WHILE the Polish cavalry were heroically and hopelessly charging German Panzer tanks, Witold Gombrowicz, one of Poland's foremost young writers, was half a world away in Buenos Aires, where he landed from a transatlantic liner in August 1939. This was where he chose to sit out the Second World War, and his exile lasted until the 1990s, when he returned to Europe - though not to his own country. By the time of his death in Paris in 1969, he was one of the acknowledged masters of modern drama and the novel.
Gombrowicz himself commented that Transatlantyk was not a very sensible work for someone freshly exiled to write. It is a novel mocking the pretensions of the Polish community in Argentina, shows the low esteem he felt for the Argentine literary establishment of the day, and is generally so odd and absurd that one can only agree with the author, who once lamented, tongue-in-cheek: 'to think I wrote something like that, just when I was isolated on the American continent, without a penny, deserted by God and men]'
The plot, such as it is, is narrated by one Witold Gombrowicz. In Buenos Aires he is flung into the company of a lunatic assortment of Poles, from the minister who heads the Polish Legation to the quarrelsome trio of the Baron, Pyckal and Ciumkala, who are forever doing deals and simultaneously tearing into each other with bitter recriminations. There is the Puto, a hapless millionaire with an insatiable appetite for young boys; Ignacy, the Polish youth who is one of the objects of his passion, and Ignacy's father, the Major.
These characters are whirled around while Gombrowicz reflects on how the individual can break free from convention, whether parricide is the only answer, and the way that one drags one's nationality with one like a curse. Beyond all this there are also brief glimpses of Argentina, from the 'plaza where the tower built by the English is', to the palaces of Buenos Aires and the vast pampas that recall the plains of Eastern Europe.
What is much more important than any of the adventures described is the style and language of the narration. Some of it seems total gibberish, like Lewis Carroll on ephedrine: 'The day was fair, serene. In the crowd lost, my lostness I was enjoying, and even to myself aloud I say: 'Naught to the eel when the crayfish takes a beating.'
A foreword explains that in Transatlantyk Gombrowicz has hijacked a 17th-century oral form of Polish literature and embellished it with his own alliterations, musical sense of form, parody and ridicule of all things Polish. This makes it an almost impossible book to translate.
The two who have struggled bravely with it in this version, Carolyn French and Nina Karsov, comment that they had to 'go with him wherever he led us - not only into incomparable imaginative flights, but into tortured syntax, ubiquitous repetition, anachronisms, inconsistencies, crude expressions, nonsense.' They also note that their translation took them 10 years to complete.
The result is a strange and original book. It is so ridiculous one has to either throw it away or surrender to its absurdity. The climax threatens destruction, with the murder of the youth or of the father: we even meet the Polish cavalry again, this time in the horrendously coupled pairs of the Baron and his friends, charging in for the kill. Yet at the very end, all fear is dissolved in a vast relieving burst of laughter, the 'bam and the boom' of a hilarity which suggests that Gombrowicz, when the transatlantic wind was in the right quarter, could tell a Polish hawk from a handsaw.
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