For our Marginalia web feature, we ask writers to introduce us to their favorite works of literature by way of a short piece of prose. This week Brandon Haffner, whose story “Omnipotence” appears in the Spring 2021 issue, examines a passage from Cosmos by Witold Gombrowicz.
Witold Gombrowicz’s 1965 novel Cosmos is often marketed as a “thriller,” a “mystery,” or as a “detective novel.” And indeed, by the novel’s third page, a mystery arises. Upon arriving at a wooded resort in the Carpathian Mountains, the narrator and his traveling companion, Fuks, stumble upon a disturbing sight: a dead sparrow, hanged from a tree by a wire:
Who hanged it, why, for what reason? . . . my thoughts were entangled in this overgrowth abounding in a million combinations, the jolting train ride, the night filled with the rumble of the train, lack of sleep, the air, the sun, the march here with this Fuks, there was Jasia and my mother, the mess with the letter, the way I had “cold-shouldered” my father, there was Roman, and also Fuks’s problem with his boss in the office (that he’s been telling me about), ruts, clods of dirt, heels, pant legs, pebbles, leaves, all of it suddenly fell down before the bird, like a crowd on its knees, and the bird, the eccentric, seized the reign . . . and reigned in this nook.
—Witold Gombrowicz, Cosmos
At first, it seems our narrator (also named Witold) will embark to solve the “who” and “why” mysteries of the sparrow. But the urgency of Witold’s opening question gives way to thoughts both frenetic and sleepy, enormous and small: Mother, Father, sun, air, pant legs, pebbles. Though when the tornado of images finally touches Earth—Witold’s world falls “down before the bird”—Witold appears once again determined to solve the problem of the sparrow. Back on track.
Yet, defiantly, the ensuing pages and chapters continue to wander—dreamlike, strange, smothering each “mystery” or “thriller” convention as soon as it pops up for air. Clues lead nowhere. We take long, aimless walks through the Polish countryside. Thoughts meander for pages at a time. And instead of solving the crime, our narrator, much later in the novel, even commits a heinous act himself. “What am I doing?” he asks himself in the moment, but not out of self-admonishment or self-awareness. He simply doesn’t know. The novel’s events—as in life—don’t causally connect so much as echo one another. By the final lines, which reveal nothing but what Witold had for dinner that night, I’m left laughing at myself for ever craving answers. Cosmos helped me find the joy of not-knowing, the bittersweet delight of bewilderment.