“I was loathe to reveal the whole truth to this man, to this Fellow Countryman, or to other Fellow Countrymen, Kinsmen ... as I would haply be burnt alive at the stake, pulled apart by horses or tongs, deprived of good fame and credit.”
Witold Gombrowicz himself qualified Trans-Atlantyk as a “parody of an old-time tale, in an old-fashioned and stereotypical genre.”
Inspired by the classics of Polish literature, this satire of Polish emigrants in Buenos Aires is a pastiche of the 17th-century Polish Baroque style known as Sarmatism.
Begun in 1948 and finished in 1950, Trans-Atlantyk was written by Witold Gombrowicz entirely during his work hours at the Banco Polaco in Buenos Aires.
“Sail to that holy Nation of yours haply Cursed! Sail to that St. Monster Dark, dying for ages yet unable to die! Sail to your St. Freak, cursed by all Nature, ever being born and still Unborn! Sail, sail, so he will not suffer you to Live or Die but keep you for ever between Being and Non-being.”
In 1951, Jerzy Giedroyc, the director of the emigrant journal Kultura in Paris, publishes extracts of Trans-Atlantyk along with an introduction by Witold Gombrowicz. These extracts strike at the most sacred of nationalist sentiments of Polish emigrants, and subsequently provoke their indignation.
In spite of the scandal, Jerzy Giedroyc decides that Kultura’s Literary Institute will edit Trans-Atlantyk as a single volume along with Gombrowicz’s play The Marriage in 1953.
In Poland, Trans-Atlantyk is published by Czytelnik in 1957 in Warsaw, thanks to a brief liberalization of the Communist regime. In his new preface, Witold Gombrowicz addresses his Polish readers in Poland. He also takes advantage of this new publication to make some modifications to the text, and suppresses a number of the text’s characteristic capitalizations of nouns, adjectives, and verbs.
The French translation by Konstanty “Kot” Jeleński and Geneviève Serreau, based on the 1957 Polish edition, is published by Maurice Nadeau in “Les Lettres nouvelles” in 1976. It is preceded by a long presentation of the text by Jeleński, who explains the difficulties posed by the translation of the text. Inspired by “gaweda,” the oral narrative of the Polish nobility, Witold Gombrowicz’s Baroque autobiography, rich in verbal inventions and linguistic turns, holds the reputation as his most-difficult-to-translate work.
Witold Gombrowicz’s charges against “Polishness” garnered him violent attacks by his compatriots at the time.
Today, the novel is considered a literary masterpiece and the very height of lucidity in patriotism.
“I feel a need to relate here for Family, kin and friends of mine the beginning of these my adventures, now ten years old, in the Argentinian capital. Not that I ask anyone to have these old Noodles of mine, this Turnip (haply even raw), for in the Pewter bowl Thin, Wretched they are […]”
Paradoxically, Trans-Atlantyk is the only novel of Gombrowicz’s in which the action takes place entirely in Argentina.
“Once when returning from Caballito at night, I began to amuse myself by composing reminiscences from my first days in Buenos Aires on the model of some sort of Grand Guignol, and, at the same time, by dint of the past, I felt anachronistic, draped in an antique style, entangled in some sort of almost ancient scleroticism—and this cheered me up so much that I immediately commenced writing something that was to have been an antiquated memoir from that time.”
“And Boom, Bam, Pyckal the Baron by the belly clutched, and the Accomptant Cieciszowski there the Elders titter so they Totter, here Pani Dowalewiczowa squeals, tears sheds, squeals and Bam, Boom roars; Spits, snorts from laughter the reverend Parson, and Muszka and Tuśka so Skip about now their noses are besnotted! Laughter then Boomed!”
“I, Gombrowicz, make the acquaintance of a puto (a queer) who is in love with a young Pole, and circumstances make me arbiter of the situation: I can throw the young man into the queer’s arms or make him stay with his father, a very honourable, dignified and old-fashioned Polish major.
Testament. Entretiens avec Dominique de Roux
Witold Gombrowicz held strongly to the proper spelling of the title, for which he gave the following explanation:
“Trans-Atlantyk is not a ship: it is something more like ‘across the Atlantic,’ it’s a novel directed towards Poland from the Argentine.”
—A Kind of Testament: Interviews with Dominique de Roux [Trans. Hamilton]
Ciumkiała, raw-boned, a blond, Oggling, ruddy, has taken off his cap and his Big Redhand puts out toward me: “Ciumkiała I am.” And by this he put Pyckal into sudden amazement. “Save me!” yelled Pyckal, “I am pounding this one here and he breaks in with his paw and I haven’t seen with my own eyes a bigger Idiot, Blockhead. Why do you break in, why do you meddle?” “I forbid it,” shouted the Baron, “I disallow!”
Ciumkiała, frightened by this shouting, became embarrassed and put a big Hand into his pocket and with that hand began to paw about within the pocket; but at once became embarrassed by his Pawing and out of his embarrassment pretended he was trying to find something in his pocket; and by this he made the Baron, Pyckal all the more furious.” What are you looking for, you numskull?” they cried. “What are you looking for, you daw? What? ...”
Till Ciumkiała, well-nigh dead from embarrassment, as a Beetroot red, took out of his pocket not only his hand but also a cork, some crumpled scraps of paper, a teaspoon, a shoestring, and some small dried fishes. But when they saw the Fishes, silence set in ... as they had turned somewhat downcast because of those Fishes.
Says the Baron: “Scratch yourself not.”
Says Pyckal: “I’m not Scratching myself.”
Ciumkiała said: “I have Scratched myself.”
Said Pyckal: “I’ll Scratch you.”
Says the Baron: “Scratch, scratch away—this is what you are for.”
Says Pyckal: “I’ll not Scratch you, let your secretary Scratch you.”
Says the Baron: “My secretary will Scratch me if I order him to.”
Said Pyckal: “I will engage your Secretary for Myself and take him from you—and me he will Scratch when I would, for though you are a High-born Sir and I a Base-born Boor, me he will scratch if I would so or would no. Scratch he will. ”
Says the Baron: “Whether a Base-born boor or a High-born Sir, you will not engage this Secretary; I will engage him for me, and he will Scratch me, not you.” —Trans-Atlantyk [Trans. French and Karsov]
Witold Gombrowicz himself
“It always amuses me, this facetious, sclerotic, baroque, absurd Trans-Atlantyk, written in an archaic style, full of idiomatic jokes and inventions. […]
“Trans-Atlantyk was born in me like a Pan Tadeusz in reverse. This epic poem, written by Mickiewicz in exile over a hundred years ago, the masterpiece of Polish poetry, is an assertion of the Polish spirit inspired by nostalgia. In Trans-Atlantyk I wanted to do the opposite to Mickiewicz. As you see, I always make sure that I am in the best possible company!”
—A Kind of Testament: Interviews with Dominique de Roux [Trans. Hamilton]
“Great as Gombrowicz’s earlier and later novels are, Trans-Atlantyk surpasses them […] the ingenious polyphony of Trans-Atlantyk owes its striking effect to Gombrowicz’s use of stylization. A work of art achieves true greatness when the author invents a crucial device and utilizes it so magnificently that no one can successfully imitate it later.
This is precisely what happens in Trans-Atlantyk. Gombrowicz’s chief stroke of genius while planning the novel was his choice of the specific style to imitate—a style which, one imagines, initially must have sounded bizarre even to him. The story of the twentieth-century Polish writer defecting to Argentina in the first days of the Second World War was to be told, from first to last, in a language and style typical of the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Polish country squire.”
—Introduction to Trans-Atlantyk [Trans. French and Karsov]