The Elephant

Penguin’s Central European Classics are a rare instance of a publisher committing to a project that might excite even the most jaded reader. Instead of once again repackaging the familiar faces of Sunday evening adaptations, here is an attempt to bring back into print writers who have been, for the most part, ignored and neglected in this country; writers whose names you may not recognise, far less be able to pronounce. Even the fact that it “does not pretend to be definitive or even particularly coherent” is an attraction as they jump from genre to genre across the years like a drunk fjording a river.

Should you be tempted, Slawomir Mrozek’s The Elephant is a good place to start. Mrozek is apparently more famous as a playwright, though he is one of six writers in the ten book series whom I am quite happy to admit I’ve never heard of before. As a dramatist, he has been associated with the theatre of the absurd, but his stories generally reveal a more satirical intent. In the title story, for example, the director of a zoo rejects the allocation of an elephant, instead “putting forward a plan for obtaining an elephant by more economic means” being

“…fully aware how heavy a burden falls upon the shoulders of Polish miners and foundry men because of the elephant.”

An elephant is instead constructed from rubber, the logic being that the elephant is “a sluggish animal”. When the elephant is finally revealed to a group of school children, however, a gust of wind lifts it into the air. Mrozek fills the story with deft touches. For example, he juxtaposes the elephant’s take-off with the teacher’s comment that “the weight of a fully grown elephant is between nine and thirteen thousand pounds,” and has it land in the neighbouring botanical gardens on a cactus. In other words, each story does not simply make you smile at its punch-line, but throughout.

Many of the stories feature animals: swans, lions, giraffes, horses. Others are even more surreal: tiny people in a drawer; civil servants taking flight; a telegraph wire made of a line of people. Often they are overtly political, like the patriotic drummer who is charged with treason for keeping the General awake, or the meteorologist who is criticised for reporting rain. However, while it is easy to see the satirical intent with regard to 1950s Poland, most still resonate with contemporary society.

While it is almost too easy to read through these 42 stories, it’s astonishing that Mrozek was able to cram so many memorable ideas into such a slim volume. It’s also a reminder (along with the eye-catching cover) that literature from behind the Iron Curtain should not always be equated with the gas-lit grey of gloom. The translator of this collection, Konrad Syrop, also translated another volume of Mrozek’s stories in the sixties – let’s hope that, too, may, in time, reappear. In the meantime, this is highly recommended.

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