“In the morning the elephant was moved to a special run in a central position, next to the monkey cage. Placed in front of a large real rock it looked fierce and magnificent. A big notice proclaimed: “particularly sluggish. Hardly moves.”
It is a rare thing to be able to make you laugh out loud about something that is far from laughable – the iron grip of a society that crushes the spirit – but it is with a wide smile on your face you race through The Elephant.
Mrozek knows how to deliver satire by the bucketful hitting the right mark everytime. A policeman who is stunned that anyone would want to lay a wreath at the statue commemorating trade unionists without having to be ordered to do so; the zoo that saves money by using an inflatable elephant; the man who’s honest weather station reports end up being deemed to be politically incorrect.
Underneath the laughter there is of course the tragedy of living in totalitarian Poland in the years when the grip of the USSR was a firm one indeed. But what Mrozek shows on page after page is that it is possible to ridicule the state by taking some of the excessive behaviour to the extreme.
This collection of 47 stories, some less than a page, was written when the USSR was still a powerful force in the late 1950s but in many ways the emotions and frustrations he writes about here are timeless and just as applicable to the modern reader.
The best way of illustrating that is by focusing on the title story. The zoo owner might well think that he has struck on a brilliant idea of saving money by canceling the order for a real elephant and using an inflatable one but he is providing a false representation to the school children who come to look at it.
Such a short story is able to say so much about the pathetic way the USSR tried to imitate the West as well as how it’s citizens were lied to on a regular basis. What thew children see is an elephant they are told will not move because it is temperamental. It even exposes the failings of a system that encourages box ticking rather than passion with the keepers filling the elephant with gas when they find blowing it up too difficult. But when it comes free of its moorings it moves in a way that no one could expect. Again there is a false experience for the viewers of the spectacle.
By lifting the veil and laughing at things that provoke fear and frustration this collection of short stories is a revelation that even in the darkest times there are writers prepared to use their skill to puncture the fear and nonsense of a totalitarian regime.