Polish writer Tadeusz Konwicki’s 1969 novel Zwierzoczłekoupiór (The Anthropos-Spectre-Beast) may be regarded as a children’s tale, but it is just as much a mapping of the social and cultural order after the events of the so-called Polish March 1968. Its escapist note reflects the isolation and despair felt by individuals in the crisis of commonality – when both the hopes for the political reform of communism and for an interethnic commonity in solidarity had failed and borders within society had been re-drawn.
March 1968 marks the “pacification” of youth protests for more cultural and political freedom and the reformation of the political system. The protesting students and young workers were beaten and repressed by the authorities, and their activism was constructed by officials and the media to be based on elitism and “Zionist” agitation. The authorities managed to “mobilise” workers to protest against the protestors and to demand a return “to studies” for the students – and the departure of “cosmopolitan” “Zionists” to “Siam”. Starting with the Six Day War in 1967, Polish anti-Semitism surged up again, accusing Poles of Jewish descent of hostile agitation and wanting to decompose “Poland”. In a wave of ethno-nationalist discriminations and violence, over 10‘000 Poles of Jewish descent were expatriated and forced to leave their country.
These events traumatised not only Poles of Jewish descent, but most of the protestors and Polish society as a whole. This led to a petrification of the bureaucratic system, as individuals were atomised and isolated from each other, mistrusting both interpersonal bonds and their perception of reality. It is in this context that Konwicki’s novel has to be understood.
The framing as a children‛s book finds an explanation in Konwicki’s desolate political situation as a writer. Still, Zwierzoczłekoupiór can be described as “hilarious, but extremely pessimistic post-March” story, even though it shed its darkest parts before publication. Mistrust, misunderstandings and a general feeling of hopelessness towards life’s perspectives dominate in the text. In some situations in the novel, we can even find hints at the 1968 events, both in regard of the suppression of the youth protests and the anti-Semitic campaign.
In Zwierzoczłekoupiór the main figure is an extremely well-read and rational boy called Piotr, who, living in dismal Warsaw with his family, has very pessimistic opinions about the world and his own future. Nonetheless he travels with the talking dog Sebastian on several occasions to another time-space phantasmatically set in the Kresy lands of his father’s youth in order to free a girl called Ewa from Piotrs doppelganger Troip. Only in the end, we find that both plot layers were invented and narrated by a mortally ill boy lying in a hospital.
Dorota Siwor has established an interpretation of Piotr’s travels to the different time-space as some sort of ritual process. She describes Piotr’s experiencing the time-space of the “Vale” (Dolina) as both “on the same level as reality, but he‛s also able to keep a safe distance. In the same way the participant of a ritual treats the mythical tale”. This might be true, but I’d like to add that Piotr has a good deal of “safe distance” also towards his everyday life in Warsaw and the persons he interacts with there. Siwor sees the escape from the Vale together with Ewa as the “overcoming of weakness and the fear of death, the arrangement of one‛s own relation with the world” and hence interprets it as a cathartic element. True enough, Piotr is overwhelmed by the Anthropos-Spectre-Beast (Zwierzoczłekoupiór), as he calls existential fear, when the trio is trapped by rising water in an underground vault, but manages to suppress and overcome it. But instead of staying with his fellows, he “jumps” back to the other world to “get help” against the will of “ritual master” Sebastian, the dog. Even though he manages to free them with explosives from the other world, this “trip” is seen as a betrayal: “you betrayed us – said Sebastian hoarsely.” Because of similar situations occurring throughout the book, I would stress rather the element of the constant instability of the ritual community than the nominal “success” of the process.
From Piotr’s perspective, the cause of rescuing Ewa is a rather obscure venture, in which he takes part without ever knowing the exact reasons. He constantly struggles to work out frames for both Ewa and Sebastian, their past and mutual relation remaining a riddle to him. The community of the three is fleeting even during the liminal phase, none of them giving the full extent of (or true) information for the others to develop a feeling of trust. Even though he shows affection for both Sebastian and Ewa, their bonding is questioned both by Piotr’s feeling of uneasiness and by his sometimes lacking commitment to the cause. Even though the three of them actually manage to get Ewa to the city where she is safe, their parting is not characterized positively, but by a feeling of mistrust: “[Sebastian] looked at me with those eyes of his, which now were not kind at all. […] – […] Because of you everything failed. You cannot be trusted [– Sebastian said].” Piotr is excluded, abandoned and forced to return without knowing what mistakes he actually committed, and what their consequences are. I would therefore say the cathartic element in Zwierzoczłekoupiór is corrupted and leads directly to the depressing state of the dying child in the hospital which cannot muster enough energy to invent two happy endings (it already re-writes the pessimistic ending of the “now-time”).
In Zwierzoczłekoupiór, the “reality” of the figure Piotr living in Warsaw is a bluff directed at the reader, with whom the narrator communicates sporadically throughout the book. Interestingly, the tale told does not invest too much into pretending to be a smooth, logical story. Many questions remain unanswered until the very end, character designs are rather unstable and oscillate between inconsistent images; what the narrator “shows” is sometimes and even intendedly contradictory with what he “tells”: “You could think my mother is a good-natured naive, a house-hen with a golden heart […]. Surely that’s how you thought, because I intently presented mom this way. […] But in reality she’s completely different and want it or not, I have to describe my mother.” To the reader, the figures in Zwierzoczłekoupiór are therefore hardly graspable and seem unconvincing; also, almost no protagonist can attract the sympathy of the reader for a longer time. Every one of them has several character flaws, and their behaviour seems unrelated with characters and changes often; to Siwor this is how Konwicki tells us that “nothing is as it seems”. When Piotr wants to present the “real” character of e.g. his mom or dad, he refers to physical looks only. But even those do not shape a consistent image in the reader’s mind and refer rather to platitudes: “Of course in between the eyes is a nose. A straight, rather small, but on the end just a little bit turned up, for it to look prettier and funnier.”
While the physical looks of Piotr’s family agree with normative beauty, the characters seem to have lost their purpose and a common reference system. In their conversations, they normally talk at cross-purposes and cannot find a common language, as this fragment of a telephone conversation demonstrates: “– Piotruś? – I heard the horrible voice of the monster that is Cecylia. – Probably yes. – I said. – You know, you always answer the phone in an idiotic way. – I kept silent. – What did you say? – yelled Cecylia.” In the perpetual dysfunctioning of communication, we can see the dysfunctionality of the community or society as a whole. Roberto Esposito explains the community (communitas) as building on the duty to return the munus (gift) others are giving us – a reciprocal connection binding us in an unceasing exchange. However, the failing communication points to a misdistribution of munus; a misplacement of information or the refusal to accept it. The figures are unwilling to fulfil their (communicative) duty towards others. The protagonists tend to keep information for themselves, or to give misinformation in both the sense that they give an untrue answer (they lie) or they give answers that do not fit the question asked. The given information lingers erring in the space between the speakers, unable to connect them. In their refusal to communicate properly, the figures remain unmoved, unaffected and hence immobile. The communication does not alter them.
The refusal of answering “properly” and the ignorance for communication is a strategy of immunization, as the subject cuts loose from the implication to interact. Interaction bases on giving and receiving, on establishing certain transmissive bonds. Communication-as-communitas is therefore a performative process of bonding, not implying any other similarities between the speakers than the functioning exchange of expressions. However, in precarious times such as the political and social transformation around 1968, even such an exchange can be perceived as potentially dangerous. The only situations where the protagonists are affected are either negative (Piotr’s parents are continually intimidated and verbally degraded by their friend Cecylia) or characterized through a high instability of the affections transferred (Piotr’s enthusiasm for the girl Majka is continually disrupted by her changing mood towards him). The refusal to communicate and to bond must therefore be seen as a strategy of self-preservation, of preserving a supposedly “whole”, uncontaminated and intact self. But in doing so, in the de-contagion of the self from the others, the life of the novel’s figures loses its purpose.
Dealing with the Other
While Piotr immunises against his fellow protagonists, showing greater accessibility towards science, the main figure of the “Other” is found in Ewunia, the girl Piotr sets out to rescue. Ewunia appears at first to be the classic victim to be saved in her all-white dress. But even narrator Piotr observes, that “in this whiteness there was nothing symbolical nor exceptional, that‛s just how they clothed children”. In contrast to Majka, an “ordinary girl, maybe even a bit ruddy, with light side curls”, Ewa has “dark, maybe even black hair”, “her eyes were a light green outlined with very black eyebrows. In general her face as a whole together with her mouth seemed to me a bit gypsie-ish or somehow eastern.” And although Piotr “liked her a bit, [he] at the same time fears her a bit.” Even though her beauty seems attractive, at times it takes on somewhat nightmarish features: “Now I saw her oval eyes more clearly, but they were vertically oval, not horizontally, and this made a somewhat eerie impression.”
Together with her disturbing looks, Ewa also seems to be somewhat unaccountable, showing signs of lacking loyalty for her rescuers Piotr and Sebastian when she turns opportunistically against them, and giving Piotr a feeling of constant uneasiness about her tale and their mission of freeing her. Taking into account that Ewa “was born on the southern isles, [and her] mother came from these isles”, her tale strikingly reminds one of the depiction of the creole woman Bertha Mason in Charlotte Brontës Jane Eyre (1847). Both female figures are kept hidden and locked away in a mansion, and both haunt the house at night in their respective illnesses. Ewa states: “I know the whole house by heart. When I was ill, I couldn‛t sleep and walked around during whole nights.” But while Bertha Mason is bereft of her own voice in Jane Eyre and had to wait for her plight to be told until 1966 and Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, Ewunia in Zwierzoczłekoupiór is talking all right, but narrated by two men (Piotr as narrator, and Konwicki as author). To Piotr as a self-declared rationalist, the information Ewa gives about herself appears to be especially contradictory as he struggles to define her biography and narrative logic. Again we encounter a process of immunization, as Piotr tries to establish stable categories to frame and define Ewa, even though this might be a negative definition as “untrustworthy”. Through Piotr’s suspicions and rhetorical mechanisms of “testing” Ewa, the reader begins to question Ewa’s narrative as well. Narrator Piotr does not tell us directly about his suspicions, but stages dialogues where Ewa herself seems to deconstruct her accounts. “– And what cycle does your moon have? – What do you mean? – How many day pass from new moon to new moon? – I asked with an unpleasant hope. – How many days? I don’t know. Probably a month. – You don’t know? You, the daughter of an astronomer?” This questioning leads for both Piotr and the reader to affective distancing, to the restriction of interrelational trust and hence to the isolation of Ewa as a body potentially contagious and dangerous. This is even more dramatically true as Piotr’s and Sebastian’s lives are put at risk when they rescue her, but also because Ewa can be read as mentally ill, a term spoken out aloud by her capturer Troip alone. Nonetheless, thanks to direct speech applied in narration the reader can take an “unmediated” glimpse at the consistency or inner logic of Ewa’s accounts, even though these dialogues are framed both by Piotr’s narrations and his questioning Ewa. “– You know [Ewa says], when I was ill I was all the time on this island, where mama was born and I, too. – But you said you fell ill here. – You don’t understand anything.” It is precisely in this last expression that Ewa opens a dimension to a potential other truth, a truth which cannot be grasped by Piotr.
A clash of different time/spaces
Let us return to the dialogue about the moon, which continues like this: “– You don’t know? You, the daughter of an astronomer? – Oh, because I will go to the ballet. I’m very fond of dancing, just like my mother.” Ewa’s ignorance of and disinterest for monthly cycles (in conflict somehow with the referred-to matrilineal tradition) contrasts with Piotr’s encyclopaedic knowledge of scientific development and the general focus on astronomical events throughout the book where a planetoid threatens to destroy Earth, and Piotr gets casted for a science fiction film about a journey to Andromeda. Ewa represents not only a stereotypically female-gendered role leaving the scientific field to male peers, but also an outdated backwardness. Ewa, also in the temporal setting of her world, lives in the past. Her seemingly irrational world does not fit with either Piotr’s worldview nor with the reality of her own time and space. The phantasmatical image of the southern isles and her parents’ marriage got crushed in their collision with the world “here”: “My mother died when I was little because she couldn’t put up with the climate here.”
The only remnants of Ewa’s heritage visible for other people survive in her green eyes (“You probably noticed my eyes. They are from there”), a magic stone and dusty photographical negatives. Piotr: “I saw a negative of some tropical landscape: white palms in front of a black sky, wild animals of completely white colour grazing in black grass. […] Ewa […] waited patiently for me to finish looking at these weird souvenirs which smelled of some sort of sadness or rather of a difficult to explain, senseless hope.” These “souvenirs” stand not only for the leisure travels of Poland‛s nobles and therefore for some sort of tourist colonialism. In their condensed togetherness of different geographical places, they emanate the potentiality of a past time, when the world and its many cultural landscapes seemed – from a European perspective – open to enter into contact and to negotiate a global understanding. However, the negatives splattered with old chemicals lying forgotten in a dusty cellar and supposedly never enlarged into positives, mark quite obviously that such ideas have come out of date. Moreover, even the notion of a functioning, ideal community is in Zwierzoczłekoupiór very strictly located in the past. While the Warsaw depicted by Piotr is full of misunderstandings, quarrels and social isolation, what he encounters in the town in the parallel world is quite the opposite:
“I saw amongst them Jews with side curls, Orthodox priests in ruddy ceremonial clothing, some men with thin moustaches and Crimean taqiyah on their heads, I also saw boys wearing white for their first Communion, I probably even saw a Turk in a red fez, but I’m not sure of this, because there was a terrible crowd, a wild racket of drawn-out, pitiful calls, sudden outbursts of laughter, the squeaking of pipes. And everybody wore a really content expression and no-one reviled anybody, no-one threatened anybody, no-one knocked anybody over. […] [E]verybody smiled at each other, often apologized among each other and no-one held any grudge against anybody. I know this looks a bit unreal and some know-it-all could blaspheme that this is all symbolical. But that’s really how this town looked and something similar can happen after all. My father often talks about his childhood and his town was almost exactly like this.”
In this cultural mixture of a supposedly real town located somewhere “in the East” (Vilnius), where Piotr’s father was born, we can see a depiction of a communitas not bent on similarity or even order, but relying on diversity and interaction while everybody is treating each other equally and with respect. It can therefore be seen as a community of bodies, “joined together by opposition and difference rather than by homogeneity and equality”. Also, for Esposito, bodies or, “the multiplicity of the flesh of the world”, are the historical events from which meaning originates. Elżbieta Feliksiak points out that for Konwicki, the “ethos of plurality” of “the great over-regional homeland was a feeling of responsibility for Poland and the quality of Polishness”, bringing together both immunitas and communitas in the preservation of the self through the inclusion of the other.
However, while this town’s community is culturally and religiously divers and shows a “multiplicity of different perspectives”, there are also perspectives which do not enter an equal level of communication among different bodies. For example, we encounter women only as “greedily eyed” boarding school girls and nuns watching over them. They – especially the girls – appear as managed bodies, enclosed in frameworks of immunization erected both to “protect” them from harm through other (male) bodies (gaze), but also to keep them from gaining their own voice and entering dialogue. The same is true for groups of girls appearing in Piotr’s “real” world, where they appear even more as a “unitary self-identical structure” indifferentiable within themselves, but decidedly distinct from the protagonists and restricted to making indistinguishable noises: “Someone tried to fiercely silence them, but it didn‛t help much. […] [T]he high school girls started to squeak, because the wind lifted their skirts.”
It seems therefore, that the multiplicity of all bodies has not taken place and a gender rift splits the lively Kresy community, which places it more firmly in historical, not utopian ground. As such it really seems a phantasmatical projection of the father‛s memories, as even while the multicultural towns of the former Kresy retrospectively may look temptingly peace- and colourful – especially in post-March perspective –, social realities of these times show us a bit a different image. This effect of an illusionary memory is enhanced by the fact that Piotr is basically pushed out of this world without getting to know the real reason behind Sebastian’s doings, and after a while starts to doubt his travels there ever happened. Overall, Piotr is a child of his own time. His social pessimism makes him prefer “gloomy Scandinavians full of trouble without reason” and reject “people content with life, with a taste for it and bursting with enthusiasm”, how he imagines the communities of the South.
Krystyna Kersten, Polacy, Żydzi, komunizm: Anatomia półprawd, 1939-68, Warszawa 1992, 144 f.
Jerzy Eisler, Marzec 1968: geneza, przebieg, konsekwencje, Warszawa 1991; Andrzej Friszke, Anatomia buntu: Kuroń, Modzelewski i komandosi, Kraków 2010; Kersten, Polacy, Żydzi, komunizm, 143–71; Piotr Osęka, Marzec ’68, Kraków 2008.
Przemysław Kaniecki, Samospalenia Konwickiego, Warszawa 2014, 29.
 Konwicki for example nicknames one of the cinematographers “Komandos”, a name coined for the action groups in Warsaw University before March 1968 and used retrospectively often synonymously for the youth movement in general.
 Kresy are the former Eastern lands of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth; today situated in Belarus and Ukraine.
 Dorota Siwor, ‘Między infantylizmem a dojrzałością, czyli o dzieciństwie w powieściach Tadeusza Konwickiego’, in Kompleks Konwicki: Materiały z sesji naukowej zorganizowanej w dniach 27-29 października 2009 roku przez Wydział Zarządzania i Komunikacji Społecznej UJ oraz Wydział Polonistyki UJ, ed. Aleksander Fiut, Kraków 2010, 111-131, 122.
 Siwor, ‘Między infantylizmem a dojrzałością’, 130.
 Polish original: “skocz[y] tam po pomoc”, Tadeusz Konwicki, Zwierzoczłekoupiór, Wydanie czwarte, Warszawa 1992, 158.
 Polish original: “zdradziłeś nas – rzekł [Sebastian] ochryple”, ibid., 200.
 Polish original: “Spojrzał na mnie tymi swoimi oczami, które teraz nie były wcale poczciwe. […] – Przez ciebie wszystko się popsuło. Tobie nie można wierzyć.” Ibid., 224.
 Polish original: “Bo mogło się wam wydać, że moja mama to taka poczciwinka, kurka domowa nosząca przed sobą złote serduszko […]. Tak wam się pewnie wydawało, bo ja tak specjalnie mamę opisywałem. […] Lecz naprawdę jest zupełnie inaczej i dlatego chcecie, czy nie chcecie, muszę opisać moją mamę.” Ibid., 80.
 Siwor, ‘Między infantylizmem a dojrzałością’, 127.
 Polish original: “Oczywiście pomiędzy oczami jest nos. Prościutki, nieduży, ale, żeby było ładniej i śmiesznej, na końcu troszeczkę, odrobinkę zadarty.” Konwicki, Zwierzoczłekoupiór, 81.
 Polish original: “– Piotruś? – usłyszałem straszliwy głos potwora, czyli Cecylii. – Chyba tak – rzekłem. – No wiesz, ty masz zawsze kretyńskie odezwania. – Milczałem. – Co mówisz? – wrzasnęła Cecylia.” Ibid., 13.
 Roberto Esposito, Communitas: Ursprung und Wege der Gemeinschaft, Berlin 2004, 13 f.
 Sara Ahmed, ‘Collective Feelings. Or, The Impressions Left by Others’, Theory, Culture & Society 21, no. 2 (2004): 25-42, 27.
 Polish original: “w tej bieli nie było nic symbolicznego ani nadzwyczajnego, po prostu tak ubierano dzieci”, Konwicki, Zwierzoczłekoupiór, 173.
 Polish original: “ciemne, a może nawet czarne włosy”; “Jej oczy były jasnozielone, obrysowane bardzo czarnymi brwiami. W ogóle cała jej twarz łącznie z ustami wydała mi się trochę cygańska albo jakaś wschodnia.” Ibid., 47.
 Polish original: “Trochę mi się podobała, lecz jednocześnie trochę się bałem.” Ibid., 137.
 Polish original: “owalne oczy, ale owalne pionowo, nie poziomowo, co robiło trochę niesamowite wrażenie.” Ibid., 144.
 Polish original: “Ja urodziłam się na wyspach południowych, moja mama pochodziła właśnie z tych wysp.” Ibid., 131.
 Polish original: “Znam cały dom na pamięć. Kiedy byłam chora, nie mogłam spać i całe nocy chodziłam.” Ibid., 143.
 Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre: An Autobiography, [S.l.] 1847; Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination, New Haven [etc.] 1979.
 Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea, London 1966.
 Polish original: “– A jaki cykl ma wasz księżyc? – Co to znaczy? – Ile mija dni od nowiu do końca ostatniej kwadry? – pytałem z jakąś przykrą nadzieją. – Ile dni? Nie wiem. Chyba miesiąc. – Nie wiesz? Ty, córka astronoma?” Konwicki, Zwierzoczłekoupiór, 149.
 Polish original: “– Wiesz, kiedy chorowałam, przez cały czas byłam na tej wyspie, gdzie urodziła się mama i ja się również urodziłam. – Przecież mówiłaś, że tutaj chorowałaś. – Nic nie rozumiesz.” Ibid., 151.
 Polish original: “– Nie wiesz? Ty, córka astronoma? – Och, bo ja pójdę do baletu. Przepadam za tańcem tak jak moja mama.” Ibid., 149.
 Polish original: “Moja mama umarła, kiedy ja byłam malutka, bo nie znosiła tutejszego klimatu.” Ibid., 131.
 Polish original: “Pan chyba zauważył moje oczy. One są stamtąd.” Ibid.
 Polish original: “Zobaczyłem negatyw jakiegoś pejzażu podzwrotnikowego: białe palmy na tle czarnego nieba, dzikie zwierzęta zupełnie białe, pasące się w czarnych trawach. […] Ewa […], czekając cierpliwie, aż skończę oglądać te dziwne pamiątki pachnące jakimś smutkiem lub raczej trudno do określenia, bezsensowną nadzieją.” Ibid., 149.
 Polish original: “I widziałem między nimi pejsatych Żydów, prawosławnych popów w rudych ryzach, jakichś mężczyzn z cieniutkimi wąsami, których głowy przykryte były krymkami, widziałem też chłopców ubranych na biało do pierwszej komunii, nawet chyba zobaczyłem jakiegoś Turka w czerwonym fezie, ale nie jestem tego pewien, bo był tam dziki tłok, szalony harmider przeciągłych, jękliwych nawoływań, raptownych wybuchów śmiechu, wizgów piszczałek. A wszyscy mieli miny naprawdę zadowolone i nikt nikomu nie wymyślał, nikt nikomu nie groził, nikt nikogo nie potrącał. […] wszyscy się uśmiechali do siebie, często przepraszali nawzajem i nikt nie miał pretensji do nikogo. Ja wiem, że to wygląda trochę nieprawdziwie i jakiś mądrala mógłyby bluznąć, że to symboliczne. Ale naprawdę tak wyglądało owo miasto i coś podobnego może się przecież zdarzyć. Mój ojciec często opowiada o tym swoim dzieciństwie i jego miasto było prawie zupełnie takie samo.” Ibid., 223.
 Siwor, ‘Między infantylizmem a dojrzałością’, 122.
 Vanessa Lemm, ‘Introduction: Biopolitics and Community in Roberto Esposito’, in Terms of the Political: Community, Immunity, Biopolitics, by Roberto Esposito, New York 2013, 1-13, 10.
 Lemm, ‘Introduction’, 11.
 Elżbieta Feliksiak, Budowanie w przestrzeni sporu: Ethos literatury w sytuacji kryzysu europejskiego pluralizmu (Tomasz Mann, Tadeusz Konwicki, Erica Pedretti), Warszawa 1990, 222.
 Lemm, ‘Introduction’, 11.
 Polish original: “patrzyli chciwie”, Konwicki, Zwierzoczłekoupiór, 223.
 Lemm, ‘Introduction’, 10.
 Polish original: “Ktoś ich gwałtownie uciszał, ale niewiele to pomagało. […] licealistki zaczęły piszczeć, bo wiatr im podrywał spódnice.” Konwicki, Zwierzoczłekoupiór, 188.
 Feliksiak, Budowanie w przestrzeni sporu, 39, 223.
 Polish original: “posępnych Skandynawów, pełnych straszliwej zgryzoty bez powodu. […] ludzie zadowoleni z życia, rozsmakowani w nim i tryskający entuzjazmem.” Konwicki, Zwierzoczłekoupiór, 197.