Sławomir Mrożek was a Polish playwright and writer, who had spent much of the last half-century in exile. Mrożek died on August 15th 2013 in his home in Nice (France) at the age of 83. On September 17th 2013, Mrożek’s remains will be entombed in the new national pantheon in Kraków (Poland).
On this occasion we are publishing an interview with Małgorzata I. Niemczyńska; a Polish journalist and author of Mrożek’s forthcoming biography.
ŁUKASZ WOJTUSIK: Who would you say Sławomir Mrożek was? A writer? A playwright?
MAŁGORZATA I. NIEMCZYŃSKA: I cannot put Mrożek into pieces. His picture is made up of contradictions – despair and wit; bitterness and laughter; depression and euphoria. One could probably see it best when looking at his Diaries and drawings. For me, the backbone of Mrożek’s creations are his plays.
It is quite well-known that as an author Mrożek had some distance to his work. A Polish cartoonist, Andrzej Mleczko, even once said that Mrożek, not rightly so, never considered himself a great cartoonist. And yet, paradoxically, Poles fell in love with his drawings; their simple lines, witty dialogues. We also have a saying in Polish “as if from Mrożek” (jak z Mrożka), which means something surreal and absurd. How would you explain all this? Do you think that a non-Pole can understand Mrożek’s sense of humour that we, as Poles, love so much?
In my view, Mrożek’s sense of humour is very similar to the British sense of humour. Just think about Monty Python. It is a type of absurd humour which probably not everyone gets. I am not sure if it is related to a nationality. What comes to my mind here is a story when Mrożek played in a film directed by his friend, Janusz Majewski. When the film crew was busy setting up the scene, Mrożek was bored and together with his friend dug a hole in the ground. He entered it and had his picture taken. Everybody laughed at this picture until somebody came up to Majewski and asked what was so funny. The director did not really know how to respond. The man just nodded and said, “There must be something wrong with you all.”
There must be something wrong with me too; as this picture also makes me laugh. Just like many other of Mrożek’s works, especially the series of his drawings with a little boy who saw his dad reading a newspaper, came up to him and asked some questions about different things, like: “Dad where do kids come from?” The dad then answers sadly: “Sorry son, I wish I remembered…”
When I think about Mrożek’s plays, probably the funniest is the one titled The Death of the Lieutenant. Interestingly, its publication created quite a scandal. Some accused Mrożek of disrespecting national values. As you see, not everyone finds Mrożek funny. And thankfully so; as he indeed has so much more to offer.
In that case what was the source of Mrożek’s success? Was Tango the turning point in his literary career?
At the time of the publication of Tango he had already been known in Poland and recognised as an author of short stories. His debut The Police had also been a true success. However, worldwide Mrożek became famous mainly thanks to Tango. This play was really incredible! It was played in all of Europe’s leading theatres. Here another story comes to mind: Erwin Axer, a Polish stage director who had worked with German theatres, had suggested Mrożek’s Tango to the Schiller Theatre in Berlin. The Schiller Theatre’s director rejected the idea, telling Axer that Mrożek still had much to learn before his plays could be staged at the Schiller. Soon after, the director of that theatre regretted this decision; Mrożek became famous very fast and everybody was fighting for the rights to his subsequent plays.
Tango turned out to be very universal. It was interpreted as a piece about nostalgia for the past order in the world of moral collapse. In the main protagonist, Edek, we can easily see a metaphor of the communist authorities whose power was their simple brutality, not intellectual superiority. Tango also ridiculed the educated elite who, at that time, were limiting themselves to a deeply hidden contempt, remaining obedient to uneducated simpletons. In this piece, one can say that Mrożek even foresaw the events that took place in Paris in May 1968. This was one of the signs of his genius.
In Poland his Diaries, published in the years 2010-2013, generated a great deal of interest. This work was, on the one hand as Mrożek himself ironically said just notes published for money, but, on the other hand, it also included notes from which we learn of his personal fight with reality and himself. It is from the Diaries that we learned about his suicidal thoughts.
True. In the Diaries he wrote: “I have nobody to talk to, I have nobody to sleep with. I don’t even have myself in such a state which would allow me to tolerate myself.” He then took a gun from his wardrobe (as he had a period in his life when had been fascinated with weaponry) and from a different wardrobe he took an atlas of the world. Holding these two items, he came to the decision that he was not yet ready to kill himself, but also agreed that there was no place in the world where he could hide.
This was in the 1980s. However, his life was full of many, similar episodes. Mrożek was deeply affected by the passing of his first wife, Maria Obremba, who died just 18 days after she had been diagnosed with cancer in the late 1960s. Since then Mrożek thought a lot about death, like any intelligent man does. However, his reflections of human mortality were more like cool calculations. Ever since I learnt about Mrożek’s own passing, I can’t stop but think about one quote from his Diaries. In it Mrożek wrote: “Hypotheses. Everything is a hypothesis. One thing that we know for sure is that one day we will die. And yet this is something we do not believe in.”
In his last work, Baltazar (which is the name he also used wrote this work under), Mrożek truly fights with himself. Baltazar is a book which he wrote as part of his aphasia treatment. This book is, more than anything else, a record of his fight, or would you call it a meaty autobiography?
This is a story which gives us goose bumps. A great writer for whom, for decades, language had been the only homeland, suddenly, in 2002, lost it as a result of a stroke. Its side effect was aphasia, which affects the part of the brain that controls language. Consequently, Mrożek had to relearn everything; how to speak, write and read. Like an innocent child.
Baltazar is a fascinating tale as it constitutes Mrożek’s attempt to get back everything that had been part of his identity. However, I must admit that I was quite surprised when the publisher of the book, Anna Zaremba-Michalska, told me that she had been against publishing a preface to the book where Mrożek explains that its writing had been part of his therapy. In her view this book is good enough to defend itself as a biography. As I said, for me this opinion was a bit surprising, mainly because there are some factual mistakes in the book and, what’s somewhat worrisome, these facts started to take on a life of their own. Some dates that Mrożek mistakenly put in the book were republished in places chronicling his life and work. Even one of the more respected Polish weeklies published his obituary which was simply a summary of Baltazar; with no verification. For me this book defends itself only when we state that it was written as part of author’s therapy.
A few words about Mrożek’s travels: Italy, France, the United States, Germany and finally Mexico. These are places where after having left Poland Mrożek lived, often for many years. Was it because he could not find his place on the earth?
Each of these decisions to relocate was based on a different reason. A move to Italy was apparently the decision of Mrożek’s first wife who reportedly said that she preferred to clean floors abroad than be a writer’s wife in communist Poland. In Italy, Mrożek lived in the provincial city of Chiavari. From there, he decided to move to Paris to start swimming in a bigger pond. He wrote much about this move in his letters. When living in Paris Mrożek would make frequent trips to the US or Germany where he was invited as an acclaimed playwright or because he simply worked there – lectured at the university, directed films, etc. However, when we read his Diaries carefully enough, we notice that Mrożek’s places of residence usually coincided with the places where his mistresses lived. This is true especially for one; the famous “Y”, a woman with whom, in the late 1970s and early 80s, he was obsessed.
Mrożek moved to Mexico after he had married a Mexican woman and being tired with Europe. He said that when approaching the age of 60, he became interested in what he could still do. But not in a literary sense. Time and again he jumped into a completely foreign world and had to manage there. In Mexico, however, he wasn’t a big literary writer. Over there he was a gringo haciendado – a foreign owner of a piece of Mexican land. He returned to Poland when the political situation in Mexico had changed dramatically and life there had become dangerous. In Poland, at that time, communism had just ended. His last destination was Nice (France). He moved there – as he would often say – for retirement purposes. Mrożek’s doctor recommended the local climate as ideal for his patient’s ailing health. The truth is, however, that Mrożek was probably also a little disappointed with the new Polish reality.
All in all, at the heart of all Mrożek’s travels is probably some sort of relishing of the world, which he experienced still as a young man. Later he just could not live a different life.
Mrożek left Kraków twice and yet in his last will he stated that he wanted his ashes to be buried nowhere else but here. And they will be brought here tomorrow (September 17th 2013). Why was that? Was he all of a sudden sentimental about his youth, the interesting life he led here in Kraków when he lived in a writers’ flat at the Literary House on Krupnicza Street?
The fact that Mrożek will be buried in Kraków did not surprise me at all. In the 1990s when he still lived in Mexico and wasn’t thinking about coming back to Poland, he agreed to an interview with a Polish theatre director and critic, Józef Opalski. The title of this interview, which was published by a magazine titled Teatr (Theatre), explains it all: “Kraków is a Universum”. It is even hard to believe how many times in this conversation the clichéd word “magic” was used to describe Kraków. Mrożek was using it when talking about his love and admiration for the city, even though he was of course fully aware of its parochial and pompous nature. But, at the end of the day, with all its flaws and weaknesses Kraków was his hometown. He was born in nearby Borzęcin, he grew up here, and his literary debut was also here. That’s why he was to come back here.
Regarding the years when he lived in the famous Literary House on Krupnicza Street (the house was also a place of residence for such well-known writers and poets as the Nobel Peace Prize winner Wisława Szymborska, Konstanty Ildefons Gałczyński or for a while Tadeusz Różewicz) there are some contradictory stories. Some say that Mrożek would never leave his room; he would lock himself up and only work. Others point to numerous social events that he would organise, together with the actor Leszek Herdegen, with small cabaret scenes being performed; which everybody found extremely funny.
But compared with other Polish writers, like Wisława Szymborska, Mrożek’s readers’ perception of Mrożek was less affectionate. Do you fear now after his passing Mrożek will disappear from people’s minds and memory? I would even say that although his plays are still being staged in many countries, for example the Emigrants are to be staged this month in Sophia (Bulgaria), in Poland he has already been somewhat forgotten.
Comparing these two literary figures does not seem justified to me. Szymborska was criticised by many for some of her “youth mistakes”, especially the poem which she wrote after the passing of Joseph Stalin. And this criticism stayed for a very long time even despite her later great successes. Towards Mrożek, Poles have a much greater tolerance, even though Mrożek too in his early journalist career wrote some strange things such as: “We trust the great Stalin. Why shouldn’t we be certain of our future?” Of course he later decisively cut himself off from these kinds of views, but so did Szymborska. And yet, she’s been criticised and Mrożek really hasn’t. Maybe the difference lies in the Nobel Prize?
For me it remains a mystery why Mrożek is less staged these days. Maybe because he became known for his unwillingness to change anything in the text? This label was attached to him after the first night of his Miłośc na Krymie (Love in Crimea), which had detailed stage directions and even attached additional points as how to stage it. For this reason even acclaimed director Jerzy Jarocki gave up on it. Having said that, I also want to stress that in Mrożek’s last play Karnawał, czyli pierwsza żona Adama (Carnival, meaning the first wife of Adam) there was only one sentence: “Costumes, masks, scenography at the director’s discretion”. Presumably this gives the director some freedom, right?
Back to your second question, for sure I would not call Mrożek a forgotten author. Even in the last few years when Mrożek came back to Poland, people were queuing up in long lines for his autograph. And that was at the time when he already had great difficulties speaking.
You are finishing your book about Mrożek. I heard you wanted it to be published before his passing. Why?
I wanted to avoid the allegations that I lacked courage to publish it before the main hero passed away. Without a doubt Mrożek was a great author but he was also a petty man. In my book, I would like to show these two faces. Since the day he passed, a quote keeps coming to me mind – this time from his humoresque, which was once published by Tygodnik Powszechny. In it, Mrożek wrote: “After many years of good health, the attorney passed away. This happened at the time when I finished writing his biography. In this work I proved that attorney K is immortal.” It seems that with Mrożek everything has to be as we like to say in Poland “as if from Mrożek”.
Translated by Iwona Reichardt
Małgorzata I. Niemczyńska is a Polish journalist working with Gazeta Wyborcza. She’s the author of the upcoming biography: Mrożek. Striptiz neurotyka (Mrożek. A Striptease of a Neurotic) which is to be published this autumn by Agora.
Łukasz Wojtusik is a Polish journalist and radio reporter. He is the head of the Kraków office of the radio program TOK FM.