Reviewed in the United States on November 29, 2017
If you are up for writing with ample helpings of the polyglotomatic and metapsychodelic, Memoirs Found in a Bathtub, Stanislaw Lem’s 1961 novel of screwball bureaucratic misadventure will most certainly stir your brainwaves and set your neural neurons fizzing. What a polyglot and metaphysician was our author - fluent in Polish, Latin, German, French, English, Russian, Ukrainian, Lem’s expertise ranged from medicine and biology, physics and astronomy, mathematics and robotics to philosophy, literature and linguistics. And added to this intellectual mix, such a protean imagination – numerous collections of highly provocative essays, dozens of short stories and seventeen science fiction novels, many judged among the best within the genre.
A twelve page Introduction written hundreds of years into the future outlines how this manuscript, Notes from the Neogene, or its more commonly known title, Memoirs Found in a Bathtub, is a precious relic from Earth’s ancient past, "a period of decline which directly preceded the great Collapse," a time when paper was used extensively for writing. Among the numerous documented facts alluded to by this archaeologist of the future in his quest to discover the reasons behind the demise of that paper centered, bathroom centered, ancient civilization is a thriving cult revolving around Kap-Eh-Taahl, a deity denied supernatural existence. Yes, Kap-Eh-Taahl is “Capital,” one example of how the Introduction, scholarly and authoritative in tone, is a Stanislaw Lem-ish tour de force of word play, word blending, punning, spoonerisms, neologisms, double entendre, tongue-twisters and tongue-in-cheek.
Nevertheless these introductory remarks are picture-perfect as a set up to frame the narrative that follows, an extensive firsthand report authored by a newly assigned secret agent caught in an unending network of offices, corridors, stairs, elevators and bathrooms forming part of a vast underground military compound. If this strikes you as a Kafkaesque parable of little guy versus big bureaucracy, you hit the bulls-eye – much of the spirit of Lem's novel is captured in the above Jaroslav Rona sculpture located in Prague with natty Franz Kafka atop a headless, handless giant.
In the very first paragraph our disoriented narrator tells us he can’t locate the proper room amid multiple levels of departments and offices in this Pentagon-like Building as he attempts to press through crowds of marching military personnel, disguised agents and preoccupied secretaries. Kafka’s An Imperial Message comes immediately to mind, a tale where a messenger sent by the Emperor is trying to bring a special message for you alone but the messenger must push through a solid mass of humanity in an outer courtyard only to find another horde of people in the next courtyard blocking his way and so it continues, such that, alas, you will never receive your message. Anybody who has ever been obliged to deal with a bloated administrative system will hear a familiar ring.
The narrator wends his way to the office of powerfully built, bald, old General Kashenblade, Commander in Chief, only to be given an unidentified special mission. The more questions he asks about the specifics of his mission, the more indecipherable the explanations, even moving out to the stars, as when the old man pontificates, “And the spiral nebulae?! Well?! Don’t tell me you don’t know what that means! SPY-ral!! And the expanding universe, the retreating galaxies! Where are they going? What are they running from? And the Doppler shift to the red!! Highly suspicious – no more! A clear admission of guilt!!” Such decidedly cerebral passages are reminiscent of another classic where imagination and erudite fancy mix with elements of physics, mathematics, astronomy and other sciences - t zero by Italo Calvino. Lem’s polyglot background frequently shines through with a light touch, a real treat for readers who enjoy heady subjects and brain teasers mixed in with their fiction.
Next stop, we follow our earnest special agent, now a man on a mission, to the main office where he is approached by a young officer who introduces himself as Lieutenant Blanderdash, the Chief’s undercover aide. Whoa, Stanislaw! Was that Blanderdash or Balderdash? Blanderdash proceeds to ask the agent if he yawns or snores (the department lost many people by snoring) before leading him to the Department of Collections to view, along with a multitude of other absurdities, cabinets with millions of cuff links and glass cases filled with artificial ears, noses, bridges, fingernails, warts, eyelashes, boils and humps. Given such a display (no pun intended) of government and military intelligence brings to mind Moscow 2042 and other comic masterpieces by Vladimir Voinovich. Such a sharp satirical needle – too bad the archaeologist examining these memoirs assumes the narrator is entirely serious and completely reliable! He’s missing out on much of the irony and dark humor.
I’m reminded yet again of another author, Lewis Carroll and his Alice in Wonderland, most especially the Mad Hatter’s tea party. For the more I turned the pages, the more I had the feeling special agent Undereavesdropper Blassenkash (in Chapter 2 he answers to this title and name) is trapped in a building filled with a stream of Mad Hatters spouting sheer indecipherable nonsense. I actually found this one of the more amusing and more telling aspects of the tale since the madness is accentuated by our unfortunate narrator forever remaining the serious, formal straight man.
Perhaps agent Blassenkash finally comes to understand the underlying meaning of what’s going on: either all of this is a test for him to pass in his capacity as agent, or - fanfare tooted by Alice's White Rabbit on his tiny trumpet - everyone is a raving lunatic. Or, maybe he has been misled by enemy spies that have infiltrated the Building. Or, then again, his very presence in the Building is, in fact, his mission. Or a dozen other possibilities. You will have to read for yourself to decipher the code. However, be aware – there could be more than one code. As a head Building official explains, “Now, there are calling codes, stalling codes, departmental codes, special codes, and – you’ll like this,” he grinned, “they’re changed every day. Each section, of course, has its own system, so the same word or name will have a different meaning on different levels.”