Christopher Walker on Sławomir Mrożek

A master of satire and tragicomedy, Sławomir Mrożek (1930–2013) took aspects of the world around him and held them up to the light, examining how people’s frailty and corruptibility might lead to their downfall—or their success. As a writer, Mrożek’s work is deeply reminiscent of Franz Kafka. Like Kafka, Mrożek’s work subverts readers’ expectations. In Kafka’s novel The Trial (1925), a man is arrested and found guilty of a crime that is never made clear to him. We find elements of comedy here, but they are hidden under thick layers of personal tragedy and confusion. Mrożek wrote stories and plays of a similar bent—whether a play about a chief of police desperately trying to convince the last criminal in society not to go straight in The Police (1958), or a short story about an everyday villager’s slow transformation into a Party official in “Peer Gynt” (1957). In each case, readers are left suddenly unsettled—that what strange events came to pass could just as easily happen in their own lives.

Mrożek was a Polish short-story writer and playwright, active during one of the most politically turbulent times in Polish history. He was most active as a writer in the years of Władysław Gomułka (1905–1982), and one might say that the life of this politician looks very much like a Mrożek short story—though with any trace of humour removed. Gomułka was a key figure in the post-war transition of Poland to the Communist system, a fiercely anti-Semitic leader who led several purges of Jewish members of society. However, by 1948, Gomułka found himself stripped of his power because he showed more support for Polish Communists rather than the group affiliated with Stalin in the Soviet Union. Gomułka spent much of the next decade imprisoned. But that was not the end of his story; after Stalin’s death the process of Gomułka’s rehabilitation began, and when workers’ strikes in Poznań threatened to destabilize the country, the former leader was brought back to crush the rebellion and re-establish Communist rule. He remained in power until his retirement in 1970. The fact that someone so distasteful could recover from such personal disaster to lead the country once again must surely have inspired some of what Mrożek wrote.


Sławomir Mrożek – Short Story Writer

Sławomir Mrożek wrote two short novels, neither of which managed to reach an audience outside of his home country. I imagine one explanation is that Mrożek fell through the gaps during a time when writers and publishers were at the mercy of the censors. All that exists in translation of Mrożek’s prose is The Elephant (1957), a series of forty-two short stories that run to just 176 pages.

The stories of The Elephant range from the satirical to the absurd, but all contain the same wry sense of humour and subversive spirit. In the title story, “The Elephant,” a small town’s zoo is looking to save some money to give to the workers, so they purchase an inflatable elephant instead of the costlier, real thing. Inevitably, the rubber pachyderm is carried off by a breeze blowing through the zoo. The final beat of the story is blistering and depressing:

The schoolchildren who had witnessed the scene in the Zoo soon started neglecting their studies and turned into hooligans. It is reported that they drink liquor and break windows. And they no longer believe in elephants.

One of my favourite qualities of a Mrożek story is that it generally ends a paragraph or two after you expect it to. “The Elephant” is a fine example. When the inflatable elephant flies away, the authorities’ deception is revealed—but Mrożek is not finished with the reader just yet. He adds a coda to the story that shows the negative effect the fake elephant, this literal body of lies, has on the local populace. They learn their lesson here more readily than any the Party could teach: the lies undermine the schoolchildren’s faith in society, turning them into hooligans. 

But Mrożek goes beyond criticism of the political class and turns his attention to the general population as well. Another tale, likewise told with the simplicity of a parable, suggests that totalitarianism can corrupt even the most honest of hearts. In “Peer Gynt,” which appears later in The Elephant, a peasant from a small village sets out to discover why no tiles and nails are sold anywhere. His wife has been begging him to fix their leaky roof, and so he goes to the local town to deliver a short address before a Party meeting, requesting more supplies. His speech is roundly applauded. Although he is confused that his message is not heeded—the tiles and nails never delivered—the desire for more applause and praise leads him down the dark path towards becoming one of them, a member of the political class:

His new life was obliterating his memories of the old. He began to part his hair. Endless journeys, railway stations, conventions, conference halls, open-air meetings, formed the pattern of his daily routine. He became a member of a score of committees, he was invited to join praesidiums of meetings, he became a social governor of a kindergarten. Journalists and drivers of official limousines knew him well.

By the end of the tale, his journey is complete; the honest peasant has transformed into a walking collection of political truisms, more interested in the social esteem and power that comes with giving speeches than with effecting real change for his community, even if that change is as simple as making tiles and nails available to those who need them.

The Elephant is available in one of Penguin’s lesser-known series, the Central European Classics imprint. Translator Konrad Syrop and his minimalistic interpretation of Mrożek’s original text helps to keep the sense of these stories as fables from a totalitarian time. The simple style preserves its timelessness in the manner of Aesop’s Fables. The stories give us insight into the lived experience of Mrożek’s time, but since he avoids all mention of the real authoritarian personalities (Gomułka’s name is not once invoked, for instance), we can just as easily apply these lessons to our own time, or to any other.


Sławomir Mrożek – Playwright

It is not easy to get one’s hands on Mrożek’s plays these days, unless you have a certain proficiency in Polish, that is. I managed to locate one volume of his plays on Amazon, available for the princely sum of £916. To enjoy Mrożek, then, it is necessary to be a proficient hunter in the second-hand book market—a skill for which I turn to my Polish wife. Agnieszka first introduced me to Mrożek, and she has since supplied me with a drip-feed of second-hand books found on the Polish auction site My love for the Polish writer is tied up with the events and people from my life, and perhaps this is how it should always be: when we find something we love, we want to share it with someone we love.

Mrożek’s most famous play, Tango (1965), was produced when the writer was in his early thirties. Artur, a medical student, returns home to find that his family are living in chaos. Old objects are strewn about the place with little regard for their usefulness, and so Artur attempts to establish order. His efforts are in vain, and, tragically, at the end of the play, Artur is murdered by Edek, his fiancée’s supposed lover.

Tango explores the place of the intellectual in modern society, though since Artur is murdered by the thuggish Edek, Mrożek’s message seems more complex. Is he suggesting that in the end, the louts will triumph? What then of science’s civilising mission? This negative appraisal seems to be consistent with the fate of the children in “The Elephant,” certainly a grim portrayal of the world.

To find satire similar to The Elephant, it is worth looking at Mrożek’s one-act plays. In a collection issued by Grove Press in 1967, Nicholas Bethell translated six of the Pole’s shorter works.

The first play in the series is called The Police, and it details what happens when a former political prisoner, the last of his kind, repents and promises to be good. This throws the police into utter confusion. Somehow all other dissidents have been eradicated, and with the resignation of this final rebel, there seems to be no more need for the police. Thus the Chief of Police tries to convince the prisoner not to repent, going to bizarre lengths. The police become more and more desperate to justify their existence, even going so far as to begin plotting crimes themselves.

Interestingly, Mrożek prefaces the play with an author’s introduction that begins:

This play does not contain anything except what it actually contains. This means that it is not an allusion to anything, it is not a metaphor, and it should be read as such.

The Police was published and performed from 1958 onwards, a tense time in Polish history with Gomułka back in office, and so this disavowal was a sensible precaution to ensure the work survived the scrutiny of the censors. However, the fact that it remained in the Western issue of his plays is a curious one, for in free America, it must have seemed an unnecessary admission. In fact, a postmodernist interpretation of the statement could be that Mrożek wants his readers to look for allusion and metaphor in his work.

Another play that highlights Mrożek’s satirical, anti-authoritarian tone is Out at Sea. Three men, who are called Fat, Medium, and Thin, find themselves in a life raft together, adrift on the open sea. With no food left, the three discuss who among them should be eaten. The obvious answer to any outside observer is that Fat should be eaten. However, Fat—who surely represents the authoritarian state—has such a way with words that he convinces Medium and Thin that Thin should sacrifice himself for the good of the boat. As the play proceeds, reality becomes increasingly absurd, and this heightens the sense of the macabre. Strangely, Out at Sea could be read as a critique of Democracy as much as Communism: the majority vote wins, and Thin is set for the block. Perhaps Mrożek was ambivalent about what might eventually replace the Communist order, if he could indeed foresee the end of totalitarian rule in his country.


Sławomir Mrożek – A Life

Sławomir Mrożek was born in 1930 in Borzęcin, a small village east of Kraków. His family soon relocated to the city, where Mrożek studied. By 1950, he was working as a draughtsman and journalist. His satirical cartoons were well-received, and were an art form he continued through much of his career.

Much like the famed travel journalist Ryszard Kapuściński, Mrożek was an eager, some might say blindly uncritical, supporter of Communism in his youth. In Balthazar. An Autobiography, Mrożek wrote:

Being twenty years old, I was ready to accept any ideological proposition without checking it too carefully—the only thing that mattered was that it was revolutionary. [ . . . ] It was from among people like me that they once recruited for the Hitler Youth or the Komsomol [ . . . ]. Frustrated, errant and rebellious youths are present in every generation, but what they do with their rebelliousness depends only on circumstance.

But for me, this admission of the waywardness of his early character is disingenuous, and is the equivalent of trying to brush a dark chapter in the writer’s history under the carpet. Take, for instance, the events of 1953, when Mrożek was twenty-three years old. Four Roman Catholic priests, members of the Kraków Curia, were accused of subversion and spying for the United States. Their show trial culminated in each receiving the death sentence, though the sentence itself was never carried out. Astonishingly, the Polish Writers’ Union in Kraków published a letter in support of the authorities, writing:

We condemn those Church officials of the Catholic hierarchy, who welcomed the anti-Polish machinations, gave their support to the traitors, and went on to destroy our cultural monuments.

The letter was signed by Sławomir Mrożek among others (the future Nobel Prize winner Wisława Szymborska was another signatory). The 1950s were dark days for the nation and its writers. One wonders how much this cognitive dissonance—the satirist who supported the authorities in what was clearly a fix-up—led to Mrożek writing The Elephant. Was this event echoed in the foreword to The Police? Had Mrożek learned through experience how efficacious it was to outwardly appear uncritical, even supportive, of the status quo?

By 1956 and the return of Gomułka, Mrożek began to shed this blind obedience to the Big Brother state, as evidenced by his satirical contributions to a number of periodicals. His The Progressives column laid the groundwork for the stories that became The Elephant, as well as his early plays.

Success followed quickly on the heels of success, but suddenly, in 1963, Mrożek left Poland. Little is known about how he left during a period in Polish history when its borders were firmly shut. As for why, Mrożek himself alluded to the event only so that he could justify his departure, saying he was tired of being considered the property of the state.

After 1963, Mrożek led a peripatetic life that encompassed Italy, the United States, France, Germany, and Mexico. In the following decades, he concentrated almost exclusively on writing for the theatre, though with the fall of Communism, Mrożek perhaps found himself becoming something of an anachronism. Warnings against totalitarianism were no longer in vogue, and so his writing expanded to include other areas, geographically as well as thematically.

In 1996 he returned to the country of his birth, but his visit was bittersweet. The newly independent country had changed greatly, and to compound the shock of his return, Mrożek’s health was also rapidly deteriorating. In 2008 he relocated with his wife to Nice in France, where he died in 2013.

Reading Mrożek’s work now, when a retrospective of his life is possible, is disconcerting. The fact that much has yet to be translated from the Polish only adds to the mystery. On the one hand, his short stories are powerful fables told by an anti-authoritarian Aesop; on the other, so many aspects of his story—and body of work—seem contradictory, sometimes impenetrable. I like to think that the great satirist would take an impish delight in this detail.