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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Witold Gombrowicz

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Bacacay

Title: Bacacay
Author: Witold Gombrowicz
Genre: Stories
Written: 1957 (Eng. 2004)
Length: 275 pages
Original in: Polish
Availability: Bacacay - US
Bacacay - UK
Bacacay - Canada
Bakakaï - France
Bacacay - Deutschland
  • Polish title: Bacacaj
  • Translated and with an Afterword by Bill Johnston
  • The first seven stories in the is collection were first published, in slightly different form, as Pamietnik z okresu dojrzewania in 1933

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Our Assessment:

B+ : unusual and amusing tales

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Nation . 24/1/2005 Benjamin Paloff
Rev. of Contemp. Fiction . Spring/2005 Michael Pinker
The Washington Post . 19/12/2004 Louis Begley
The Washington Times B+ 24/10/2004 Eric Wargo

  From the Reviews:
  • "These early stories herald Gombrowicz’s later, lengthier sallies, in a style burlesque and baroque at once." - Michael Pinker, Review of Contemporary Fiction

  • "(T)he effervescent and amusing stories in Bacacay should be read in the spirit of fun and not in search for an aesthetic system or clues to his psyche." - Louis Begley, The Washington Post

  • "Gombrowicz's fiction largely defies description, but you can think of it this way: If the prickly and paranoid protagonists of Seinfeld were transposed to a fading interwar Central Europe of moustaches, tailcoats, walking canes and duels, their absurd misadventures might resemble these stories (.....) Slightly uneven, Bacacay is best savored after his novels." - Eric Wargo, The Washington Times

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       In his Afterword to Bacacay Bill Johnston explains:

Gombrowicz decided to rename the collection Bacacaj, a Polonized form of Bacacay, the name of a side street in Buenos Aires on which the writer lived. This title, while striking, tells us nothing about the contents of the book; Gombrowicz explained in a letter to his Italian publisher that he named his book thus "for the same reason that a person names his dogs -- to distinguish them from one others."
       This might be said to be typical for Gombrowicz: a seemingly random choice good enough for even something as significant as a book-title. Gombrowicz is always a playful writer, and never quite shows his hand as to when he is serious and when not. The first seven stories in this collection were first published in 1933 under a title which also did not accurately reflect what he was presenting: Recollections of Adolescence, but there was enough truth to that -- and a hint of significance in Gombrowicz's choice of an address (yet in Polonized, not actual form) for the version presented out of exile -- that the titles can't be simply dismissed as whims (or dog's names). Gombrowicz is a fantasist, but his work is clearly grounded both in reality and autobiography.
       Besides the seven stories from his first book, Bacacay collects two free-standing stories from his novel Ferdydurke, and three previously published but uncollected stories. It makes for a good introduction to the author, and some fine -- if often unusual -- entertainment.
       Gombrowicz does not offer familiar fare. Situations and stories that are realistic and precise devolve into the absurd, but with a steadfast refusal to acknowledge the absurdity. His stories are dreamy (or nightmarish) creations more than they are surreal, flights of a very odd fancy.
       Gombrowicz's characters are often obsessive, few more than the first, the narrator of "Lawyer Kraykowski's Dancer", a chance encounter leading him to become a stalker-devotee of remarkable persistence. In another, "A Premeditated Crime", the narrator travels to the countryside to meet a man whom he finds dead upon his arrival, and he becomes convinced the man was murdered. There's little evidence to back it up -- even: "The corpse was evidently in league with the band of murderers" -- but so determined and ultimately convincing is the narrator that he retroactively manages to transform the death into a premeditated murder.
       Absurdity is often found in realistic guise here: "Dinner at Countess Pavahoke" focusses on the countess' famous "meatless Friday dinners", which turn out not to be quite so meatless. Wordplay is to be taken as seriously (or not) as anything else: stable hand Valentine Cauliflower happens to disappear just before a cauliflower dish is served up for a Friday dinner, for example -- and Countess Pavahoke just happens to get her own name wrong, signing herself as the more suggestive Countess Havapoke ..... (Johnston notes in his afterword that in the first edition of Recollections of Adolescence Gombrowicz offered a "Short Explanation" of some of the stories -- including providing far too much information about this one, spelling out for readers that: "the soup is not actually made from the runaway boy, but that the association is purely linguistic, and that 'the point of the story is that the hunger and suffering of poor Bolek Cauliflower make the cauliflower-vegetable taste better to the aristocrats eating it.'")
       "Adventures" was originally titled "Five Minutes Before Falling Asleep", and offers both that dreamy pre-sleep escape and captivity. It begins with the narrator falling from a ship in the Mediterranean, and being picked up by another one whose captain -- "a white black man" -- would use him as a toy: tossing him into the seas first in a glass bubble in which he should be swept by the currents endlessly around the Atlantic and later in a steel sphere sent to the bottom of the deepest part of the oceans (neither plan working quite as anticipated). But adventures continue to follow, just as in unpredictable yet vaguely reality-based night-fancies.
       In "The Events on the Banbury" the narrator is also on a ship, having boarded the wrong one and finding himself adrift again. As usual, it's an odd mix of the real and the absurd -- as when the captain finds the crew are "starting to play the eye game" again. A consequence: stray eyes lying about.
       As one of Gombrowicz's characters notes:
It's clear that speaking is a bad idea, since the reach of words is unpredictable, and the borders of dreams become blurred ....
       In strikingly clear language, with a faux-naïveté that treats the absurd as no less odd (and certainly no less unexpected) than most of the everyday, Gombrowicz's stories describe remarkable worlds and lives. Much of the pleasure in these stories comes from the audacious invention and presentation, but it's also the language that does the trick: everything (and nothing) inspires wonder in these narrators, the shrug of the shoulders at the next catastrophe or inevitable fate a common reaction: c'est la vie, they all seem to say -- though these are like no lives we know.
       Puzzling, with unexpected narrative arcs, these aren't straightforward fictions. But almost each story is worth reading, with something there to delight in. The lack of focus -- and Gombrowicz's refusal to play by the usual rules -- may annoy some, but most should find these to be rewarding entertainments.

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Bacacay: Reviews: Witold Gombrowicz: Other books by Witold Gombrowicz under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Polish author Witold Gombrowicz (1904-1969) spent much of his life in exile in Argentina. One of the major writers of this century, he has not received the attention he deserves, due in large part to his difficult and bizarre publishing history, largely a result of his exile. His Polish books, written in Argentina, are first published in Paris ... and so on.

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© 2004-2009 the complete review

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