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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.


How's about that then?

Breakfast Of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut

In days gone by, when repeatedly pressed about what my favourite book might be, a banal question seeking an impossible and crude reductionist answer to which I was usually rude in response, I would offer Breakfast Of Champions as a pacifier. 

I first read it in University, and it has, to some degree, influenced how I think and feel about a lot of things. Strikingly, I've never wanted to re-read it. Perhaps I was afraid I'd find fault the second time around and wanted to uphold it as a paragon of meta-fiction. Perhaps, but then I'm a relentless consumer of fiction and was always on to the next consumable work, never having time or inclination to go back.

So in the spirit of a more considered and thoughtful phase of my life I decided I wanted to read something that once made me feel good.

I'd clearly not remembered it very well.

But before that, I'm amazed I've gone *mumbles* years without once mentioning Kilgore Trout in my reviews, even in passing. The same goes fo…

Fup by Jim Dodge

If there was a comfort-food version of a book for me, then this would be it. It's funny, touching, humanistic, and features so many quotable quotes that its trim 120 pages could be represented in its entirety on some such authors' quotations page.

We're introduced to Tiny on the occasion of his mother's death, lured into a treacherously fatal situation by, of all things, a duck, while her 4-year-old son sleeps in the car where he wakes to a terrifying solitude. Meanwhile, we're treated to a potted but entertaining history of Granddaddy Jake, Tiny's grandfather, into whose care by fair means or foul (no pun intended) he is finally placed. But the titular Fup duck comes along only once Tiny is fully grown (and how!). A lost and lonely duckling, much like Tiny, she's discovered shivering in a freshly dug post hole, which betrays the attention paid to it by Tiny's nemesis, a wild hog called Lockjaw, who enjoys tearing up Tiny's fences just as much as he …

Concrete by Thomas Bernhard

I thought I'd talked about Thomas Bernhard here somewhere before - the vitriol, the bitterness, the hilarity that was Old Masters - but it appears not, or, more likely, that I search like I think; superficially. Nevertheless, at least I now have the opportunity to present him for your consideration, albeit with the oily glaze of my opinion applied liberally. 

An Austrian author and playwright, Bernhard had a curious relationship with the land of his birth. He was highly critical of both the people and state, regularly attacking the church, the government, the populace (who he labelled stupid and stubbornly contemptuous) and venerable old institutions like the concert halls and cultural venues of Vienna. Indeed, in his will, he strictly forbade any new productions of his works, both unpublished novels and poems, and stagings of his plays. His characters often deliver long monologues filled with bile and spite, frequently inhabiting considered but oddly irrational-seeming positions. …

Love And Obstacles by Aleksandar Hemon

"When he was young, like me, he said, he used to think that all the great writers knew something he didn't... He was burning to write, he wanted to break through to that fancy knowledge, he was hungry for it. But now he knew that that hunger was vainglorious; now he knew that writers knew nothing, really; most of them were just faking it. He knew nothing. There was nothing to know, nothing on the other side." – The Noble Truth of SufferingYou know me and short stories–I shan't revisit old graves–but every now and again I find a collection, usually with one author, that simply blows me away. Something in them speaks to personae I didn't even know I hid behind. Something rips free the mask, the fiercely clutched identity, fake as you like, and exposes everything. Those authors I fall madly in love with, because I hate them. I detest that they can say things that are as yet unformed zygotes in the barren womb of my mind, not even the germ of a clumsy, badly phrased …