The Polish Elephant

by Fiona McFarlane

MrozekIn my last post, about Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa, I spoke a little about fables – Stevenson’s interest in them and his particular admiration for a translation of international fables into Samoan. I find this timely for a few reasons, the first of which is that I’m currently reading the very short fable-like stories of Polish writer Sławomir Mrożek, released by Penguin Central European Classics in a collection called The Elephant.[1] The second reason is that at the end of August I attended the third China Australia Literary Forum here in Sydney – a conference in which Chinese and Australian writers met to discuss all manner of things, including the limitations and successes of translation. The form of the fable – the succinct tale, typically involving animals, that carries a moral message – is relevant to questions of translation and regionalism precisely because fables appear in the literature of every country, from Aesop to the Pantrachanta to La Fontaine’s courtly satires. And because fables are short, frequently comic, and often trivialized as children’s literature, they function particularly well as small subversive weapons with which to poke (in fun, or not) at political regimes.

So are fables universal? One of the CALF panelists, A Lai – a Chinese writer of Tibetan descent – is the editor of Science Fiction World, which has the largest circulation of any sci-fi magazine in the world.  After discussing the complications of regionalism in relation to Western expectations of Tibet as an idealised Shangri-La, A Lai was asked to comment on regionalism in science fiction: does the Earth, or our galaxy, become a region? His answer was that if American writers write about Mars, you can tell it’s American Mars, and if Chinese writers write about the moon, you can tell it’s the Chinese moon. And I think it’s the case that if Sławomir Mrożek writes a fable, you can tell it’s Polish – or can tell, at least, that it was written in the light (or shadow) of Communist Europe. The Elephant was published in 1957, and it seems quite extraordinary that he wasn’t required to emigrate until the late 60s – these stories mock Party protocol as much as they do the bourgeoisie. Yes, in ‘Birthday’ a wealthy lawyer and his wife keep a ‘tamed progressive’ in their drawing-room like a parakeet. But in ‘A Silent Hero’ a civil servant suffers a fatal addiction to propaganda – his plan to grow clover ‘in the likeness of one of the leaders or a hero of labour’ is one of his more reasonable (because not lethal) ideas. And in ‘Letter From an Old People’s Home’, the residents are ruled by the iron fist of youngster (at the age of 75) Comrade Glus, who decides the elderly Miss Noga wears her hair in plaits in order to make fun of People’s China.

The title story, ‘The Elephant’, is so cheerfully absurd it made me laugh out loud on a crowded Sydney train – a dangerously human thing to do. It tells of a provincial zoo whose director, while agreeing that all zoos require an elephant (‘Three thousand rabbits were a poor substitute for the noble giant’), decides to economize by manufacturing the animal out of rubber: ‘The money saved in this way can be turned to the purchase of a jet plane.’ The difficulty of making an inflatable rubber elephant is that it must be inflated, and this dizzying task falls to two keepers who are soon exhausted by the amount of breath it takes to fill an elephant, even an ‘exceptionally sluggish’ one. The consequences of their creative solution to this problem are so simple and so perfectly timed, they’re a kind of exquisite literary slapstick.

The bureaucratic absurdity of these fables is of the kind usually referred to as Kafka-esque. Another CALF panellist spoke of a strange encounter with an indignant Czech thief at a literary festival in Prague – by the end of a long and surreal ordeal involving foreign poets and reluctant, card-playing policeman, the panellist had a new insight into Kafka’s realism. Mrożek is certainly in conversation with Kafka – or both writers are part of a Central European conversation in which a certain species of the absurd was particularly primed to flourish. But there’s an additional quality to these fables – a kind of extravagantly performed naivety, Kafka with a knowing wink – that feels very specific to post-Communist literature, and this makes it all the more extraordinary that Mrożek, who is better known as a playwright, wasn’t banned until after his criticism of the Polish invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. I recognise in The Elephant the same conscious childlikeness of one of my favourite contemporary Russian writers, Tatyana Tolstaya, whose post apocalyptic parable The Slynx is by turns terrifying and hilarious.

But I think, also, of a recent book a little closer to home – Ceridwen Dovey’s Only the Animals, which was published by Penguin Australia in 2014.[2] Each story in Dovey’s collection (with one wonderful exception) speaks in the voice of the soul of an animal killed as a result of human conflict and in relation to the work of at least one writer: Colette’s cat in the trenches of World War I, a camel on the road with Henry Lawson, the trained monkey from Kafka’s ‘A Report to An Academy’, a dolphin trained by the US Navy who writes Sylvia Plath a letter about motherhood. The book is a beautiful interrogation of what it means to be human – how strange that is, how ludicrous and dangerous and complex and at the same time how tender – and at the same time a very smart investigation of the symbolic and literal ways we’ve entangled non-human animals in our persistent humanness. It’s also frequently very funny. And while Dovey’s stories are more involved than Mrożek’s fables – Dovey achieves a virtuosity that Mrożek was never aiming for – they share a similar kind of laughter.

One of the delights of an event like CALF is the acknowledgment – or reminder – that books are capable of speaking across time and space in extraordinary ways, so that Sławomir Mrożek and Ceridwen Dovey can end up sitting quite comfortably together in the same blog post. Another charming similarity is that both books are illustrated: Dovey’s with star maps for each of her super-signified animals, and the Penguin Classics Elephant with reproductions of Daniel Mróz’s wonderful illustrations, with all their frank faces and beautiful absurdities of scale. These two books may not have met before, but what a pleasure it’s been to introduce them.

[1] Sławomir Mrożek, The Elephant, trans Konrad Syrop, London: Penguin, 2010.
[2] Ceridwen Dovey, Only the Animals, Melbourne: Penguin Books Australia, 2014.