The Great Untranslated: Ostatnia powieść (The Last Novel) by Teodor Parnicki

In world literature there is a special category: the Great Unfinished Novel. It comprises such early-20th century classics as Robert Musil’s The Man without Qualities, Jaroslav Hašek’s The Good Soldier Švejk, Franz Kafka’s The Castle, and, from more recent times:  Ralph Ellison’s Three Days Before the Shooting and David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King. Teodor Parnicki’s thousand-page The Last Novel belongs to this revered company: the Polish author left it uncompleted at the time of his death on December 5, 1988. When it comes to complexity, however, this cognitive overkill of a novel stands out even among the above-mentioned titles. Based on the critical response of those Polish readers who managed to read, let alone digest, this colossal book, I can assume that it has secured the place as the most formidable work of 20th century Polish literature.

Teodor Parnicki is a great unknown for the Anglophone reader as none of his works have been translated into English so far. But the fact that he is little known outside Poland does not diminish his stature: his literary heritage is a dense forest we don’t see for a clump of scrawny trees. If you want to learn more about his life and work, I am more than happy to refer you to the fascinating article appropriately called Teodor Parnicki, the Man in the Labyrinth, from which I’d like to quote the following description:

Parnicki uses novel and surprising literary structures: interview (or rather, and almost always, interrogation), informer’s reports, police reports, confessions, dream-journals, and letters (often fragmentary). He writes in extraordinarily long, dense, complicated sentences using odd grammatical constructions (past perfect, for example, the use of which in Polish he single-handedly revives) and unusual vocabulary. He adds intentionally to the confusion of the text by referring to certain individuals by a number of different names or to different individuals by the same name. Often, not all clues to the mystery of the particular novel can be found in it – one has to turn to encyclopedias and scholarly works to understand some aspects of the plot or some of the ideas of the heroes. With each successive novel, the complexity and opacity of the text is increased. The novels become elaborate labyrinths in which the reader is constantly searching for clues and interpretations.

He sounds like our man, doesn’t he? In Parnicki’s last novel, posthumously published in 2003, this life-long symphony of increasing complexity reaches a deafening crescendo: the story unfolds over the period of 30 years, takes us all over the world and features more than a hundred characters from numerous countries; it discusses at length and in detail literature, politics, diplomacy and religion and lures the reader into an intricate web of international conspiracies and secret alliances — yet most of this information overload stems from a series of conversations between a man and woman in a Berlin apartment. The novel starts as a trite detective story. A woman called Ingrid Jakobsen approaches private eye John Wang with the request of solving the mysterious death of her first husband. They meet in his apartment for a talk. From then on, the pseudo-detective plot explodes into a kaleidoscope of elaborate storylines, proliferating puzzles, and cultural references overwhelming in their abundance. Gradually it becomes evident that the man and the woman are not so much interested in solving the murder mystery as in running a game of their own whose complexity boggles imagination. Since the elaborateness of the plot is aggravated by that of the language, it is perfectly understandable why The Last Novel has so few readers even in Poland. This obscure and bewildering testament to Parnicki’s extraordinary talent as a storyteller, stylist and world-maker is biding its time: it is patiently waiting to be read, understood and appreciated, and, perhaps, even translated some day.

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