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Salient. Victoria University of Wellington Students' Newspaper. Volume 31 Number 15, July 9, 1968

Books — Ugupu-Sex, booze and politics

page 13


Ugupu-Sex, booze and politics

Slawomir Mrozek: The Ugupu Bird. Translated by Konrad Syrop. Published by Macdonald, London. Distributed by Whitcombe and Tombs. 170pp. N.Z. Price $2.80. Reviewed by Nevil Gibson.

Poland has been mainly known in the West for its film industry since the Communists came to power after the war. Recently, however, more and more Polish writers are being translated into English. Last year Penguin published an anthology, Polish Writing Today, and this year Selected Poems by Zbigniew Herbert, The anthology went some way toward presenting a brief cross-section of fiction and poetry by writers living in Poland.

The anthology doesn't contain anything by Witold Gombrowicz, author of Ferdydurke and Pornographia, as he no longer lives in Poland. Many of the included authors do display, however, some familiarity with and influence of his peculiar ironic wit and perception. Gombrowicz is "apolitical" in the sense that he was not subjected to indignities of philistine Stalinism. He prefigured the movement in East European literature after the "thaw" towards apolitical satire, even cynicism.

Now that the bankruptcy of Stalinism has been revealed, it is still difficult to assess how much freedom is assured. In 1966 two young Poles, Jacek Kuron and Karol Modzelewski, were imprisoned for circulating a "Trotskyist" manifesto. Other leading intellectuals, including philosopher Lesek Kolakowski, have also experienced the heavy hand of authority and if not imprisoned, have been expelled from their academic posts.

Another writer not included in the Penguin anthology is Slawomir Mrozek, presumably because some of his work is available in English. Already published are a volume of short stories, The Elephant, and a play, Tango, just out in the new Cape Editions paperback series. Tango was performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company (famous for Marat/Sade etc.) in 1966. A new volume of short stories, The Ugupu Bird, has also just appeared.

Included in this volume are a dozen very short stories, some no more than sketches resembling Brecht's political and moral cautionary fables, and five longer stories. Slawomir Mrozek is deeply concerned with the morality of politics, and some of his best satirical wit is contained in such stories as "An Application", in which the government of the world is sought by an individual because he is the "best", not the "strongest" ("So my chances must be at least equal, if not greater, because I have no army and I am the best").

In the other short-short stories Mrozek pursues surealist fantasy: an encounter with a three-arm man; a boy who becomes an infant prodigy through hefty blows from his Guardian Angel only to blow up his home and set off for South America chased by the Angel wanting to give him a good kick in the pants; the railway carriage masquerade where all turn out to be secret servicemen; the Count who obtains sexual satisfaction only when infantry march beneath his window, an orchestra plays and a polar bear appears on a rock—but when he diverts the wealth of the state to this end the inevitable revolution brings an ironic ending.

These little stories are wholely enjoyable if at times they appear too flip. The longer stories are even more rewarding. The title story is a weird account of nature's balance which, it seems, is dependent on man's two main preoccupations, sex and booze. The droppings of the Ugupu bird (oz. to one pint of water) can be made into alcohol. The political moral of the mutual interdependence and non-interference of nature and man's meddling should not escape the reader.

Of the longer stories the most interesting is "Ad Astra" which relates the bizarre happenings when invaders from outer space takes the form of creative geniuses who rapidly usurp the existing humans and their weaknesses in all cultural activities. Their novels are perfect and for the first time everyone wants to read books. The same applies to the theatre, films and music. In a vain attempt to prevent their extinction, the rejected artists band together to confront their united enemy, only to find that their differences cannot be overcome, even though it means their end.

Mrozek is an entertaining and simple writer (his tone is presented well by the translator, Konrad Syrop), a refreshing tonic from the usual turgid, pedestrian stuff churned out of the "socialist realism" mill.