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The Elephant by Sławomir Mrożek

In this remote village of ours we are in the grip
of terrible ignorance and superstition.
It’s a wonder that Sławomir Mrożek lived to be 83. Maybe the post-Stalin regimes of Georgy Malenkov, Nikolai Bulganin and Nikita Khrushchev were less likely to pitch a critical satirist into an unmarked grave or have him dragged off to winter in Siberia than was Uncle Joe. Maybe he just wasn’t widely read and therefore not deemed a threat. Or perhaps his support of the Stalinist persecution of religious leaders in Poland and his membership of the Polish United Workers’ Party (until he defected) stood him in historical stead good enough so that he didn’t find himself on the sharp end of a radioactive umbrella. Because frankly, having read The Elephant, published in 1957 but not banned until 1968, it’s hard to see anyone in the Soviet bureaucracy letting this level of criticism go unpunished.

Take the titular story, The Elephant, one of 42 similarly absurd political satires in this slim volume. A provincial zoo, lacking “all the important animals” is awarded an elephant by the Party, much to the surprise and delight of the zookeepers. However, the head ‘keeper decides it’s in the Party interests to not spend the money on an expensive animal and instead let him have an inflatable rubber elephant to display. It will look good enough and can be passed off as an exceptionally sluggish animal, should questions arise. So, two zookeepers spend the night inflating it with gas (as this is the quicker and more effective method) only for it to slip its moorings and sail off over the heads of a group of schoolchildren just as their teacher is relating the incredible weight of a fully grown elephant. The children decide they no longer believe in elephants and become hoodlums and truants.

For zoo read Poland, for head zookeeper read high-level local party bureaucrat eager to make an impression in Moscow, for lazy zookeepers read the corrupt party members, for children read the innocent populace at large, and make your own mind up about the fake elephant filled with gas…. I know next to nothing about Poland’s history (at least I didn’t before I quickly scanned the Wiki page) and it’s pretty damned clear what Mrożek is driving at. The Economist anoints Mrożek as “an ideal foil to Solzhenitsyn’s forensic tomes” and Solzhenitsyn at least got to spend a few years in labour camps for his dissident trouble.

In a book that opens with the line, “In this remote village of ours we are in the grip
of terrible ignorance and superstition,” you know he’s not pulling any punches, and even some of the more absurd (if that’s a definition you want to apply) stories carry a hefty weight of satire, laced through with genuine humour and warmth. In truth it could be levelled at any totalitarian regime, but it has the special savour of Homo-Sovieticus, that mix of the comedic and tragic that could only have sprouted beneath the jackboots of Mother Russia. There’s a story about children who become the focus of party censorship because of their dissident snowmen, one about a woman who, on confessing to her priest that her husband is made of plasticine, refuses to countenance an annulment because, as she says, “Father, that's impossible—we have children!”, and a man who becomes an object of suspicion because he lays a wreath without having to be told to do so by the Party. It’s all quite absurd, and quite acerbic, but also acknowledging the tragedy of Polish history. As Mrożek reportedly said:
Tragedies happen, but it means nothing. This is probably the essence of tragedy.


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