Daniel Alarcón Recommends

“Last year I went through a Polish phase,” Alarcón says. “At one point I was doing some serious ethnic profiling, buying almost every book I came across by an author with a Polish surname. Janusz Anderman, Tadeusz Borowski, Bruno Schulz, Maria Kuncewicz, Jerzy Andrzejewski and of course, Ryszard Kapuscinski. I’m not really sure how to explain this, and I can’t really remember how it began. It’s a strange way to come to know a country, a people, a culture-necessarily incomplete of course, especially given that my knowledge base of Polish history is limited to what I learned in high school and whatever I picked up the summer I stayed with a friend in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. But I don’t really know any Polish folks, have never been there, don’t speak the language-but what struck me was how much I recognized in the work. They say that winners write history, but losers write the literature: I don’t think it’s controversial to say that Poland has lost quite a bit throughout history. My own country-Peru-has done its share as well. Maybe that’s what I recognized: the dark humor, the fatalism, the savage beauty of the prose and the strong, unflappable, acidly funny people these authors described. Everything. I won’t lie. I loved all of it. These writers could be Peruvian, I thought. What’s more, I wished they were. We have our own masters, but still.

The novel that has stayed with me most is A Minor Apocalypse by Tadeusz Konwicki. The copy I found at University of Iowa Library was from an old one, but it turns out it has been re-released by Dalkey Archive Press (God bless Dalkey Archive Press) in an the same excellent Richard Lourie translation. I don’t think I’ve ever read a funnier, sadder, stranger novel. When the novel opens, a older man, a writer, is visited by some Communist dissidents: you’re done, they say. You’ve accomplished all you’ll ever do, probably more than you could have hoped, but let’s face it, you might as well kill yourself. They propose he set himself on fire in front of the Congressional building that evening, in protest. The writer agrees to spend the day thinking it over. And so he does, and we follow him as he half-heartedly prepares for his death, writes his last will and testament (which is outrageously funny) and wanders around a crumbling, chaotic Warsaw that is as much a character as any in the novel. Bridges collapse around him, no one seems to know if it’s warm for fall, or cold for spring-but everyone agrees the weather is very, very strange. People stroll onto the scene, disappear, the action and dialogue is almost continuous with very few breaks. Everything is negotiable, everything is unstable, as the narrator gets drunk, falls in love, avoids friends, makes enemies, and prepares for the inevitable. It’s trite to say that I didn’t want this book to end, but it’s true. Konwicki is the real deal.”

Daniel Alarcón is the author of the story collection War by Candlelight.