# 15 = Volume 5, Part 2 = July 1978
The Historical SF of Teodor Parnicki
The Polish novelist Teodor Parnicki has for a long time been developing the
practice and concept of the "historical fantasy" or historical SF
novel. This seems to be an important literary innovation, and it is amazing that
Polish literary critics have not shown much comprehension of it, treating it
mainly as a formal experiment of no general consequence, or stubbornly claiming
Parnicki's works for the literature of the absurd — a classification which he
himself staunchly opposes. In this short overview I merely wish to indicate that
Parnicki's novels belong to the genre of "possible fantasy" or SF,
that they have a significant inner consistency and logic that should eventually
earn this author a rightful recognition, and that the notion of "historical
SF" should be introduced into the theory and history of literature.
The consistency and logic probably began when Parnicki made his first choice
— which was to become a Polish writer. Born in 1908 in Berlin as the son of a
Polish couple, brought up from the age of three in Russia, where his engineer
father had moved, Parnicki entered the military school at Monsk during the First
World War, and was evacuated with it to Vladivostok. In 1920 he ran away from
the military school and traveled to Harbin in Manchuria, where he began to study
at the local Polish high school. At the age of 12 he first began to speak
Polish. In 1928, after graduating from the high school, he went to Poland and
entered Lwow University, where he took English and Polish Philology, and also a
course in Oriental studies. Thus he was almost 20 when he first came to Poland;
it is here that I would seek for the origin of his objective and analytical
attitude to Polish history and language, which provides the basis for his
intellectually subtle historical SF. He began writing before the Second World
War as a columnist and author of short stories published in the daily press.
This apprentice phase ended with his first novel, AETIUS, THE LAST ROMAN1 (1937),
for which he was awarded a travel scholarship to the Mediterranean by the Polish
Academy of Literature. He returned to Poland a few days before the German
invasion, and in 1941 worked in the Polish embassy in the USSR as cultural
attaché. In 1942, together with other embassy employees, he was evacuated first
to Teheran and then to Jerusalem, where he published THE SILVER EAGLES2
(1943). This second novel treats the rise of the Polish state within the context
of a medieval Europe divided between the Greco-Roman and a German civilization.
AETIUS was already written with the understanding (as Parnicki later formulated
it) that historical fiction must simultaneously treat its characters as simply
people, and as people who are under specific influences from their surrounding
conditions. THE SILVER EAGLES goes one step further. In this novel Parnicki is
interested not only in facts, but even more in possibilities. To what was is
added what could have been — in this case the possibility of a Slavic Hegemony
in 10th-century Christian Europe. (Parnicki's concept was later discussed by
historians and it was acknowledged that such a possibility had indeed existed.)
After the Middle East, Parnicki went to London, and then to Mexico, where he
settled and wrote many novels, which were subsequently published in Poland. He
visited Poland in 1963 and 1965, and in 1967 settled in Warsaw. His major
postwar works are THE END OF THE CONCORD OF NATIONS3 (1955), which
takes place in Hellenistic Central Asia, in the Bactrian monarchy, and first
presents Parnicki's hypothesis of the historical creative role of half-breeds;
WORD AND FLESH4 (1959), a study of the creative functions of words,
unfolding the history of Chrosroes (3rd century AD) and Markia, the concubine of
the emperor Commodus; THE NEW FABLE (1962-70), a cycle of six novels5
located at various times and places around the world, which contains not only
the "half-breed theory" but also SF elements, as when Parnicki in the
second volume, following the suggestions of some historians that Joan of Arc did
not perish at the stake, has her leave for America; ONLY BEATRICE6
(1962); STRANGE EVEN AMONG THE MIGHTY7 (1965); and LITURGY GENEALOGY8
(1974), a series of lectures at Warsaw University.
Since 1968 Parnicki has published seven novels with "historical SF"
motifs: KILL CLEOPATRA9 (1968), CLEOPATRA'S OTHER LIFE10
(1969), IDENTITY,11 THE MUSE OF DISTANT JOURNEYS12 (1970),
TRANSFORMATION13 (1973), WE BECAME LIKE UNTO TWO DREAMS14
(1973), and I SHALL LEAVE DEFENSELESS15 (1977). This is a sign of his
increasing involvement in a conscious effort to revitalize the historical novel
by these means. The first conscious or programmatic effort at such historical SF
was already the second part of WORD AND FLESH, dealing as it does with an
investigation into historical existence versus non-existence. In the 1960s
Parnicki's cognitive pessimism, a lack of confidence in the truth and veridicity
of his sources, was increasing. His heroes began to get entangled into
commentaries, then commentaries on the commentaries, and even debates on the
subtleties of language. Characteristically, the author's careful consideration
of the authenticity of some protagonists does not differ in style from the
protagonists' own attempts to find their identity (itself the title of a 1970
novel listed above).
It is becoming clear that already in his first works Parnicki was conscious
that the code of the historical novel of the Scott or Sienkiewicz type had been
used up. Some of the reasons that eventually turned Parnicki to historical SF
are revealed in his later discussion of the success of the French novelist Jean
d'Ormesson, who had among other novels published the popular La Glorie de
l'Empire: "The field of historical SF is a challenge to what is called
the historical novel... shouldn't we consider it as a mutiny against the tyranny
of the historical novel?" And further:
We may call it either mutiny or tiredness. No doubt this occurs in my last
books. One may say that my immediate reader-addressees do not feel this
tiredness to the extent I do, since I have an impression that my readers
prefer those novels of mine which are truly historical rather than those which
are historical SF. And maybe it should be said about d'Ormesson's reading
public that either it is itself tired of historical truth, or it has mutinied
against the extent to which real history in fact gives so little. (Interview
in Literature in świecie, No. 4, 1974]
In spite of Parnicki's reservations, his problems and the problems of his
environment seem thus to be the same as those of d'Ormesson and his environment.
The necessity of the revivification of the historical novel is a common one, and
the difference lies in the height of the intellectual hurdles to be overcome by
the readers of those two so different writers — hurdles that are much higher
in Parnicki's case.
In 1965, in the introduction to his novel STRANGE EVEN AMONG THE MIGHTY,
Parnicki revealed his plan of writing historical SF and gave a definition of
writing historical SF ... ought to have as its starting point a completely
conscious attempt of the author to stand against indubitable historical truth,
e.g. in a novel which would be based on a consciously fantastic assumption (of
the "what would happen if" type) that the Roman emperor Julian did not
die (as he really did) during the war with Persia in 363, but lived and ruled
for the next 20 or 25 years. In a novel based on such an assumption the most
important problem would be, of course, the vicissitudes of Christianity and the
Roman Empire and, maybe, of the world as a whole (at least the world of Europe,
Asia, and Africa) as the consequence of the prolonged reign of Emperor
Julian.... A concept of this sort has tempted me for at least 25 years — but I
have never had the courage to set to work on it, because it has always seemed to
me that such an attempt would surpass my intellectual and creative abilities.
The novel of the time of the emperor Julian, I SHALL LEAVE DEFENSELESS, has
just been published. Its appearance was preceded and prepared for by two other
novels, THE HATCHERY OF WONDERS16 and THE MUSE OF DISTANT JOURNEYS.
The former is written as an apocryphal 17th-century fantasy on a 20th-century
theme, an attempt to write an SF novel about the 20th century from the point of
view of a man living in the 17th. In it, for the first time since THE SILVER
EAGLES, Parnicki relies strongly on plot. Similarly, THE MUSE OF DISTANT
JOURNEYS suggestively renders the vicissitudes of the imaginary "Fourth
Polish Kingdom" in the 19th century, in which Mickiewicz is minister of
education and faith, Krasinski is ambassador to Petersburg, and Slowacki is an
emigré to Mexico. Such a transformation of history follows on Parnicki's old
idea as to what would have happened if the (historically defeated) Polish
November 18th Uprising had been victorious (that it could have been victorious
we are told in a book by an historian, Jerzy Lojek, entitled THE CHANCES OF THE
NOVEMBER UPRISING). Commenting on THE MUSE OF DISTANT JOURNEYS, the author said,
"Out of the edifice of history I take one brick impressed with history's
reliable seal; in its place I put another; and consider all the consequences of
this operation." Parnicki also pointed to its didactic origin: "I
should remind you that this 'if-ing' was the subject of rhetoric lessons in
ancient times, lessons not only about logical, but also historic and dialectic
reasoning. A pupil had to submit corrections to and various alternatives of the
past utilizing his knowledge."
As for his latest novel, I SHALL LEAVE DEFENSELESS, it consists of three
parts, of which the first describes a ship expedition beyond the Pillars of
Hercules, sent by the emperor Julian. A group of people on board are bound to
each other with complex ties; in the second part, these ties are revealed in all
their ambiguity, as the action shifts to the Red Sea. In part three, the
connectedness of the preceding action and the secret plans of "Julian the
Apostate" are exposed. Furthermore, the author steps out in person and
conducts a discussion with the protagonists on history and its cognitive limits.
Parnicki's novels are sometimes called charades, and this seems to hold for the
Julian novel. Over 600 pages, it focuses relentlessly on the mysteries of
history. The imaginary premise that Julian did not die during his Persian
campaign in 363 is treated as a game, a cognitive experiment which should expose
the true nature of historical events. This is the method by which Parnicki
strives to inform SF with high intellectual values.
1. Aecjusz ostatni Rzymianin. The titles in the text in
LARGE AND SMALL CAPS are literal English renderings of the titles of Polish
books that have not been published in English and hence have no official English-language
2. Srebrne orly.
3. Koniec Zgody Nadodów.
4. Slowo i cialo.
5. Nowa basn, with the volumes Robotnicy wezwani o
jedenastej (WORKERS WERE SUMMONED AT 11 O'CLOCK), Czas siania i czas
zbierania (A TIME FOR SOWING AND A TIME FOR REAPING), Labirynt (THE
LABYRINTH), Gliniane dzbany (THE CLAY PITCHERS), Wylegarnia dziwow (THE
HATCHERY OF WONDERS), and Palec zagrozenia (THE THREATENING FINGER).
6. Tylko Beatrycze.
7. I u moznych dziwny.
8. Rodowód literacki.
9. Zabij Kleopatre.
10. Inne zyzie Kleopatry.
12. Muza dalekich podrózy.
14. Stalismy jak dwa sny.
15. Sam wyjde bezbronny.
16. See Note 5.
The Polish novelist Teodore Parnicki has for some time been
publishing novels best defined as historical SF. These include Kill Cleopatra
(1968), Cleopatra's Other Life (1969), The Muse of Distant Journeys (1970),
Transformation (1973), We Became Like Unto Two Dreams (1973), and, most
recently, I Shall Leave Defenseless (1977). The premise of this last novel is
that the Emperor Julian did not die during his Persian campaign in 363; the novel is a
game, a cognitive experiment that undermines historical "fact" by denying it and
constructing an alternative story. Polish literary critics have shown little comprehension
of Parnicki's importance, claiming his works for the literature of the absurd, a
classification that the author himself opposes. In this short overview, I argue that
Parnicki's novels belong to the genre of SF, that they have a significant inner
consistency and logic that should eventually earn this author a rightful recognition, and
that the idea of "historical SF" should be introduced into the theory and study
of science fiction.
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