The most Polish novel of the twentieth century was written in Argentina and published in France. Its language and ideas marked a clash of different eras of Polish civilization, throwing past, present and future into question as it tore down borders between fiction and reality and nation and self. Nothing in the history of Polish literature had ever been so provocative toward Polishness. Luckily for English-speaking readers, this wild masterwork was also sensitively, brilliantly translated by two women determined to – in their own words – ‘discover a very elastic style (or non-style) comprehending the archaic language, skewed and fragmented syntax, and unruly spirit of the original Polish that would be intelligible, even enjoyable, in English.’
Like Gombrowicz himself, Trans-Atlantyk’s protagonist, Witold, is offered a free writer’s trip to South America after the publication of his first collection of short stories. The ship arrives in Buenos Aires mere days before the Nazis invade Poland. Witold gets trapped in exile.
For several reasons, this is good for Witold. One huge advantage of Argentina is that it feels freer, which in turn allows him to explore his sexuality. His first Argentine friend, Gonzalo, is unabashedly queer, seducing a slew of handsome younger men while wearing beautiful gowns and acting like no man Witold has ever encountered before.
When Gonzalo starts seeing Ignacy, son of Polish émigré Tomasz, Witold is dragged into the duel that ensues. Ostensibly for Tomasz to defend Ignacy’s honor, this battle is also an attempt to make a man out of a person who defies sexual norms and an effort to impose order and tradition upon a society governed more by youth and desire. Witold, Tomasz’s second in the duel, but also Gonzalo’s friend, is torn between the thrilling beauty of his new surroundings and the inescapable pull of his inheritance as a Pole.
Trans-Atlantyk is an existential travelogue that revels in its anguish. If early nineteenth-century European explorers in South America had taken selfies while surveying the exotic local flora, the result might have amounted to something along these lines. According to Polish critic Michał Głowiński, ‘His writing can be compared to the oeuvre of Igor Stravinsky, who shaped his own unique style by paraphrasing older works. What Pergolesi, Rossini, and Tchaikovsky were to Stravinsky, gawęda, the old histories of the szlachta, the picaresque novel, and the sanctified customs of the realistic novel were to Gombrowicz.’
The szlachta was a class of nobles, unique to Poland, of obscure origins, that gained extensive legal and moral privileges in Polish society in the fourteenth century, which it began to lose during the three partitions of Poland in 1772, 1793 and 1795, when Poland ceased to exist as a nation for 123 years. But the szlachta’s hold over the Polish imagination only increased during this time. Now seen as a last bastion of Polishness, the peculiar customs of Polish country estates became objects of nostalgic fetish. Among these customs was gawęda, the oral tradition of the szlachta.
Gawęda has the freedom and flexibility of a tale told around a fireplace, meaning, too, that it is filled with digressions, repetitions, and maybe most importantly, contradictions. And to employ gawęda in 1953, on a terrain it had never known before, in Argentina, made the genre far more contradictory than it had ever been before. There should be no way to translate all of that into English. Yet somehow Carolyn French and Nina Karsov did. Prioritizing the vitality of Gombrowicz and gawęda, they opted for the seventeenth century of Thomas Urquhart’s much-loved translation of François Rabelais for its union between written and spoken and its easy integration of the grotesque. As in the Polish original, they blended this with lexical and syntactical items contemporary to themselves. The result is the perfect Princess cut to bring out all the deep ferocity and fire of Gombrowicz’s original, which was original while also being an effervescent, almost intoxicating pastiche.
From the first page: ‘Exquisitely pleasurable the sail from Gdynia to Buenos Aires, and somewhat loathe was I to go ashore, for twenty days a man between Sky and water, nothing remembered, bathed in air, melted in wave, through-blown with wind.’ Pure poetry, and as impure and wonderfully adulterated as anything in the English language – the perfect answer to Gombrowicz’s maniacal, methodical summons, and a perfect challenge to a whole new readership that still stands today.
Photography © Leandro Martinez