Wydawnictwo Naukowe UAM, Poznań 2016
A few years ago, the American scholar in literary studies Brett Ashley Kaplan published a monograph entitled Landscapes of Holocaust Postmemory (2010), where she argues that the Shoah and its traces have been present in the output of the South African writer John Maxwell Coetzee. I am using the word “traces” deliberately, as the scholar focuses not so much on direct references to the Holocaust, which, in fact, abound in Coetzee’s late novels, as on the less obvious or noticeable fragments of diegesis in the author’s works, such as the band that Michael K wears on his sleeve (Life & Times of Michael K), or David Lurie’s wound which his daughter’s oppressors burn onto his head and which resembles a kippah (Disgrace). Tracing such varied forms of the presence of the Shoah in Coetzee’s books, Kaplan convincingly argues in favour of considering the South African writer as one of the creators of the eponymous landscapes of Holocaust postmemory – despite the fact that in his case the postmemory has a purely affiliative character, rather than one resulting from a transgenerational transfer of trauma.
Kaplan’s book was often on my mind while reading Agnieszka Gajewska’s Zagłada i gwiazdy – a book which firmly kept my interest from the first page to the last. For if Kaplan has succeeded in revealing in Coetzee’s works the postmemory of the Shoah, Gajewska set out to discover no less than its memory in the oeuvre of Stanisław Lem. “Simple!”, some readers might all too easily say, considering the fact that the hero of Gajewska’s monograph is not an English‑speaking Afrikaner from Cape Town, but a writer born in 1921 in Lviv into a Jewish family assimilated into Polish society, himself a survivor of the Shoah. And yet, as the author admits in the introduction to her book, the task proved exceptionally difficult: not only because Lem researchers had hitherto not written about the Shoah at all or merely placed it on the margins of the author’s (and their own) interests, but above all owing to Lem’s own silence on the subject of his Second World War experiences and his Polish‑Jewish identity. Thus, in a sense, Gajewska decided to go against the grain: against the mainstream critics and her very hero, as she decided to examine Lem’s books in search of the abovementioned traces of the Holocaust, which she calls “narrative cracks” or “shadows” – understood as veiled, but at the same time identifiable references to concrete historical events and personal, auto/biographical experiences. In effect, she undertook to critically revise Lem’s position in Polish literature after the Second World War. According to Gajewska, Lem is not only a writer whose output can be easily placed in the context of fantasy writing or the history of philosophy, but also a figure that ought to be included among the mainstream authors of Polish literature after 1945, including those for whom the Second World War trauma was a constitutive experience (such as the members of the Generation of Columbuses, i.e. Polish writers born ca 1920, or “small realism” writers of the mid‑1960s).
Gajewska certainly deserves congratulations on her original thesis and formulating a new interpretative proposition about Stanisław Lem’s works. The monograph has also other strengths. While reading Zagłada i gwiazdy. I was frequently impressed with the book’s reader‑friendly language (one exception being the irritating avoidance of repeating the writer’s surname by using the formula “the author of…”, e.g. “the author ofThe Star Diaries”, “the author ofThe Cyberiad”) and with its style (clearly and intentionally anti‑hermetical, which has already earned the book favourable reviews in the Polish press and hopefully will translate itself into the book’s popularity not only among literary studies scholars). Equally impressive are the book’s thought‑through mosaic‑like structure (successive chapters are divided into small parts where the author isolates the abovementioned “cracks” or “shadows”) and the author’s courage in combining text analysis with a critical use of sources and application of auto/biographical materials. To uncover the memory of the Shoah in Lem’s works, Gajewska travelled to Lviv to personally see the view from the balcony in the writer’s parents’ flat, spent hours in the city archives and exchanged letters with the writer’s wife. As a result, Lem, according to Gajewska’s metaphor opening the book, emerges as a Cossack Mamay, whose portrait the author encountered during a guided tour in Lem’s Lviv flat: a figure entwined into a “temporal‑spatial paradox” of motion and of lasting, a creator constantly revoking the lost world. While Mamay forever sings about Zaporizhia, Lem obsessively returns to wartime Lviv. According to Gajewska, Pirx the Pilot (and metonymically also other characters populating the fantastical world of Lem’s novels) lives in Lviv.
And here – having expressed my great admiration for Gajewska’s feat – I must address a problem I nonetheless see in her book, namely its attempt to find the real Lem in Lem’s works. Unlike Kaplan, whose interest in such an undertaking would presumably remain fixed on the symbolic references to the Shoah, Gajewska leans towards searching for traces of concrete places and historical events in Lem’s works, and their direct links to the writer’s life. By this token, following the metaphor of Pirx and his home, Lem’s characters are not only immersed in a broadly conceived Holocaust landscape, but become inhabitants of the real (and not imaginary) (inter)war Lviv. One consequence of such a reading of Lem’s books is that genuinely interesting interpretations (e.g. recognition of the tower of the eponymous Hospital of the Transfiguration in the dome of the Israelite Hospital in Lviv) stand side by side with, to put it euphemistically, rather unconvincing ones (Gajewska associates the original name of the planet Kareliria – Cercia in the English translation – with “Kakania”, i.e. “k.k.”, thekaiserlich‑königlich, the Austro‑Hungarian Monarchy, while in the anchorite fromMemoirs Found in a Bathtubshe sees Andrey Sheptytsky, the Metropolitan Archbishop of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in Lviv). Moreover, Gajewska argues in favour of perceiving Lem’s works as “a certain form of personal document”, or “a split autobiography” – in other words, as a kind of auto/biofiction. Again, such a strategy requires tying up novelistic events with auto/biographical ones, while knowledge about the latter in Lem’s case is extremely scarce. There is no doubt that Gajewska’s efforts to reconstruct Lem’s Second World War years – with the help of archives and the writer’s family, among other sources – are considerable, and the parts of the monograph devoted to these experiences belong to the most intriguing ones in the book. The problem is that wherever “evidence” from Lem’s real life is lacking, Gajewska reaches for other historical sources, at the same time assuming a translatability of the knowledge and experiences contained in them into Lem’s individual experience (and then, more broadly, also his characters’). To mention just one example of this problematic “borrowing” strategy: the description of Lem’s “survival” of the July 1941 pogrom is limited to the statement that he lived through the event (in contrast to, for instance, his uncle), accompanied by a footnote providing an account of the tragedy and its aftermath penned not by the author or any member of his family, but by an unrelated Lviv dweller, Kurt J. Levin. The individual story of a rabbi’s son (Levin) in Gajewska’s book becomes thus the story of a secularised Jew (Lem). As a result, the argumentative force of many of Gajewska’s interpretative propositions is weakened owing to her trying too hard to establish connections between the truth and fantasy,biosandgraphe, as well as due to methodological inconsistencies.
More critical remarks could be made about Zagłada i gwiazdy. It is surprising, for instance, that the book whose title seems to suggest a privileged position of science fiction (“the stars”), analyses the genre rather reluctantly, often limiting itself to several sentences of commentary or enumerations. Instead, Gajewska’s main primary sources are: the realist trilogyTime Not Lost (written shortly after the end of the Second World War and considerably different from the rest of Lem’s output) and autobiographical Highcastle. This peculiar selection leaves us to question the validity of Gajewska’s thesis about the presence of the Shoah in Lem’s oeuvre – a problem which is illustrated by the book’s very bibliography of the cited and mentioned works by Lem, whose modest size calls for a much wider commentary from the author. No less surprising are editorial (titles and surnames) and factual errors, for example Przegorzały is described as a town to which Lem travelled to visit Helena and Roman Hussarski. In reality, Przegorzały used to be a village near Kraków, incorporated into the city as early as in 1941; it would thus take Lem only a few minutes by car to reach the two artists’ estate.
Nevertheless, such shortcomings do not change the fact that Zagłada i gwiazdy is an exceptional representative of its genre: thematically original, fascinating and brave. If it is indeed the case that Lem tends to be overlooked in the history of Polish contemporary literature (which omission Gajewska deplores in one of her introductory remarks), the book certainly improves this situation. What is more, it puts Lem at this history’s very centre, while sending a number of his characters to Lviv – even though, in my view, it would be much more justifiable for them to remain in space.
Translated from the Polish by Ewa Kowal