The Polish Complex (1982)

Polish title: Kompleks Polski (1977)
Translated by: Richard Lourie
Published by: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

“From morning until late evening on Christmas Eve, a group of Polish citizens stand in line at a state-owned jewellery store awaiting the arrival of a shipment of gold rings from the Soviet Union. It is bitterly cold and the mood of the line is the Polish mood – curious, suspicious, witty, not very hopeful, but persistent. Waiting takes hours, and people chat. The line includes workers, students, a police informer, a peasant woman whose overcoat is filled with articles for sale, and the narrator / author, Konwicki, who is feeling the first symptoms of what will be a severe, but not fatal, heart attack. His pain, the oppressive banality of waiting in line, the transcendendant promise of Christmas, force him to confront his identity. Beginning with a historical fantasy about the failed rebellion of 1863, the drama is played out on the line and inside the store. And through Konwicki’s relentless self-examination, a picture of the Polish complex emerges – a tangled web of social attitudes, political pressures, troubled memories, historical circumstances, and everyday inconveniences – which both nourishes and imprisons.”

(from the dustjacket of the 1982 English edition)

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Zielony Balonik book club notes:

The queue – the central image of the book – is a sort of self-regulating anarchy. (One could sometimes queue for months, and queue committees would be formed.  Sometimes one queue simply to find out what one might queue for later – people’s unrebelliousness.) After all, Polish freedom led to disaster, Russian venality to success; people with ideals destroy themselves as they don’t know how to live.

The 19th century rebellions were ‘doomed lunacy – but that’s what we do’, as someone put it. The book also recalled  Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor – too much freedom will destroy you, so we (here, the Party) are here to save you from yourselves. I commented on the way the aims and point of the insurgency are constantly undermined, e.g. by the beggar in the wood – and others said this undermining of nationalist mythology was unusual at the time, when the Party promoted an uncomplicated – or de-complexified – idea of Polishness, which Konwicki re-complicates with cultural and linguistic diversity. His own resistance experience was in Lithuania, against the Soviets.

Is the novel pessimistic? The queue as a form of stasis – but by articulating the tensions and dynamics of history, Konwicki points towards future (though unspecified) movement – ‘the return of the repressed’. Perhaps the black man, his wife and baby represent one pointer – a new diversity. He was inspired to write this after reading a friend’s memoirs of the resistance. Although it’s Christmas Eve, there’s no religious consolation.


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