The exact number is up for debate, and the reasons behind it are myriad, but the fact of the matter is that readers in the English speaking world read an exceptionally low number of books in translation—approximately 2 or 3 percent, according to an article by the BBC. Now, English is one of the world’s most widely spoken languages, and is the official language of countries on all six populated continents, so there is certainly a wealth of English language literature. But many many great works are written in other languages, and so translation provides an under travelled bridge to some truly amazing writing. One such writer is the Polish author Stanisław Lem.
Lem, who was most active in the 1960s and on the other side of the Iron Curtain, wrote stories and novels which simultaneously explored humanity’s relationships with itself and with the frequently mystifying universe, and how they relate to each other. Some of his works are comedic, others more serious. Some are set in the far future, some are set in the world next door. Some feature an entirely human cast, others are populated with aliens and robots. But all of them are deeply imaginative, intensely philosophical and thought provoking. And what’s more, line to line they’re beautifully written. Some writers have a tendency to present their best ideas through a haze of adequate prose, but not Lem. Even filtered through someone else’s translations, his talent and sheer delight in writing and imagining shines through.
If any of this has convinced you to give Lem’s work a try, allow me to recommend a few of his better titles. This is by no means a complete list, or even an attempt to select the best of Lem—just a few books that I’ve read which you might like to read too.
First up is “The Investigation.” This particular novel is one of Lem’s more grounded works, but “grounded” here is neither a synonym for “ordinary” nor “dull.” Retracing the faint prints of a mystery novel, the story follows a Scotland Yard inspector who is forced to grapple with a pattern of events which increasingly strains the age-old process of eliminating the impossible, and asks just how improbable a remainder human minds are willing to accept. The novel is set in London, but a sort of mythic London that takes at least as much inspiration from G.K. Chesterton, Arthur Conan Doyle and Robert Louis Stevenson as from the real city. If you read this one just for the atmosphere, you wouldn’t be disappointed, and the excellent story only adds more to the bargain.
If you’re looking for more humorous fare, you might want to start out with “The Cyberiad,” a collection of linked short stories with a comedic bent. They’re about a pair of robots who set out trying to create various types of life, and the hijinks that ensue. As is his wont, Lem manages to weave witty humor with deeper meaning, for an all around enjoyable read.
Finally, if you want something dense that you can really dive into, look no farther than “His Master’s Voice.” This is probably the closest thing to a magnum opus among his body of work, and it hits many of the core themes of his repertoire. It focuses on a military sponsored research project that was aimed at deciphering what may or may not have been a communication from extraterrestrial life. I won’t spoil any of the plot, but at the thematic core of the story are questions about exploring the limits of human knowledge in a universe that may be far more complicated than we are, and the search for meaning that must carry on all the same. All of this is carried out through the eyes of one of the more distinctive and opinionated narrators in fiction.
So if any of this has peaked your attention, then by all means, give Lem a try. Some of his works are easier to find than others, but I was able to find all of the ones I mentioned with minimal work at used book stores or websites. Happy reading.