Andrzej Bobkowski was born in Wiener Neustadt on the 27th October 1913; he died in Guatemala on the 26th of June 1961. His father was Professor at the Theresianishe Akademie who later became a general.
The Bobkowskis' moved many times, living in Lida, Wilno and Modlin but he graduated in Krakow in 1933. From 1933 till 1936 he studied in the Warsaw School of Economics. In 1939 he moved to France with his wife and worked in an arms factory in Chatillon. After the Nazi occupation, the factory was moved to the south of France. He tried unsuccessfully to enlist in the Polish army and then decided to go back to Paris using the only means available, a bicycle. This was an eventful and enlightening journey described day-by-day in his diary Szkice piórkiem / Sketched With the Quill (also "Drawing-Pen Sketches", "Pen-Sketches").
After returning to Paris in 1940, he worked in the liquidation office of Atelier de Construction de Chatillon secretly helping Polish workers.
After the war, he was the manager of the Polish Bookshop in Paris and then worked as a storeman of YMCA. With Andrzej Chciuk he co-edited the underground Lyon press "Razem Młodzi Przyjaciele" ("All Together Young Friends") which existed from February 1945 till May 1947. During that time he also published literature and some teacher's books.
An important event for Bobkowski was involvement with the 'Independence and Democracy' organization in exile. There he developed his reflections on the post-war world. In the organization's 'Trybuna' press, he published his opinions about post-Yalta Europe and his critique of European culture. The 'Old World' seemed to him very parochial.
Bobkowski, obviously needed something different, something challenging and more active. He was full of old European illusions and delusions; he wanted to be independent so he determined to create his own future and, in his censorious works published in 'Trybuna', he sharply criticized those who did not. Here is what he wrote about Western Europe in "Pytania dzikich ludzi" / 'Questions of Savages', printed in No 50 of 'Kultura' in 1951:
Europe? Comfort seeking and cowardly pars pro toto replaced term 'Europe' and its essence and meaning dissolved in it so completly, that ever the brightest Europeans are not aware of it.
Europe, according to Bobkowski, became its own shadow, lost its energy and its culture; lost its creative impetus. Therefore, in 1948, he emigrated with his wife to Guatemala where in a not completely civilized but exotic country he started a new life. Initially he opened a model-making Hobby Shop and soon was well-known attracting both young and elderly people. In that new reality he seemed to feel at home. He knew that he was responsible for himself. Bobkowski wanted to be independent so he chose an uncertain but fascinating future.
He did not agree with 'collectivism' as practiced in Soviet Russia because it had broken so many human lives and fortunes. In one of the letters from Guatemala to Andrzej Chciuk in 1957 he wrote:
...As far as I am concerned, I exist and feel good about that. I adore my adopted country. I feel great here and I would come back to Homeland only if I lost my mind. Nobody will pull my leg, because in the present political system, even after October [Polish October '56], nothing can be built.
In Sketched With the Quill Bobkowski decried the 'Polishness sickness'. He did not like shallow, sentimental, reminiscent pictures. On the other hand, he was fascinated by Joseph Conrad who marked new paths for Polish emigrants. Bobkowski, like Conrad, wanted to break free from unbearable 'Polishness', becoming instead a real Pole and doing something important for Poland.
Andrzej Bobkowski died after a few years of fighting with cancer in Guatemala 26th of June 1961 and was buried there. He lived only 48 years.
Sadly, Bobkowski did not have enough time to fully develop his literary talent. Instead his writings are a scattering of political and historical facts and his own comments, anecdotes, digressions, intrinsic moods and experiences. Bobkowski was a great observer seeing both the whole and noting important details thus unveiling and stressing the deeper meaning of events. He wrote passionately and was a real polemic always trying to present 'pure' situations, either commendable or contemptible. This attitude did not usually win him friends. His works manifest an independent attitude and acute judgment in every situation.
Andrzej Bobkowski made his debut with a humorous sketch in 'Tempo Dnia' press in 1935, while he was still studying. From early on, his works present more than just reflections of the world. In his prose he searched to discover deeper, hidden motivations.
Bobkowski's life was shaped by the turbulence of the era. The war and political situation in Poland that followed compelled him to emigrate. He hated communism and refused to live under pitiless ideology. He exulted in freedom, the right to make one's own decisions. He was disillusioned by socializm. In Sketched With the Quill he wrote that a human being is 'an eternal surprise' who needs to be left alone to live the way he chooses. The book is a deeply personal diary of his bicycle journey from Carcassone to Paris through Cote d'Azur. That journey expanded his knowledge of the outer world but also helped him discover himself. Bobkowski thought deeply about the weaknesses of democratic Europe, finding a counterbalance in actions of individuals. To find a place for himself he ran away from 'a culture that couldn't defend itself'.
The book, even now, contains inspiration, and a warning. Bobkowski cautioned his readers about the trend toward the devaluation of the individual human being and surrendering personal freedom to a political system. Form of ephemeral, 'sketched' notes.
Andrzej Bobkowski did not write a lot. However, he read a lot, even while living in Guatemala he was interested in developments in Europe and Poland. He worked and lived intensely and, like most writers, his prose, short stories and essays, became increasingly profound as he matured. His writing concentrated on enduring values: loyalty, fidelity and responsibility. He struggled to define his situation in the world beginning with Sketched With the Quill. Life was an adventure for Bobkowski, but was primarily a moral challenge.
Characters in Bobkowski's short stories usually reach a border, which they cannot pass. He leads them through narrow and tough paths, between areas of truth and lies. In communist Poland that meant the temptation to have an easy, but politically and morally corrupt, life. Bobkowski emphasized this dilemma in Pożegnanie / Farewell, which examines the dramatic choices made after the war. For him the decision was obvious; during the Cold War he would not, could not, return to Poland.
His short stories were first published in Giedroyc's 'Kultura' press. They were eventually published, as a whole, in 1970 entitled Coco de Oro: Sketches and Short Stories. Józef Czapski perceived Bobkowski as a complex personality difficult to understand, so in the forward to the book he stated:
How can I write about him? A human being veiled as a writer, because Andrzej was not 'a pure writer'. He disliked 'highbrows intellectuals', earned a living in a shop in Guatemala with a model-making team. Being independent, being able to simply lie on the grass or go swimming, was as important for him as writing.
Andrzej Bobkowski came to Europe while visiting a modelling contest in Sweden in 1955. Two years later he received a prize from London's 'Wiadomości' press for a short story Spadek / Inheritance.
Just before he lost his battle with cancer, he wrote that it is most important to live 'now', not to hold onto the past, not to stop nor try to go back. True to his word, that is how he lived and died.
Sketched With the Quill, vol. 1, 2, Paris, 1957;
Coco de Oro. Sketches and Short Stories, preface Józef Czapski, Paris 1970.Author: Wojciech Kaliszewski, College of the Family Covenant in Warsaw, May 2003.
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