Darkly humorous, witty and terrifying, Witold Gombrowicz’s Pornographia translated for the first time into English out of the original Polish by Danuta Borchardt, captures the tense and surreal lives of two men looking for an escape from city life in 1943 Warsaw. The narrator, Witold Gombrowicz, and his companion, Fryderyk, leave the city and stay with Hipolit, his wife Maria and their daughter Henia and the farmhand Karol. It doesn’t take long for the men to grow bored of the quiet country life, causing them to devise intricate plans to get Karol and Henia to sleep together. They set up meetings and prod the teenagers with questions of sexual attraction to one another. These simple games escalate to a masterfully choreographed play, aimed at breaking-up Henia and her fiancé. Part joke and part perverse desire, Gombrowicz and Fryderyk’s plans take a bizarre turn following the murder of Henia’s future mother-in-law. Hidden notes, hostages, murder-conspiracies and the ultimate manipulation of youth, love and a detached thirst for power are now in play.
The immediate reaction to the title of this novel conjures images of sex, however the book deals with sexual desire in a round about way. It isn’t the actual act of sex that is pornographic, but its entanglement with power, domination, desire and obsession. Fryderyk and Gombrowicz believe themselves to be in control, but there are a few moments where the reader catches a glimpse of shifts in power, such as the scene where Karol, Henia and the two men are conversing outside:
Karol kept rocking, his legs spread apart, she raised her leg to scratch her calf—but his shoe, resting just on the heel, rose, made a half-turn, and squashed the earthworm…just at one end, just as much as the reach of his foot allowed, because he didn’t feel like lifting his heel from the ground, the rest of the worm’s thorax began to stiffen and squirm, which he watched with interest. This would not have been any more important than a fly’s throes of death on a flytrap or a moth’s within the glass of a lamp—if Fryderyk’s gaze, glassy, had not sucked itself onto that earthworm, extracting its suffering to the full. One could imagine that he would be indignant, but in truth there was nothing within him but penetration into torture, draining the chalice to the last drop. He hunted it, sucked it, caught it, took it in and—numb and mute, caught in the claws of pain—he was unable to move. Karol looked at him out of the corner of his eye but did not finish off the earthworm, he saw Fryderyk’s horror as sheer hysterics . . .
Henia’s shoe moved forward and she crushed the worm.
But only from the opposite end, with great precision, saving the central part so that it could continue to squirm and twist.
All of it—was insignificant . . . as far as the crushing of a worm can be trivial and insignificant.
The memory of the worm-crushing resurfaces later in the narrative as Fryderyk’s obsession with his own perverse games intensifies. This excerpt exemplifies the delicate balance between controllers and controlled, through the narrative and Gombrowicz’s language constructions. Just as mundane events can represent something greater, so can the linguistic construction of the text. In trying to preserve the dream-like and often stilted world Gombrowicz narrates, Borchardt makes very liberal use of ellipses. In this scene, Gombrowicz has grown anxious over the trip he is going to take with Fryderyk:
Travel there? The two of us? I was beset by misgivings, difficult to express, about the two of us traveling . . . because to take him there with me, to the countryside, so that he could continue his game, well . . . And his body, that body so…”peculiar”? . . . To travel with him and ignore his untiring “silently-shouting impropriety”? . . . To burden myself with someone so ” compromised and, as a result, so compromising”? . . .
In the previous English translation (from the French) the ellipses are present, but the word choice in Borchardt’s translation accentuates the text’s repetitiveness bringing the sense of anxiety to a new level of confusion and internal anguish. In the Alastair Hamilton translation this excerpt reads:
Should we go? Both of us? I had fearful doubts about the journey . . . What take him so that he could continue his game don there, in the country? . . . And his body which was so…so specific? Travel with him regardless of his “obvious but hidden indecency?” . . . Look after somebody so “compromised” and therefore so “compromising” . . .
Borchardt’s disturbances in the flow of the work may seem off-setting in the context of this review, but coupled with the rhythmic repetition of words and phrases throughout the text she brings forward the nuances of Gombrowicz’s masterful prose. In this isolated psycho-thriller, where anxiety runs high within a small group of people cut off from the terrors around them, obsession and terror still rule.