I loved every bit of this beautiful (though disturbing) book: its interestingly deranged protagonist(s), slow-moving plot that disproportionately thickens towards the end, unusual style that shows how much the author cares about the written word and creating poetic sentences, and long passages that go on and on about a character’s appearance, his inner drives and motivations.
On the cover of the Serbian version of the book (that’s the version I read), it says that “Pornografia” shows Poland in times of the Nazi occupation, but we see very little of war throughout the novel. The importance of knowing “it’s there” is in being able to explain the ugliness of human nature, I suppose. However, not even war can explain and excuse the sick drives of the narrator and his companion, and the ease with which they gear those drives towards the realization of sick fantasies.
The narrator’s name is the same as the author’s – Witold Gombrowicz. Not sure why he chose that name for him – perhaps to provoke, just like he tried that with the title but it backfired, as he claimed in one interview. Witold the narrator lives in wartime Warsaw and tries to be an artist as much as that’s possible in the situation, spending time with like-minded people, artists, who argue and shout: God! Art! People! Proletariat! long into the night. And Friderick is a mysterious figure who shows up one day in the middle of their philosophical debate, and from the moment he starts shuffling his feet uncomfortably and doing a series of small gestures to suppress discomfort, Witold becomes enchanted by him. It’s interesting that the words he actually uses about Friderick are mostly negative and display dislike for the unusual guy, but the actual actions show the opposite. Friderick is a grand force that moves Witold all throughout the book, as his pawn.
I actually thought at some point that Friderick was Witold’s alter-ego. I thought he was what Brad Pitt was to Edward Norton in “Fight Club”. So I started looking for clues to prove it, but pretty soon realized that other characters are obviously addressing both Witold and Friderick (at different times).
The power of the author’s writing is in his subtle way of messing with the reader’s mind. We have a not-so-reliable narrator who narrates completely from his point of view, so the whole first (and longer) part of the novel I totally questioned his ability to perceive reality objectively. He keeps ranting about how Friderick is a danger, a threat, a catastrophe, but all we see is a perfectly normal behavior, everyday situations and conversations.
The first time I realized that it’s not all in the head of the (delusional) narrator is when he catches Friderick spying on two young characters — the characters that turn out to be the main focus of the evil-plotting protagonists. Somehow Witold and Friderick got into their middle-aged minds the same idea – to create something beautiful and dirty, something new and exciting, using two young creatures whose bodies and minds are still unripe. What results from that seemingly harmless middle-aged fantasy is horror that progresses slowly through the book, deviously, and the feeling I’m left with at the end is mostly bafflement at how it all happened? because the author keeps giving me mixed information about the main character, Friderick. Is he that scared, confused guy who doesn’t want Evil but his fear summons it anyway, or is he that central, devilish force that has it all planned from the very start, manipulating everyone so masterfully that only Witold – his soulmate – notices how he does it?
Though it seems all the critics’ attention is only on Friderick, I’m much more interested in Witold. Friderick is what he is – a manipulative force that puts everyone in roles and plays out his play as planned all the way to the end. But Witold is much more interesting to me, with his moments of hesitation, guilt, philosophical musings about the darkness of their deeds. Still, I wonder if those inner debates are only a farce? Witold is Friderick’s twin brother in the ugliness of his drives and schemings.
After such a horrid description of the plot, you may wonder how I managed to find anything beautiful in “Pornografia”. Well, just read it. 1) Poetic language, 2) a gripping psychological portrayal of the characters, 3) descriptions of Earth rolling about them in its peaceful nature, as if mindless of the war going on, 4) such slow progression of something dark and horrible that we can see it clearly in the making, as if dissected, are all so catchy and evocative, it’s a pleasure to keep reading.
Maybe other books by Gombrowicz are better, but for me, this one was a perfect read.