“My work is very chic, like a luggage set: the large suitcase, my novels; two medium-sized cases, my Diary and my plays; the small case, my short stories.” (Witold Gombrowicz)
The first of Gombrowicz’s works I ever read was his absurd play Iwona, księżniczka Burgunda (1938, or Ivona, Princess of Burgundia; see the trailer for the Teatr Śląski production in Polish and English fringe production by the Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium). Gombrowicz was a breath of fresh air and a huge relief after a long slog of national romanticism and resistance. He wrote Iwona in that window of opportunity after 123 years of partition and before 50 more years of occupation, where Polish literature got gloriously wildly creative, and didn’t have to worry about being particularly “Polish” at all.
Just a year later, World War II broke out and Gombrowicz was on the boat to Argentina. He spent the next quarter century there, resisting the inward-looking ossification of the Polish émigré community and cultural scene:
An amazing feeling of deep, intimate happiness. Here it is. The heart of the mountains! Here it is—Aconagua, as if drowned among other peaks.
People emerged from the cars. What were these Argentineans feeling?
I suddenly realized—what would be happening with Poles: Emotion. Pride. Happiness. Religious contemplation. “It’s ours.” The Polishness of this sight would have been its greatest adornment.
Here—nothing like it. It doesn’t enter their heads that this second highest peak in the world is Argentinean. It’s only under such circumstances that I realize how very imperialistic Argentineans are, and how aware they are of their destiny on an intercontinental scale. Here one is a citizen of the world. Argentinean sentiment is far-reaching, and has the breadth of these mountains, which by their magnitude break down the country’s boundaries and become the property of the Americas.
… Let us look for a moment at what forms of existentialism ripen under the South American sky. Is it only the States, England, Russia, or France that have anything to say to the world? The Latin countries in America, from Mexico to Argentina, are in many ways backward, but this does not mean that they do not have leading positions in other aspects.
A country where people take football to heart can equally be a country of great wisdom. The childishness of people who play football does not alarm me. I am more alarmed by the childishness of people who are fanatics, who have come to believe in something and, in the name of their theory, are willing to slaughter half of humankind. In my opinion, an American man, easygoing, adaptable, not subject to any doctrine, unable to absorb any theory (because even Catholicism is more a lifestyle here than a rigid formula), is actually the man of the future. And he is most certainly an existential man because, as we have said before, existentialism cannot stand schemata, abstraction, or theory.
Here I see some resemblance to Poland.”
These are extracts from Danuta Borchardt’s translation of Gombrowicz’s radio talks, Peregrinations in Argentina, given a few years after Transatlantyk was published in 1953. Borchardt knew what she was translating, as a Polish refugee to London from World War II, one of my own grandparents’ generation, who then moved to the US. Gombrowicz had said: “the most important thing is that the translator should be an artist, not a drudge. [ . . . ] And that they should have a sense of humour and of poetry, as well as temperament, and also that they should really like the book.” Bortchardt couldn’t agree more.
“One can only ask how contemporary Poland compares to the Poland with which he fought in his desire to introduce the notion of ‘sonland’ rather than ‘fatherland’.” Sixteen years after Miłosz’s tribute to Gombrowicz, do Poles at home and abroad (and their descendants, like myself) still need to hear this challenge?