turns out that there are quite a few gay characters in the novel and we learn this through veiled phrases and sly euphemisms.  These fit snugly into the themes of patriarchy and filial love.  This is Gombrowicz’s most outr√© novel in that aspect, followed by Diary.  Gombrowicz does not condemn homosexuality, but acknowledges it but does not refute it:

A Man who, being a Man, fain would not be a Man but after Men chases, and after them Flies, admires, oh, Loves, Heats for them, Lusts for them, Hungers for them, makes up to them, simpers , adulates them, him folk hereabouts five the contemptuous name “puto.”  Upon seeing those lips, the which although a Man’s with woman’s rouge bled, I could have no trace of doubt that my lot was to have happen me a Puto.  It was he and I who before all Walked, Walked as in a couple forever coupled!

It is refreshing to see this addressed with the same satirical levity as any other subject, and that Gonzalo’s homosexuality is accepted without question by Gombrowicz.  Thematically, this book is has all the right elements.  And the humor is there as well.  But the translation makes these things to difficult to find and even if we do find them, to tangled to enjoy.  Gombrowicz is a great writer that deserves the best and maybe one day this novel will get the translation it deserves, if it all possible.  Otherwise, Friends, stick with Bacacay, Ferdyduke, and A Kind of Testament.

By Witold Gombrowicz
Translated by Carolyn French and Nina Karsov
Yale University Press
122 Pages
ISBN: 9780300065039

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *