It's the straw that breaks the camel's back. Or, in Witold Gombrowicz's 1967 novel Cosmos, it's "the drop that makes the cup overflow." It is just a tiny thing, almost weightless, that the two men see on their way to their holiday pension, and yet there is something about that tiny thing "that's 'too much,' " says the narrator, who happens to share his name with the author. "There is something like an excess of reality, its swelling beyond endurance ... I won't be able to swallow all this." One drop, and the spilling begins.
That drop is just a small bird. The two men, Witold and Fuks, looking for a retreat from their daily reality in Warsaw, come across a dead sparrow. It's hanged by the neck from the branch of a tree — an execution of a harmless creature, and a senseless sight that stuns the men. The questions unfurl. Someone had to have perpetrated this unnatural act, but who? And why? And why were the traveling companions the ones to discover it? Witold chokes on all of these questions. His rational mind overruns its banks.
Witold and Fuks begin to search for answers everywhere, even in a line drawn on their ceiling, even in the gossip of someone who heard something from someone else about a chicken who met a similar fate. With a dead chicken, they could maybe start to find a pattern, and that line on the ceiling just so happens to point to a wall that has a stick dangling from a string, that has to mean something. It has to be a sign. Their interest tips over into obsession as they hunt down the person responsible for the sparrow's death. It's an absurd pursuit, a feathery existential crisis. But the mystery grows larger until it threatens to swallow them. They want to find the signal in the noise and uncover the message that will explain everything. The men wanted a break from reality — from annoying bosses and overbearing parents, from the communist regime ruling Poland and the futility of life there — and they got it in ways they could not have imagined.
Danuta Borchardt's new English translation is the first to come directly from Cosmos' original Polish. Gombrowicz fans before now have had to settle for versions that were translated from the Polish to the French to the English — and like a Xerox of a Xerox, the quality suffered. You could make out the gist of things, but here the details come into focus. And with Gombrowicz's love of wordplay, of nonsense sounds and twisted aphorisms, the details are important. His story of two men desperate for a little meaning in the cosmos, even just enough to explain the strange death of a bird, shines with a glittery blackness. You'll start the book with just a drop, and soon enough you'll be engulfed.