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  • Writer's pictureJoseph Patrick Pascale

They’re Only Pretending to Use Urinals: Comic Literary Fiction

Updated: Jun 24, 2018

Witold Gombrowicz:


Witold Gombrowicz’s novels are chock full of absurdity, so perhaps it’s natural that we find some hilarious moments thrown in. His writing styles are highly original, and his own personal philosophical concepts underlie the characters and events in his fiction, providing a lot of depth to what may appear to be silly, farcical stories on the surface.

Any look one takes at Gombrowicz invariably focuses on his unique biography, but in Gombrowicz’s novel Trans-Atlantyk, Gombrowicz himself presents to his readers the most fateful decision of his life. Of course, Trans-Atlantyk is absurd, fantastical, and written in an archaic Polish form as a mockery (the English translation is written in a kind of ersatz 17th Century English), but it does feature a narrator named Witold Gombrowicz, who finds himself sent to Buenos Aires as a Polish literary representative, and when World War II breaks out in Europe with the Nazis invading Poland, Witold does not choose to get back on board the ship with the others and return to Europe to join the war. He remains in Argentina for dubious reasons, just as the real Witold Gombrowicz did, where he found himself poor, unable to speak Spanish, and in exile for more than 20 years. (He also wasn’t doing himself any favors by writing a novel in Polish that could only be read by his fellow Polish émigrés, but using such ancient Polish that it was difficult for even them to read, and insulting the whole Polish immigrant culture in Argentina while he was at it! It seems safe to say he didn't get into writing for the money!)

Museum Witold Gombrowicz in Wsola, branch of the Museum of Literature in Warsaw. Photo by Zoobek

As Jerzy Jarzebski writes in The Exile and Return of Writers from East-Central Europe: A Compendium, "All of the actions of the protagonist-Gombrowicz described in the novel are outrageously unworthy and dishonorable from the point of view of the patriotic tradition of emigration." This fits in with Gombrowicz’s iconoclastic themes. The novel pits the “Fatherland” against the “Sonland.” Inthe book’s introduction, Stanislaw Baranczak describes Gombrowicz’s decision thus, “What Gombrowicz the narrator refuses to suffer any more—taking the dramatic yes-or-no question of his return as an opportunity to make a clean break with his half-hearted compliance—is the overwhelming power of stereotype, of What Is Expected from You, of (to use the term Gombrowicz adopted in his essays and diary) Form.”

I’d just like to note that my Gombrowicz quotes are from theoriginal translation of Trans-Atlantyk by Carolyn French and Nina Karsov, but a second translation by Danuta Borchardt was published in 2014. This article in the Quarterly Conversationdiscusses the two versions.

Nevertheless, highly relevant to our discussion here—to this entire Comic Moments in Literary Fiction series on this blog—Susan Sontag writes in the introduction to the new translation,

“[Gombrowicz's] third, tongue-in-cheek, message has a more universal portent: issues between individuals and nations can be so horrific that nothing but humongous laughter may deliver salvation."

The narrator Gombrowicz of Trans-Atlantyk finds a job with other Polish émigrés, and he has a lot of dealings with three of the employees (The Baron, Ciumkala, and Pyckal), who the narrator finds quite buffoonish. They encounter him at a dance hall and insist on buying him drinks. They start arguing with each other about who will treat Gombrowicz, and Gombrowicz tries to give them the slip by excusing himself to the restroom, but he can’t get away:

“...and I quickly made off. I enter the Privy, they after me. There was one man who was making water into a Urinal. I to a urinal. They to urinals. But when that man who had been making water left, they jointly at me.”

(FYI, this is all [SIC] per above note on his style and all ellipses are in the original)

Now that they have Gombrowicz alone, the three employees try to give money to each other, which can be used to treat Gombrowicz so they can get into his good favor:

“And Ciumkala to the Baron: ‘Here, have six hundred.’ And Pyckal to Ciumkala: ‘Here seven hundred, have seven hundred. Take when I’m giving!’ They take cashes out, brandish them under noses for themselves, for me, and press them each on the others! Haply they are Madmen!
“I reckoned then that, although they are giving these Cashes each to the others amongst themselves, they would fain give me these Cashes to purchase my favor . . . save that they feel awkward for want of daring with me. Ergo I say: ‘Do not fever yourselves, Gentles, easy, easy.’ Yet they were but seeking a way to press these Cashes on me, and at length the Baron clasped his head: ‘Aye me, my pocket is torn. I’d better give my Cashes to you as I may lose them!’ . . . and he started to press the Cashes on me. Seeing that, the others also press theirs: ‘My pocket is torn, too. Take mine’ —‘And mine.’ Say I: ‘For God’s sake, gentles, to what end do you give?’ . . .But at this moment someone came in for the need, so they to Urinals, unbutton, whistle, as if naught, as if for the need . . . Only when that someone who had come in went out, they at me again, and since they have become more daring, they indeed thrust the Cashes on me and ‘Take, take’ they chorus. Say I: ‘In the name of the Father and the Son, gentlemen, to what end do you give, what purpose you your cashes with me?’ In this moment, however, someone came in for the need, so they to Urinals, whistle . . . but as soon as we were left alone, again they lept at me and Pyckal roared: ‘Take, take when you are given, take, take for he has three hundred or four hundred Millions!’—’Take not from Pyckal; take from me,’ cried the Baron, whirring and buzzing as a wasp, ‘from me take, as, for God’s sake, he may have even four hundred or five hundred Millions!”

This plays out like a side-splitting skit in my mind’s eye. At first, they’re trying to be coy with the money to impress Gombrowicz, but then they realize someone is coming into the bathroom and they all run to a urinal and cartoonishly whistle, pretending to use the facilities until that guy leaves. Then, like a cartoon character coming up with a new scheme, one of them says there’s a hole in his pocket, so Gombrowicz should take the money, and like clowns, the others say they’ve also got holes in their pockets and shove their money at him—But they all need to put the money away and rush to a urinal as they realize someone else is entering the restroom!

This goes on for a while longer until they finally wear him down:

“Wishing not to be disagreeable any longer, I let them press the Cashes on me. Then all to urinals as Someone was just coming in.”

Things after this continue to intensify for the narrator, as the guy he’s there with shoves him some money under the table and tells him to invite his countrymen over to drink with them, and the wild ride continues, but the scene in the bathroom really tickles me. I also noticed the ingenious way Gombrowicz uses the “In the name of the Father and the Son” curse like a standard “OMG!” curse, but it serves the double purpose to reinforce the struggle between Fatherland and Sonland that lies at the heart of the narrative. If you liked the taste of Gombrowicz offered through this wacky scene, you would certainly enjoy reading more. An easier read would be his novel Ferdydurke (translates to something like “Fiddle-Faddle”). The hook is that an adult’s old schoolteacher shows up at his house and transforms him back into a little kid. ---------------------------------------------------------- Joseph Patrick Pascale - How to Get a Promotion When Your Boss Is Trying to Kill You (Accurate Accounts of Office Work: Book 1), a comic literary novel coming from Waldorf Publishing in July 2018


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