an interview with Stanislaw Lem

by Wojciech Orlinski of "Wiadomosci Kulturalne"


Q: Your books display not only your outstanding knowledge and imagination, but also a great sense of humour. It's amazing, how rarely they are analyzed from this point of view...

Lem: I was using humour for various reasons. First, some topics were unsuitable for serious treatment, such as questions of genetics. All those sketches of weird skeletons I drew in the "Star Diaries" were intended to make this subject less horrible. When I was writing that, there were no punks, nobody had a Mohawk haircut, young men did not paint their faces. Nevertheless I had such a feeling, that when mankind will attain control over human genetics, wild things of that kind will happen. Human irresponsibility will lead us to crazy situations. In order to present those crazy situations, I had to create a pattern of levity.

On the other hand, most of my works were written under communism and I had to acknowledge the existence of censorship. For example, when I wrote a story of the first frozen person in "Edukacja Cyfrania" - about an orchestra, whose members are being eaten alive one by one by a cruel Goryllium, but everybody pretends not to notice anything - I had to cover it in a disguise of inseriousness, and add a story of the second frozen person, which had no political hidden meanings. That made it easier to publish the story. I had to use such tricks many times.

If you would try to analyze my books according to the appropriate political period - the Stalin's frost or the Krustschev's softening thaw - you would most certainly find some corelations. On the other hand, I always tried to be as independent, as possible. Naturally, I never loved totalitarianism and all the ideas of making mankind happy always seemed crazy to me. I tried to expose their absurdity. That is the source of numerous failures of my heroes on the path of improvement of the world, what always ended very bad. Some things are hidden under nicknames. Malapucyus Pandemonius is Karl Marx. Gengenx from "Wizja lokalna" is Friedrich Engels. It's interesting that this was rarely recognized. In "His Master's Voice", which is not at all a humorous story, there is a CIA agent, Wilhelm Eeney, who supervises American scientists. That was simply Janusz Wilhelmi, then in charge of Polish culture. Nobody recognized him. Those are the pleasures of a writer - he can encrypt such messages in his books.

There are thus two kinds of my humour: the first is a camouflage painting, the second are some microrevenges, that the author can take on the surrounding reality. I have to add something which I cannot understand. Here you can see a bookshelf with my Japanese translations. The Japanese could never understand my humour. Nothing is funny in my books for them. The "Star Diaries" were published in Japan, but without such a success, as the books written absolutely seriously. This is a culture completely alien to us.

On the other hand, during the stalinist years I went with my wife to Prague. We did not understand, that in this system you cannot just travel where you like and go to a hotel. All hotels were "busy". But in Vinohrady a receptionist, after having informed us that there were no rooms free, he noticed my name on my passport and suddenly asked: "You wrote Eden? I understand! I understand!". Then he gave us the key. There were situations, when foreign readers understood the story perfectly, only if they came from the same side of the Iron Curtain.

Q: It may be a subject for another interview: to what extent your prose is translatable at all?

Lem: Well, more depends here on similarity between cultural environment, than on the translator's skills. I don't speak Japanese, and I don't know what Japanese readers find in my books. I receive some letters from Japan, this proves that they understand at least something. The peak of popularity of my prose is moving. Some time ago I was very popular in the DDR (GDR). They understood perfectly all hidden political messages, because they had the same system. I can proudly say anyway, that my books did not die with the collapse of communism.

I was always concerned about the world-wide promotion of Polish prose. I managed to help two Polish writers to appear on German market, but now they write in German. I wrote only few small texts in German. One of them was a polemic with Leszek Kolakowski. It had to be published in German newspaper to allow him to reply.

Not everyone has enough energy, as Thomas Mann, who dictated to his translator English version of "The Enchanted Mountain". Some time ago I had an excellent translator in Austria, Mrs. Zimmermann. Sometimes weird misunderstandings arise. In USA some educated women, acting in spirit of Jacques Derrida and postmodernism, discovered some freudists meanings in my prose, actually created only by the different idiomatics of English language.

Local specifics are sometimes funny. German encyclopedia call me "a philosopher". I am more popular there, than in Poland. In Russia my "Collected Works" are now in print, I am popular there mostly among scientists. And in Poland I am commonly known as a writer for children: "Pirx" and "The Book of Robots" are now in primary school readings. There is only one positive role of the Nobel prize - it creates some common way to understand a writer. I cannot say, that I like this situation, but that's the way it goes. The books are being born and then walk around the world, just as children do. Since 1987 I write no more, sometimes some short-story, just because they ask so much. I am now writing essays for "Tygodnik Powszechny" and "PC Magazine"...

Q: A propos PC: I don't see a computer in your room...

Lem: That is due to very trivial reasons. In my neighbourhood there are frequent blackouts of electricity, and computerisation would be very bad for me. Now I have my own generator in my garden and I will be able to install a computer and facsimile. Anyway, when I was 12 my father bought me my first "Underwood" typewriter and I got used to it. I was using it until the fonts completely wore out. Everything I wrote was typed on mechanical typewriters. My friend, Slawomir Mrozek has a computer, but he still writes also manually, only with a pen. It has no meaning, what do you use to write, the only thing that is important is: what do you write. A machine to write a book instead of a writer is not invented yet, and probably will never be.

Q: But isn't it a little this way because you just don't like the technological progress?

Lem: I do not like the way people use the more and more magnificent fruits of technology to their filthy deeds. See for example the pornography on the Internet. I am not an enemy of pornography, I have some experiences in obstetrics and gynecology, and I am not shocked by a view of a naked woman. But the Net was supposed to connect universities and allow a quick exchange of scientific data. In reality it is used most often to exchange erotic pictures. And the other technologies? Take semtex: how easy it is today to blow up an airplane! I don't resist progress, but I have a growing feeling that the mankind uses it mostly for disgraceful purposes. Take a look at such bloodstained area, as Africa. All the weaponry there was bought in highly civilised countries. I've read today in "Herald Tribune" that the Russians wanted to sell to Americans dozen of tons of enriched uranium, used only to produce nuclear warheads. Commons sense and raison d'etat would suggest Americans to buy it and prevent it from getting into hands of some potential enemies. But Americans say that they can buy it cheaper elsewhere. Whenever a contradiction arises between free market interests and raison d'etat of the United States, the market wins.

I think, that the holy law of private property, that is a foundation of capitalism, is now the main threat for it. Let's take the copyrights. I always thought, that I have sold already all rights to "Cyberiada", but my American agent suddenly calls me telling, that he discovered a gap. When the contract was signed, there were no computers, and now we can sell rights to publish "Cyberiada" on a CD-ROM. But that's not much important. America was exporting Stinger missiles to Afghanistan, where they were used to shoot Soviet helicopters. Now the Stingers spread all over the world and Americans are scared, that they will shoot their civilian airplanes. The law of free market rules everywhere. Beate Uhse, queen of German sex-industry, sells yearly six millions of various sexual gadgets. That is technology, too. They say, that the copulation dolls will be soon equipped in artificial intelligence. I don't believe that, because it takes no intelligence to copulate, but among artificial men and women there is now even an artificial hand to perform artificial masturbation. There are no artificial children yet.

Internet nor World Wide Web do not amuse me. I don't think, in general, that one should be too well informed. When you have a satellite TV-dish on your roof, you can soon conclude, that nothing happens world wide, except rape and murder. It's some kind of escalation. Some time ago crime was modest - take Al Capone and his mere two dozens of victims. Now we have the "Independence Day" movie, where alien spaceships murder almost the entire mankind. Some American producer claims now, that his next picture will be even stronger. But what can be stronger? To murder an entire biosphere? This is so disgusting for me, that I decided to leave the street-car of science fiction on a stop of essay writing. Now one of satellite channels plays the incredible stupid series of "Star Trek Enterprise". I can't understand it - isn't there enough real problems in this world, do we have to imagine unreal?

Q: Fifteen years ago you wrote the "Wizja lokalna" - a novel about a planet ruled by two opposed superpowers, dictatorship of Kurdlandia and permissive Luzania, based on completely different ideologies. How do you like our planet, where Luzania has attained a complete victory?

Lem: It was not exactly like that. I wanted to picture a Popperian opposition of a closed society and an open society. It seems, that the open society is not so much open, because money rules everything there. It is not good, when there are no other values. Today economics decide even on judgement of art - you can see sometimes on a book such banner as "over million of copies sold". What kind of advertisement is that? Do I have to run to a bookstore only because million of people bought something? I just don't like it.

Speaking of Kurdlandia: I enjoyed the idea of creatures living inside giant animals. In some dictatorships even those, who are oppressed, are somehow proud of being oppressed. Let's take the Soviet Union and the World War II: most heroes and generals were taken to the front straight from the GuLag concetration camps, as for example marshall Rokossovski. The best example is Sergey Korolov, the famous rocket engineer, the man who launched Gagarin into space, who created his rockets in a Soviet labor camp. The famous physicist Landau was saved only because the Nobel prize winner Kapica backed him. That's the way it goes - someone is unhappy when he has no Chairman Mao over him, someone else demands absolute freedom.

Behind every glorious facade there is always hidden something ugly. When you read, that those wonderful, democratic Germans are selling entire factiories of sarin gas to Khaddafi, you no longer wish to write romantic stories in the mood of William Wharton. I always used to hope, that the world goes advances in the right direction. Now I've lost that hope. People make filthy things with the freedom they regained.

Krakow, summer 1996


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