Basque Devil

07.09.2016 Zygmunt Haupt
  • Czarne, Wołowiec 2016
    150 × 230, 752 pages
    ISBN: 978-83-8049-260-8

Zygmunt Haupt (1907–1975) is a remarkable writer, perhaps one of a kind, and, as sometimes is the fate of writers, is still waiting to be discovered by the public at large. In his lifetime he published only a single book, the short-story collection Band of Paper (Instytut Literacki, Paris 1963), but his oeuvre, scattered through journals and collected in the writer’s archive, is significantly larger. The bulk of it – short stories and a bit of reportage – has been collected by Aleksander Madyda in Basque Devil, which, with the companion volume From Red Ruthenia: Sketches, Stories, Reviews, Variants (worked on by the same editor, featuring smaller pieces and reportage, as well as a selection of Haupt’s drawings), might be basically treated as Haupt’s collected works.

This year’s edition of Basque Devil is the second, and substantially corrected edition of the collection, providing another chance to become acquainted with Zygmunt Haupt’s prose.

The autobiographical gawęda [a kind of raconteur tale] is a natural mode of expression for this author born in Ułaszkowce, Podole (on the eastern borderlands of the old Republic). I use the term gawęda because the trademark of Haupt’s narrative is a surrender to the flow of living speech, with all its awkwardness and rough spots, and a direct address to the reader, before whose eyes the author searches his memory for the right word or detail. Nonetheless, we should stress that these are a special brand of story. Naturally, Haupt recalls various episodes from his life (which was undoubtedly adventurous: a childhood and youth in a cultural melting pot of different religions, languages, and customs, a sojourn in Paris, time spent in Lwów’s bohemian circles, and two world wars – in the defensive war of 1939 Haupt fought in the artillery, and then served in the Polish armed forces in the West, spending the rest of his life as an émigré in the USA), but we might search in vain for a linear autobiography in his prose, or a systematic account of what he experienced. On the contrary – he seems to be forever falling into another digression, changing the point of view in kaleidoscopic fashion. There are no clear conclusions – more important than a tight anecdote finished with a clear message seems to be the isolated and remarkably intense recollection of a detail from language, nature, or behavior – a landscape, or his mental state from years past. Most of Haupt’s stories depict events distant in time, to which the author returns, often more than once, to apprehend them in different ways and from different perspectives, and to patiently delve into the existential meaning of old encounters, loves, life decisions, and incidents. And finally, he does this to explore the mechanisms and meanderings of memory. Haupt achieves all this through an exquisite use of language, fluctuating between registers and rhythms, with a vast vocabulary and the sensibility of a painter. Often – as if yearning to delve deeper into a reality crowded with words, colors, and objects – the writer takes to his penchant for listing things, enumerating the various details of the world he portrays, though generally it exists only in his memory.

All this makes the stories of Zygmunt Haupt the kind of prose which one can reread for all one’s life, always finding new aspects, tracing the threads that wind through the various texts, trying to understand the intricate structure of the stories as they come. It is not by chance that some critics describe Haupt’s writing as profoundly poetic, comparing it to a great, digressive epic poem. One thing is certain – whoever spends time with the prose of Zygmunt Haupt will never mistake it for anyone else’s.     


Marcin Sendecki

Translated by Soren Gauger