Posts Tagged ‘Stanislaw Lem’

The Investigation

May 19, 2023

Stanislaw Lem is best known for his science fiction, but he also wrote in other genres, from the realism of Hospital of the Transfiguration to the autobiography of Highcastle. In The Investigation, first published in 1959 and translated into English by Adele Mileh in 1974, Lem turns to the crime genre. Lem sets his novel in England – his detective, Gregory, works for Scotland Yard – though the characters seem to drive American model cars (perhaps the translator’s work) and the police are routinely armed. The investigation is unusual in that all of the victims are already dead. Yet, despite this, their corpses are on the move, and there is very little in the way of evidence to suggest how or why:

“All the corpses disappeared at night, there was no evidence on the scene, no signs of forcible entry.”

After the latest incident, all roads were immediately closed and the area locked down, but no body was found. Only police consultant Dr Sciss seems to bring any insight into the events by “preparing a statistical breakdown of all the phenomena.” But how relevant are his measurements and observations? What should we make, for example, of the fact that an animal (“in two cases it was a cat and once it was a dog”) is spotted near the scene? As is often the case with Lem’s work, beneath the criminal investigation, a philosophical investigation is taking place, into the scientific method and the possibility that observations are created by the observer’s mind rather than what is being observed. This is demonstrated shortly after Gregory is assigned the investigation when he mistakes his reflection for a stranger:

“Unable to escape the disconcerting feeling that he was looking at someone else, Gregory stared at his own reflection for a moment.”

Later in the opening chapter he will chase, but fail to catch, an old man he first recognises on the Tube:

“The sleeping man was the subject of one of the posthumous photographs in his pocket.”

This also introduces a Kafkaesque atmosphere which sits alongside the police procedural, as, for example when the Chief Inspector Sheppard asks to see Gregory at his house:

“The hall was completely dark. Farther inside the house, a weak glow streaked the stairs in a trail of light, beckoning upward… Gregory noticed something staring at him from overhead – it was the skull of some kind of animal, its looming empty eye sockets clearly standing out from the yellowed bone.”

Sheppard also seems to have an uncanny ability to know where Gregory is, phoning him at a hotel and, later, at Sciss’ house. This is probably just as well as Gregory rarely goes near a police station, nor does he seem keen to work with others on the force. Gregory’s own lodging amount to a room he rents from an odd couple, the Fenshawes. Mrs Fenshawe spends her days cleaning the house from a stool, while Mr Fenshawe (“a melancholy man who, because his nose looked as if it had been borrowed from a different more fleshy face, gave the impression of being in disguise”) is silent all day and produces a “rhythmic knocking” all night.

Having been tasked with solving the case, Gregory is awoken by a call to tell him of a further incident in Pickering where a policeman (on guard at a mortuary) has been run over after running into the road in fright (Lem seems to have borrowed some placenames from Yorkshire, or imagined it was closer to London than it is). He discovers a body is missing and assumes this is what disturbed the constable, though he is too badly injured to be questioned. There are plenty of clues: footprints in the snow, a cat (but no paw prints), and the possibility the corpse could have been moved by river, but Gregory is no further forward. Sciss, using cancer statistics, proposes a microbe which can reanimate dead bodies; Gregory begins to suspect Sciss and follows him.

The Investigation has all the elements of a classic crime novel. There are clues, theories, interrogations, characters being chased and characters being watched, but Lem’s aim is not to tie everything up in a reader-pleasing bow. The case is closed when Sheppard proposes an entirely new version of events. “Is this true?” Gregory asks him:

“No… but it might be. Or, strictly speaking, it can become the truth.”

Aficionados of the genre may find this too much to take, but those who wish to have a little fun with it (yet with serious intent) will find this novel hard to resist.

Lost Books – Hospital of the Transfiguration

June 16, 2019

Hospital of the Transfiguration was Stanislaw Lem’s first novel, written in 1948 but only later published in his native Poland. Its English translation, by William Brand, did not appear until 1988. Though Lem is best known as a writer of science fiction, Hospital of the Transfiguration is set in Poland shortly after the German invasion of 1939. Lem signposts this immediately when its central character, Stefan, arrives at Nieczawy for a family funeral to discovers a memorial to Poland’s ‘Sons’, “Faithful to Her Until the Hour of Their Death” with a September 1939 date. He thinks of this again later when the family gather for a meal after the burial:

“The memory was triggered because unanimity in the family was rare, usually forthcoming only after funerals, and although nobody had died last Christmas, the intensity of shared sorrow had been similar – the occasion was the burial of the fatherland.”

This is perhaps one reason why, when he meets Staszek, whom he knows from their time in medical school together, he gives some consideration to the idea that he might join him on the staff of the asylum where he works:

“It’s like being outside the Occupation, in fact it’s even like being outside the world!”

It is the fact he is unable to board the overflowing train back home, however, which finally makes up his mind to join Staszek on his “tiny island in a really weird sea.”

Much of the novel goes on to describe life in the asylum. Stefan, unsurprisingly, finds this unsettling at first, especially when he is initially placed on the women’s wing. Lem is particularly good at illustrating the erratic behaviour of the inhabitants which Stefan finds difficult to interpret:

“The naked woman inside was throwing her body against the padded walls as if it were a sack. Her eyes met Stefan’s and she froze. For an instant she was a normal human being. “

“The nurses,” according to Staszek, “are completely unqualified, so they are a little callous, a little brutal. In fact, they do some pretty rotten things.” The staff too – as is traditional in any novel set in an asylum – have their own versions of ‘normal’, and there are also complex internal politics at play:

“Webs of intrigue were spread throughout the hospital, discreetly awaiting any newcomer’s first misstep.”

Lem was, of course, a doctor (though he did not, to my knowledge, work in an asylum) and the hospital scenes are vivid to the point of grotesque, particularly one of an operation to remove a brain tumour:

“He was drawing a needle across the cortex. The brain was deeply open and there was more and more necrotic mass, fusing with the spirals and convolutions. Stefan looked at the wound, which gaped like an open mouth.”

For conversation, Stefan is increasingly drawn to Sekulowski, an inmate who suffers from literature rather than madness. It seems highly likely that Sekulowski is, to some, extent, a mouthpiece for Lem, producing a series of wonderful aphorisms regarding writing, for example:

“The only writers who have any peace of mind are the ones who don’t write.”


“For the reader it is an attempt at escape. For the creator, an attempt at redemption.”

The Occupation is not entirely forgotten as Stefan befriends a couple of workers at a nearby power station who are rumoured to be hiding weapons. One in particular, Woch, he fails to warn when he fears he may be in danger, and we have an early indication of the threat the Germans pose:

“He figured he had the German all wrapped up, but the German is a fox, too, and came at night and took him away like a chicken.”

Eventually the Germans (with Ukrainian troops) come to the asylum with their own solution to the psychological problems of the patients:

“Every nation is like an organism. Sometimes the body’s sick cells need to be excised.”

The moral problem this creates for the doctors might remind us that Stefan was earlier reading Lord Jim.

Hospital of the Transfiguration is, of course, an interesting curio for Lem’s admirers (at one point, for example, Sekulowski tells Stefan, “I’ve been dreaming of writing the history of the world from the point of view of another planetary system”) but it also an accomplished novel in itself. It demonstrates our powerlessness in the face of insanity, both inside and outside the asylum; in that sense it is as relevant as ever.

The Chain of Chance

June 5, 2016

chain of chance

Although The Chain of Chance retains some of the science fiction elements we associate with Stanislaw Lem’s fiction, it is, in essence, a detective novel – or, perhaps we should say, Lem’s exploitation of the detective novel to his own ends. Whereas the genre traditionally begins with a murder, and therefore a murderer to be discovered, the investigation in The Chain of Chance is a result of a series of mysterious deaths, where numerous coincidences lead to the assumption of a murderer. These coincidences become the investigation as, when the novel opens, our narrator is attempting to mimic their pattern as he recreates the journey of one of the victims:

“I should actually have felt relieved knowing that by tomorrow I would be shedding my false skin, because not for a moment did I believe I was tempting fate by sleeping in Adams’ pajamas, shaving with his razor, and retracing his steps around the bay. Nor was I expecting an ambush along the way – no harm had come to him on the highway – and during my one night in Rome I was to be given special protection.”

This, naturally, creates tension as he attempts to decipher the random events which occur around him – for example a woman fainting (“The more convinced I became the fainting spell was real, the less sure I was of it”) – and re-enact the random events of Adams’ journey – like changing a tyre. As he later explains:

“It’s a jigsaw puzzle… a puzzle consisting of numerous pieces; each of them is distinct enough on its own but when fitted together they make for an indistinct whole.”

Poison is suspected as the victims demonstrate a violent change in personality before dying, often at their own hands. They are generally of a certain type: middle-aged men, athletic – but not in the condition they once were – balding, suffering from hay-fever, with links to a particular health clinic. It reads like the work of a serial killer – though I suspect this genre was largely unknown in 1975 – but the mentality of a policeman is not what is need to solve this case:

“That mentality is alright for prosecuting criminals but not for proving whether in fact a criminal exists.”

Lem also includes another form of murder in the novel – a terrorist attack on an airport (lest we forget, terrorism was well-known in Europe in the 1970s). This takes place at a new terminal specifically designed to thwart such attacks – Lem is making the point that nothing is fool proof in the face of chance. Though the narrator senses what is about to happen, he fails to prevent the explosion, but saves a young girl as he knocks her from the automated walkway, following immediately behind, onto the ‘floor’ below:

“I encountered something soft and wet which gave way under me like foam until I landed in a freezing liquid… It must have been a tank designed to soften the impact of a shock wave.”

Lem’s description of this technology demonstrates that his imagination can sometimes overwhelm narrative necessity, but the intention to contrast the two types of ‘murder’ is clear, the terrorist attack being:

“The classic example of a modern crime. Premeditated and at the same time accidental.”

Though it is planned, its victims are random; in the case of the deaths being investigated it is the other way round: the victims seem ‘chosen’ but the invetigators cannot fathom a ‘plan’ behind the killings.

The Chain of Chance doesn’t display the imaginative bravura of The Cyberiad, but it does make for an engrossing mystery, and one which, when the solution is revealed, makes Lem’s philosophical point without breaking the rules (i.e. the clues presented in the narrative are clues). The translation, by Louis Iribane, leans heavily on American vernacular at times, which is at least better suited to the detective genre than science fiction, though the line “displayed on the poster was an enormous fanny” did make me wonder if I had accidentally wandered into Trainspotting. What is clear in any language is Lem’s restless inventiveness and his refusal to be constricted by whatever genre he writes in.

The Cyberiad

February 11, 2016


Stanislaw Lem is a writer who has not been well served by UK publishers or (apparently) translators – a number of his books having been translated into English via other languages. It is therefore a pleasure to discover Penguin Modern Classics releasing The Cyberiad (which was followed this year by The Star Diaries). Both are translated by Michael Kandel who clearly, judging from the amount of word play involved, has a very good grasp of Lem’s intentions. (They are not new translations, however, the English language version of The Cyberiad appearing in 1974, nine years after its Polish publication).

Hopefully the Classics imprint will attract new readers who may previously have been scared off by the pigeon-holing of Lem’s work as science fiction. While it certainly contains many of the elements we associate with the genre (robots, space travel, alien planets) it doesn’t read like any other science fiction I have come across. The writer I was most reminded of was Italo Calvino: the same playfulness, one minute embracing, the next disregarding convention, and an imagination constantly punching through to the next dimension. The Cyberiad is a series of stories centred on two ingenious inventors, or ‘constructors’ as they are called, Trurl and Klapaucius, friends, colleagues and rivals, whose ability to create seems only to be limited by Lem’s imagination. In the first story, Trurl invents a machine which can create anything beginning with n; once satisfied it works he invites Klapaucius to inspect it. His friend sets to work testing the machine eventually asking it to “do Nothing.”

“The constructors froze, forgetting their quarrel, for the machine was in actual fact doing Nothing, and it did it in this fashion: one by one, various things were removed from the world and the things, thus removed, ceased to exist, as if they had never been.”

In the second story Trurl builds a thinking machine but when he tests it with the traditional inquiry as to what two plus two is, it replies seven. Even with Klapaucius’ help the machine cannot be fixed, and when Trurl loses his temper and kicks it, the machine takes offence and is soon chasing them through the town leaving devastation behind it:

“For the machine, in stubborn pursuit, was plowing through the walls of the buildings like a mountain of steel, and in its wake lays piles of rubble and white clouds of plaster dust.”

Throughout the stories it is the constructors very human flaws and reactions, despite their genius, that create much of the humour, whether directed at their creations, or at each other. In ‘A Good Shellacking’ Trurl presents Klapaucius with a “Machine to Grant Your Every Wish.” Suspecting that Trurl has hidden inside the machine in order to spy on him, Klapaucius asks it to create a Trurl whom he proceeds to beat on the basis that it isn’t the real Trurl.

Much of the book consists of a series of ‘sallies’ were the constructors “sally forth” into the universe and offer their services to various rulers. (At one point they rearrange the stars to create an advert). As well as serving these rulers, Trurl and Klapaucius frequently have to outwit them. Beginning with two warring kingdoms, they decide to separate and each offer his genius to one, but agree on a plan to ensure that neither of them has to destroy the other. This is not the only engagement which leads them into danger: a request from King Krool to create a beast worthy of his hunting skills reveals he does not liked to be left disappointed:

“I only know that no-one yet has satisfied me, and the scream of terror they invariably give as they plummet to the bottom doesn’t last quite so long as it used to.”

And so it goes on. The Cyberiad seems to be not so much a celebration of science but of fiction. Trurl and Klapaucius’ machines are creations rather than inventions, relying on imagination not scientific discovery. Their plans rely on the logic of narrative rather than reason. On this basis it seems almost accidental that Lem wrote something that looked like science fiction; whatever genre he chose it seems likely he would have transformed and transcended it.