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The Lesson of Jerzy Kosinski's Telex Machine

February 21, 1988|WANDA URBANSKA | Urbanska is an author and journalist living in Virginia .

WARSAW — Maria Konwicki is in town visiting her father, the celebrated Polish writer Tadeusz Konwicki. This is her first trip to her native Poland in six years, and after three weeks, she's grown stir-crazy for New York City, her home now. On this particular morning, however, her spirits are riding high: Her plane for the States departs tomorrow.

"I have two grown daughters," says the 61-year-old Konwicki, graciously squiring his guests from the West--a reporter and photographer--into his comfortable living room where coffee and cake are served. "And being a fair man, I've given one to America and one to Poland."

This is the sort of duality that amuses and preoccupies Konwicki: the "strange fate" that is his as a father and also as a Pole. This is the stuff of his droll, surrealistic fiction--work that explores the role of fate, history and the unconscious in the minds and actions of his wandering and tormented anti-heroes, which are often as not Konwicki himself.

Published in the United States by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Konwicki's books routinely draw critical encomiums. A British critic placed the prolific writer--whose work spans four decades and as many genres--in a class of three along with Soviet expatriate Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Czech writer Milan Kundera. According to Ewa Kuryluk, writing last year in the New York Times, Konwicki achieved "the stature of a prophet" in Poland upon the 1979 publication in the underground press of "A Minor Apocalypse." The book, which appeared in the United States four years later, is the parable of a day in the life of Konwicki, who wrestles with a plan to set himself on fire to protest Poland's impending "voluntary" union with the Soviet Union. "Moonrise, Moonset," a literary journal about Poland's watershed year, 1981, published here last fall, was hailed as Konwicki's best.

With his two latest books in Polish--the newly published "Bohin," a romance novel that the author describes as a "lighter book on my list," and "New World and Environs," a 1986 sequel to "Moonrise"--Konwicki has returned to a state press, using his growing international stature as leverage to set the terms.

"When I submitted the books, I said, 'If you can publish them without censoring, that's fine, but if they have to be censored, I'll have to withdraw them.' " Konwicki answers questions in Polish, then takes a deep, meaningful draw on his cigarette and peers out from behind his tortoise-shell glasses, waiting for his translator to deliver the goods in English.

The editions were large by Polish standards--30,000 copies each--and Konwicki says they sold out in a "few hours," but he knows of no plans for subsequent editions ("Because I'm a somewhat dangerous author"). Farrar, Straus plans to publish the books in the next several years.

Perhaps more astonishing to a Westerner than Konwicki's productiveness is his versatility. In addition to the novels, Konwicki has written and directed half a dozen films such as "The Issa Valley," a screen adaptation of a novel by Nobel Prize winner Czeslaw Milosz. Konwicki collaborated with Andrzej Wadja on a screenplay for the 1987 French film, "Chronical of Love Affairs," based on his novel by the same name. Konwicki is currently at work on a screenplay adaptation of "The Beggars," a classic 19th-Century work by the Polish-Lithuanian writer Adam Mickiewicz, which Konwicki will direct.

"Throughout my whole life, I was always starting something new, including my film career," he says. "I get easily bored with everything." Wearing a red V-neck sweater with elbow guards and clunky work boots, Konwicki gesticulates throughout the interview with an energy that contradicts his hunched posture. Stage-directing, Konwicki instructs my photographer to "get off his chair and start" shooting. And then, playing to the camera, Konwicki moves to a cane-back rocker. Behind him in the room are 18th- and 19th-Century oil paintings of bucolic landscapes and a crucifixion, statuary on the bookshelves amid his own titles and a large Hitachi TV and VCR.

Konwicki's resume would seem to follow the story line of recent Polish history. Born in 1926 in Wilno, then the Lithuanian section of Poland (which since World War II has been incorporated into the Soviet Union), Konwicki came of age during the war, fighting in the resistance with the Home Army.

After the war, Konwicki threw in his lot with the Communists, becoming a leading figure among the generation of gung-ho younger writers, the "pimpled ones." He wrote stories exalting the working man, and his first novel, "Power," adhered to the state-decreed "Socialist Realist" standards of the time. But like many of his peers, he grew disenchanted with the communist order and, by 1963 had written, under veil of allegory, a book critical of the state called "A Dreambook for Our Time." The book drew the attention of Philip Roth, editor of Penguin's "Writers From the Other Europe" series, and was included there in in 1976.

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