The Memoir of an Anti-Hero

Kornel Filipowicz is a Polish writer, born in 1913, who lived through both world wars and the Soviet occupation of Poland (he died in 1990). He seems to have been completely ignored by the English language until now, despite a writing career which began in the thirties, and encompassed poetry and screen-writing as well as novels and short stories, and a record of resistance to the censorship of both National Socialism (he was imprisoned in Groß-Rosen and Sachsenhausen concentration camps in 1944) and Communism (signing the protest letter Memorial 59 in 1975). He was, and is, widely respected in Poland; Janusz Kowalcyzk, who calls him “one of Poland’s most important post-war prosaists,” tells us:

“In the 1970s and 1980s, ‘going to Kornel’s place’ was proof of belonging to the literary circle. Young writers flocked to him and wore him out with their works.”

Finally, thanks to Penguin Classics and translator Anna Zaranko, we can now read him in English with the publication of his 1961 novella, The Memoir of an Anti-Hero. The memoir opens as the Second World War begins, with our narrator, the ‘anti-hero’ of the title, on holiday, and deciding, unlike other holiday-makers, to resist the temptation to return home immediately:

“I told myself that what the majority did was not necessarily what one ought to do – and I stayed.”

The narrator’s ability to make decisions for himself, though not necessarily always admirable, will be one reason he is able to survive the dangers ahead. It also demonstrates his disengagement from others. When he sees Jews wearing six-pointed stars on armbands he comments:

“I had many Jewish acquaintances, I was even on quite intimate terms with some of them – but ultimately their fate was a source of indifference to me.”

Conversely, he expects no sympathy from others. When he is slapped by a member of the SS and falls, he has no time for those who come to his aid:

“I felt disgust and hatred for these people and their sympathy. I would have been happy to see them meet the same fate on the next street corner.”

The narrator sees his attitude as a rational response to reality:

“The country had been occupied by the victors. I belong to the side of the losers and I have to succumb to those who now run the country.”

He has little patience with those who offer either passive or active resistance – when he finds the behaviour of other Poles in a café ‘provocative’ towards the Germans he simply stops going there. By the same token, he understands “the wisdom of not permitting myself to be drawn too far into intimacy with [the Germans].” His ability to accomplish this balancing act is greatly aided by the fact he can speak German. More than once he pretends to be German to remove himself from a difficult situation. It also aids his attempts to remain uninvolved:

“The Germans simply took me for a Pole, the Poles for a German, whereas I was neither.”

In his desire to remain neutral, he rejects the idea of nationality. He does, however, act when his neutrality is threatened. When the caretaker’s children throw snowballs at him shouting, “Volksdeutsch,” he bribes a German policeman to have the caretaker arrested for a couple of days and then insinuates to his wife that he has worked to have him released.

Filipowicz, however does not present the ‘anti-hero’s’ life as one of constant worry and tension; on the contrary he often refers to feelings of happiness. At the beginning, when he decides he is “not qualified for heroism,” he says, “I became quite cheerful,” and later, following a lucky escape after being arrested for not having his identity papers on him, he comments:

“I felt happy. It was a warm, fragrant evening. The sun had set already, dusk was falling, but the sky was still bright.”

This is not to suggest Filipowicz approves of his character – his own life indicates a different viewpoint – but he convincingly represents a self-preserving cynicism which was likely to have been prevalent at the time, and, of course, still is. Only at the very end does the narrator show any sign of regret (in what he calls a “moment of weakness”), though even here he wishes heroism had been forced upon him.

The Memoir of an Anti-Hero (I assume on some level a response to Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time) brings a new viewpoint to a genre which is not under-represented in translated literature. Filipowicz, however, certainly is, and it is to be hoped that more of his work will soon become available in English.

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6 Responses to “The Memoir of an Anti-Hero”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    I had to wait till I’d written my review for SNB before I read your post! I can’t understand why he’s not been translated before – this was a really thought-provoking book riddled with ambiguity.

  2. Jonathan Says:

    It makes me think of Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man. I hadn’t heard of this author. Thanks.

  3. Tredynas Days Says:

    A new name to me, too. Sounds like an interesting take on a well-worn literary area.

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