Trans-Atlantyk by Witold Gombrowicz is a satire of Polish identity. However, it is difficult to know what exactly is being satirized if you're not Polish, and not intimately acquainted with Polish history and society.

The story starts off quite realistically (and indeed semi-autobiographically), with the author being stranded in Argentina at the outbreak of World War II. At first his meetings with Polish officials, who are delusional about how Poland will conquer Germany, and who want to parade Gombrowicz around Argentinian high society as an example of Polish genius, can be read as straightforward parody. Later on, his employment in the company run by three feuding Polish businessmen, and the story about the gay man who tries to seduce the Polish young man and the ensuing duel with his father, can still be deciphered up to a point.

However, when the characters become part of the spur-wearing secret society eternally locked in the cellar, things become so weird that it is difficult to make sense of it all. I assume that this represents an element of "Polishness" as viewed by Gombrowicz, but as an outsider reading the (albeit excellent) translation by Danuta Borchardt, I felt completely lost.

I have read Gombrowicz's Diary, but I don't remember it containing a detailed explanation of Trans-Atlantyk, and the feeling I got from it was that Gombrowicz didn't like to literally explain the details of his work. Is there a standard interpretation of what aspects of "Polishness" are represented by the various characters and events in Trans-Atlantyk?

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    I didn't read it, but from cursor check it seems it was particularly Polish Sarmatism, Romanticism and patriotism.
    – Mithoron
    Oct 13, 2020 at 20:00
  • @Mithoron Yes, after reading a few articles on Polish Wikipedia with the help of Google Translate, Sarmatism (which I didn't know about) certainly seems to be part of it. But I can't really link the more outlandish events in the novel to any aspect of Sarmantism in particular, at least not with my limited knowledge of it. Oct 13, 2020 at 20:03
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1 Answer 1


According to George Z. Gasyna,

Trans-Atlantuk (...) parodies utopian landscapes of collectivities and dismantles the cultural conditions that call for them. Gombrowicz's second novel, further, embarks on a linguistic satire (as well as a spectacular gloss on) the strongly escapist movement of seventeenth-century Poland known as Sarmatian baroque. The work is written in a polysemic style that employs Sarmatian themes and language, in particular a narrative genre known as gawęda, all the while polemicizing the highly ambivalent legacy of Sarmatian philosophies on modern letters and culture, from patriotic romanticism to the most militant strains of the interwar avant-garde. (Polish, Hybrid, and Otherwise: Exilic Discourse in Joseph Conrad and Witold Gombrowicz. A & C Black, 2011. Page 9)

For a detailed discussion of Sarmatian baroque, Gasyna refers the reader to Ewa M. Thompson's monograph Witold Gombrowicz. Boston: Twayne, 1979.

Wikipedia has an article about Sarmatism, which explains that it is

an ethno-cultural concept with a shade of politics designating the formation of an idea of Poland's origin from Sarmatians, an Iranic people, within the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth.

The article also points out that Sarmatism enjoyed a comeback in the late 19th century due to the publication of Henryk Sienkiewicz's The Trilogy (which consists of With Fire and Sword (1884), The Deluge (1886) and Sir Michael (1888)).

Ewa M. Thompson, in the chapter “Sarmatism, or the secrets of Polish essentialism” that she contributed to *Being Poland: A New History of Polish Literature and Culture since 1918*, edited by Tamara Trojanowska et al. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016), describes Sarmatism as

a pre-modern Polish cultural episteme built on the belief that at the centre of human endeavours reside metaphysical realities rather than the desire for power, and that all human concerns should play second fiddle to those realities. This belief is central to Christianity, and it was the Christian articulation of it that provided the stimulus for Sarmatian creativity.

This metaphysical aspect is not mentioned in the Wikipedia article. Thompson also points out that, since the late eighteenth century, Sarmatism has been criticised both by Polish and foreign critics. In the section on Sarmatism's legacy, Thompson states that

Sarmatism was the most influential cultural paradigm that Poland produced. It far surpassed Romanticism, which influenced only the educated part of society.

  • Thanks for making the effort to provide an answer. Sarmatism is a fascinating phenomenon that isn't really known outside of Poland, I think. But it probably requires a deep dive to really understand it and Trans-Atlantyk's links to it, at least deeper than what I have time and energy for at this moment :-) Oct 20, 2020 at 13:17
  • @YourUncleBob I have been unable to find literary examples of Sarmatism in English translation. Ewa Thompson's monograph on Gombrowicz is the first source I would consult for Trans-Atlantyk's links to it.
    – Tsundoku
    Oct 20, 2020 at 13:50
  • @YourUncleBob Sarmatism it is not a difficult concept: It was a believe that the you live the best country in the world (partially because of such "noble origins") combined with the deep distrust to the government, abusing the laws that were granting freedoms and the general "I-know-better" attitude. Without being rude, you can spot similar approach all over the world (for example the hardcore MAGA supporters)
    – Yasskier
    Oct 21, 2020 at 3:14

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