Translated by Anna Zaranko
Review by Karen Langley, 5 November 2019
It could be argued that Anglophone readers are living in a golden age of translated literature; all manner of smaller publishers are bringing us regular delights in the form of newly-translated works, either modern books or previously unavailable classics. Penguin Books has always included a rich variety of translated works in its various collections, and recently has issued a fascinating new range of Penguin Classics in slightly larger format paperbacks with coloured covers and French flaps. One of these is a 1961 novella never published in English before, The Memoir of an Anti-Hero by Kornel Filipowicz; and it’s a fascinating yet chilling read.
Born in 1913, Filipowicz was a novelist, poet and screenwriter. Regarded as one of the great Polish writers of the twentieth century, it is for his short works that he’s best known, and at 70 pages Memoir… falls into that category. However, despite its apparent brevity, it’s a powerful work which addresses serious topics.
The book is told in first person narrative, and opens with an unnamed man calmly recording the outbreak of war while he is on his holiday. However, he has no intention of letting the conflict cause any disruption to him or his lifestyle, and it soon becomes clear that he will take this attitude regardless of what is happening around him. Poland is occupied by Germans; the man continues to work at his office, unobtrusively getting on with his job and presenting a bland, nebulous front to all around him. His ability to speak German allows him to pass as one of them at times, and he seems to regard himself as having no nationality, as standing apart. The man hopes to see out the conflict, to whatever is the final result, without becoming involved and staying below the radar as much as possible.
I thought: armies fight armies, overcome and rout them – and the country remains the country. The war is still going on – but the outcome’s already determined. Why does the war still go on?
So far, so good. Many of us might think we would behave in the same way given similar circumstances; after all, human instinct is survival and not everyone has the guts to stand up in a conflict and lay their life on the line. However, at the story continues and we watch the narrator carefully making his way in occupied Poland, it becomes clear that his behaviour is not as neutral as it might seem. Some fellow Poles in his building recognise that he’s something of a collaborator, and actions by youngsters lead to him taking some unpleasant and manipulative action which verges on the downright evil. The narrator is walking a kind of tightrope, somehow getting away with passing as German when necessary, but his luck begins to run out as the Germans begin to lose the war. He has a narrow shave with the authorities, and when the Russians sweep in to liberate the country he takes cover in his apartment until things have settled. However, post-War there will be a reckoning – will our anti-hero survive this?
Memoir… is a work which raises all sorts of moral issues, and much of this results by necessity from the character of the narrator. It’s clear from the very start that he’s a completely self-obsessed person – the fact that his reaction to the outbreak of war is simply to refuse to let it affect his holiday, and sardonically survey the people around him, is disconcerting to say the least. His reactions seem abnormal; he display a selfish misanthropy when faced with others taking action against the aggressors, showing disgust not only about heroic acts but in fact generally at most of humanity. He commonly expresses revulsion at seeing others either dirty or scruffy or injured, as if their suffering is not even visible to him. His behaviour towards the women in his life is cold and dispassionate. As the narrative continues his behaviour becomes truly disturbing and he demonstrates a horrific detachment of the kind which allowed Nazism to flourish.
An acquaintance once said in the café that he would rather feign dumbness for the entire war and pound rocks at the roadside than utter a single word in German. Fine prattling. In a month or two, when he feels the pinch, he’ll start hunting for work and cease to have scruples. There are no heroes.
So the book is a masterly portrayal of a cold and calculating man with no humanity in him. He almost seems to live a kind of charmed life, with the ability to turn any situation to his advantage; and seeds he laid earlier in the book (and in his life) stand him in good stead when the victors are meting out punishment to those who collaborated. Yet there is a moral ambiguity underlying the whole story: is the protagonist a hero of sorts by surviving the only way he knows possible; or should he have made a grand and futile act of resistance (a possibility which occurs to him late in the book and causes him a little discomfort)? It’s a question not easily answered, and although the logical reaction is to say that the narrator should have resisted, the book certainly sows doubts in the mind about how we would react in a similar situation.
On the evidence of this book, I can see why Filipowicz is such a highly-regarded author. The Memoir of an Anti-Hero is a powerful portrayal of life under occupation and one man’s navigation of it. The anti-hero of the title is an ordinary man, unpleasant, detached and not easy to like; yet I ended the book questioning whether I should have been mentally condemning him so strongly. This is an important book, and a very relevant one too, which will leave you pondering on this cynical anti-hero and his reaction to the world around him.
Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and wishes the world would end wars for good…
Kornel Filipowicz, The Memoir of an Anti-Hero (Penguin Books, 2019). 978-0241351598, 70pp., paperback.BUY at Blackwell’s via our affiliate link (free UK P&P)