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Memoirs Found in a Bathtub by Stanislaw Lem

Memoirs Found in a Bathtub (original 1961; edition 1986)

by Stanislaw Lem

Series: Ijon Tichy (2.1)

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8401417,933 (3.6)21
The year is 3149, and a vast paper destroying blight-papyralysis-has obliterated much of the planet's written history. However, these rare memoirs, preserved for centuries in a volcanic rock, record the strange life of a man trapped in a hermetically sealed underground community. Translated by Michael Kandel and Christine Rose.… (more)
Title:Memoirs Found in a Bathtub
Authors:Stanislaw Lem
Info:Harcourt (1986), Paperback
Collections:Your library
Tags:sf, satire, bounced off

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Memoirs Found in a Bathtub by Stanisław Lem (Author) (1961)



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English (13)  French (1)  All languages (14)
Showing 1-5 of 13 (next | show all)
Memoirs Found in a Bathtub caught my eye simply for the novelty of the title and that bizarre cover. This book is difficult to sum up or even to rate as it truly has no discernible plot. Lest you dismiss it immediately because of this fact, let me assure you that there's much to recommend this title. The word play and circuitous path of our main character (who remains nameless) is satire at its finest. Espionage, counterespionage, and counter-counterespionage abound in The Building where our character has been given a very important Mission...if only he knew what it was. He is continually beset by obstacles in the form of bureaucrats, winding halls with nondescript doors, and instructions that keep vanishing. What would happen if humanity was forced to abandon its cities and move into an underground bunker? Would society, culture, and technology survive and continue to advance? Lem weaves a provocative tale of paranoia, confusion, and ultimately betrayal. 5/10 but would have been higher had there been a plot to follow. ( )
  AliceaP | Jan 31, 2020 |

“When you jump for joy, beware that no one moves the ground from beneath your feet.”
― Stanisław Lem

If you are up for writing with ample helpings of the polyglotomatic and metapsychodelic, Memoirs Found in a Bathtub, Stanislaw Lem’s 1961 novel of screwball bureaucratic misadventure will most certainly stir your brainwaves and set your neural neurons fizzing.

What a polyglot and metaphysician was our author - fluent in Polish, Latin, German, French, English, Russian, Ukrainian, Lem’s expertise ranged from medicine and biology, physics and astronomy, mathematics and robotics to philosophy, literature and linguistics. And added to this intellectual mix, such a protean imagination – numerous collections of highly provocative essays, dozens of short stories and seventeen science fiction novels, many judged among the best within the genre.

A twelve page Introduction (part of the novel) written hundreds of years into the future outlines how this manuscript, Notes from the Neogene, or its more commonly known title, Memoirs Found in a Bathtub, is a precious relic from Earth’s ancient past, "a period of decline which directly preceded the great Collapse," a time when paper was used extensively for writing. Among the numerous documented facts alluded to by this archaeologist of the future in his quest to discover the reasons behind the demise of that paper centered, bathroom centered, ancient civilization is a thriving cult revolving around Kap-Eh-Taahl, a deity denied supernatural existence. Yes, Kap-Eh-Taahl is “Capital,” one example of how the Introduction, scholarly and authoritative in tone, is a Stanislaw Lem-ish tour de force of word play, word blending, punning, spoonerisms, neologisms, double entendre, tongue-twisters and tongue-in-cheek.

Nevertheless these introductory remarks are picture-perfect as a set up to frame the narrative that follows, an extensive firsthand report authored by a newly assigned secret agent caught in an unending network of offices, corridors, stairs, elevators and bathrooms forming part of a vast underground military compound. If this strikes you as a Kafkaesque parable of little guy versus big bureaucracy, you hit the bulls-eye – much of the spirit of Lem's novel is captured in the above Jaroslav Rona sculpture located in Prague with natty Franz Kafka atop a headless, handless giant.

In the very first paragraph our disoriented narrator tells us he can’t locate the proper room amid multiple levels of departments and offices in this Pentagon-like Building as he attempts to press through crowds of marching military personnel, disguised agents and preoccupied secretaries. Kafka’s An Imperial Message comes immediately to mind, a tale where a messenger sent by the Emperor is trying to bring a special message for you alone but the messenger must push through a solid mass of humanity in an outer courtyard only to find another horde of people in the next courtyard blocking his way and so it continues, such that, alas, you will never receive your message. Anybody who has ever been obliged to deal with a bloated administrative system will hear a familiar ring.

The narrator wends his way to the office of powerfully built, bald, old General Kashenblade, Commander in Chief, only to be given an unidentified special mission. The more questions he asks about the specifics of his mission, the more indecipherable the explanations, even moving out to the stars, as when the old man pontificates, “And the spiral nebulae?! Well?! Don’t tell me you don’t know what that means! SPY-ral!! And the expanding universe, the retreating galaxies! Where are they going? What are they running from? And the Doppler shift to the red!! Highly suspicious – no more! A clear admission of guilt!!”

Such decidedly cerebral passages are reminiscent of another classic where imagination and erudite fancy mix with elements of physics, mathematics, astronomy and other sciences - t zero by Italo Calvino. Lem’s polyglot background frequently shines through with a light touch, a real treat for readers who enjoy heady subjects and brain teasers mixed in with their fiction.

Next stop, we follow our earnest special agent, now a man on a mission, to the main office where he is approached by a young officer who introduces himself as Lieutenant Blanderdash, the Chief’s undercover aide. Whoa, Stanislaw! Was that Blanderdash or Balderdash? Blanderdash proceeds to ask the agent if he yawns or snores (the department lost many people by snoring) before leading him to the Department of Collections to view, along with a multitude of other absurdities, cabinets with millions of cuff links and glass cases filled with artificial ears, noses, bridges, fingernails, warts, eyelashes, boils and humps.

Given such a display (no pun intended) of government and military intelligence brings to mind Moscow 2042 and other comic masterpieces by Vladimir Voinovich. Such a sharp satirical needle – too bad the archaeologist examining these memoirs assumes the narrator is entirely serious and completely reliable! He’s missing out on much of the irony and dark humor.

I’m reminded yet again of another author, Lewis Carroll and his Alice in Wonderland, most especially the Mad Hatter’s tea party. For the more I turned the pages, the more I had the feeling special agent Undereavesdropper Blassenkash (in Chapter 2 he answers to this title and name) is trapped in a building filled with a stream of Mad Hatters spouting sheer indecipherable nonsense. I actually found this one of the more amusing and more telling aspects of the tale since the madness is accentuated by our unfortunate narrator forever remaining the serious, formal straight man.

Perhaps agent Blassenkash finally comes to understand the underlying meaning of what’s going on: either all of this is a test for him to pass in his capacity as agent, or - fanfare tooted by Alice's White Rabbit on his tiny trumpet - everyone is a raving lunatic. Or, maybe he has been misled by enemy spies that have infiltrated the Building. Or, then again, his very presence in the Building is, in fact, his mission. Or a dozen other possibilities.

You will have to read for yourself to decipher the code. However, be aware – there could be more than one code. As a head Building official explains, “Now, there are calling codes, stalling codes, departmental codes, special codes, and – you’ll like this,” he grinned, “they’re changed every day. Each section, of course, has its own system, so the same word or name will have a different meaning on different levels.”

Stanisław Lem, age 50, at his typewriter in Kraków, Poland, 1971 ( )
  Glenn_Russell | Nov 13, 2018 |
Yeah I get it, Catch 22 in a dystopic post apocalyptic bunker. I still did not enjoy reading it at all. His Master's Voice is 1000x better for Lem. ( )
  billt568 | Sep 5, 2017 |
I thought that the most memorable bit of "Memoirs found in a Bathtub" was the stuff at the very beginning. Lem sets up a framing device in which an anthropological journal of the far future evaluates a text -- the eponymous memoirs -- that was found in the ruins of a subterranean capitalist-survivalist society that established itself under the Rocky Mountains after capitalism's eventual collapse. It's always delightful to read the past's future, but it's the studiously academic-yet-breezy tone here that gives this description its ironic bite.

The rest of the book, which purports to be the memoirs themselves, is something quite different: a critique of bureaucratic totalitarian systems, a cold war allegory, a mystery, and a farce all at once. It's got a lot to do with Kafka, with Orwell's "1984," and maybe with Koestler's "Darkness at Noon." As you can imagine, it's a somewhat claustrophobic, paranoid read, a narrative that constantly doubles back on itself as its protagonists' mental state deteriorates. I imagine that the political repression that Lem was writing under kept him from including too many specifics and this text, in the end, works against the book, I think: the work comes off as a bit more abstract and theoretical than it otherwise might have. Still, it might, I think, contain some sly criticism of mid-century American corporate culture: the book's filled with clean, well-lighted corridors, coffee cups, and paperwork. Of course, the massive, intractable bureaucracy described in "Memoirs" might as well describe some Soviet government department...but, well, it's hard to know. Still, even as it moves toward its inevitable end, the book manages to be, in places, weird, poignant, tricky and thoughtful. It's put Lem on my list of authors to track down. ( )
1 vote TheAmpersand | Oct 9, 2016 |
With Lem, you never know what you're going to get- you sit down with what sounds like a science fiction book, but will it actually be one of those, or something completely different? Make no mistake, besides the frame narrative this isn't so much a work of science fiction as it is Lem's take on Kafka.

It's a shame too, for two reasons: first, I was looking for a science fiction book and not Kafkaesque metafiction, and Second, the frame narrative sets up a very intriguing setting. Besides establishing the loss of the written word and the resulting dark ages, which don't end up mattering much going forward, the frame narrative also depicts a United States that lost the cold war, and the final bastion of the U.S. government sealed away in a vast underground base. Unfortunately (in my opinion), the rest of the book fails to capitalize on this setting.

Enter the narrative proper, a memoir of one of the inhabitants of this underground base written by a civilian agent assigned to carry out a mission of which he has not been informed of the details. But is there a mission at all? His journey takes him through incident after incident that leave him more and more confused about what is going on, both with himself and with the building. Is he being tested? Has the building been infiltrated by enemy agents? Is there any rhyme or reason to any of this at all? As is typical of books that take after Kafka, don't expect there to be any answers here. But is there meaning? Though the book is replete with religious symbols, I couldn't uncover anything about religion that the book was trying to say. Neither was there any political message here either, besides Cold War-paranoia writ-large and cranked up to eleven. The events themselves are barely connected, so there's no real story here besides the narrator's growing desperation. Eventually, after a certain number of incidents, it ends. After having finished, I don't consider the theme of invented meanings, narrative self-references, and omnipresent paranoia to be anything more than gimmicks.

I don't much care for Lem's take on Kafka, or his more experimental books in general (A Perfect Vacuum, for instance). If I wanted something of that sort I'd read Kafka himself, or Borges, or Dino Buzzati, or Michal Ajvaz, or Leo Perutz, or other writers who I think do that type of thing better than Lem does. Instead, I like Lem's more standard Science Fiction stories. That's what I expected to get out of this book, and was disappointed when I didn't. Even putting my personal expectations aside, however, I still don't think Memoirs Found in a Bathtub does Cold War Kafka particularly well, or says anything interesting with it. If you want Kafka with some very light science-fiction elements, I guess this could work for you, otherwise read one of the authors I've listed herein. ( )
1 vote BayardUS | Jan 10, 2016 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Lem, StanisławAuthorprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Kandel, MichaelTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Rose, ChristineTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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...I couldn't seem to find the right room--none of them had the number designated on my pass. First I wound up at the Department of Verification, then the Department of Misinformation, then some clerk from the Pressure Section advised me to try level eight, but on level eight they ignored me, and later I got stuck in a crowd of military personnel--the corridors rang with their vigorous marching back and forth, the slamming of doors, the clicking of heels, and over that martial noise I could hear the distant music of bells, the tinkling of medals.
"Notes from the Neogene" is unquestionably one of the most precious relics of Earth's ancient past, dating from the very close of the Prechaotic, that period of decline which directly preceded the Great Collapse. It is indeed a paradox that we know much more of the civilizations of the Early Neogene, the protocultures of Assyria, Egypt and Greece, than we do of the days of paleoatomics and rudimentary astrogation.
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This is not a collection of two novels by Lem, but two screenplays by Stanislaw Lem and Jan Józef Szczepanski based on these two novels.
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