A Dreambook for Our Time
“We live, as we dream – alone” Conrad's theme in Heart of Darkness finds a contemporaneous extension in this novel in which Tadeusz Konwicki draws the far world of dreams and the immediate one of daily life in an intense interlocking of their separate realities.
At the opening of the novel the antihero (in the Camusian sense) is shown just coming out of a coma, having tried to commit suicide by poison. He is surrounded by provincial townsfolk, villagers who in their isolation and emotional impoverishment have turned their energies to creating a new religion – a private God, non-identifiable as either Christian or non-Christian.
Called “one of the most terrifying novels in postwar Polish literature,... greeted upon its appearance [in 1963] as a major literary sensation” (Czeslaw Milosz, History of Polish Literature), the novel moves through a series of flashbacks between present reality and recalled experiences. The language is that of a dream sequence with metaphors of frightening quality, both in intensity and “illogicality.”
The young Pole who narrates his experiences reveals himself to be caught up in a labyrinth leading nowhere, driven by an urge which ultimately is a need for punishment. His longing for a responsive and benevolent force over his destiny is the basis of his anguish. Acutely feeling the lack, faced with a godless universe, he sees his choice to be between self-assertive survival at any price – moral, sensual, intellectual – or the self-pronouncement of worthlessness and the denouement of peace attained by dying. The hero “escapes” death and is condemned to death-in-life.
Konwicki's descriptions of the brutal mutual massacres in some of the war experiences of the narrator are unforgettable in their irony. The dialogue is sharp and ironic, and the translation retains the vernacular thrust of the Polish original. The author's experience as director and script writer earned him the Grand Prix (1958) at Venice for his film The Last Day of Summer. His vivid awareness of the passing values in an increasingly superficial world of interrelationships and goals makes this passionate work a powerful indictment of modern man's progress in guilt and war and his impotence in welding his idealistic dreams and his life.
The original Polish title of the work is Sennik wspólczesny.