Where is the puzzle?

Paweł Majewski · 7 May 2013



Głos Pana [Master’s Voice] is remindful of a knotted tangle. It is rather impossible to say what this novel is actually about – about a search for an alien civilisation, about cultural mythology, about psychology of science, about the management of science or perhaps about the intricacies of a scholar’s personality. If great literature is literature most faithfully reflecting the intricacies of human condition (not necessarily through making the characters’ stories complicated), Głos Pana is undoubtedly great. It is also the only novel by Stanisław Lem where he directly takes up Jewish themes and the subject of war (if we exclude the second volume of the trilogy Czas nieutracony [Time Saved], one of the works sentenced by the author to oblivion), but it does it so shockingly that so far few have dared to analyse that motif. In no other work of fiction by Lem the fantasy themes are treated so instrumentally. Also the vagueness, the fuzzy inconclusiveness of the ending is sensed here more strongly than in Solaris, Eden or Fiasko.

On the outside Głos Pana is a story about an attempt to decipher a “letter from the stars”. This information is sufficient for every admirer of “great works” to give this novel a wide berth. All or almost all writings by Lem are doomed to this misunderstanding. For in the collective cultural awareness “literature” is still so strongly associated with “spirituality” that “sci-fi” cannot be widely regarded as something more than cheap time fillers for undemanding consumers. Even if in fact many examples of that genre are just that, we can fairly say the same about a whole lot of texts put together from “nobler” ingredients.

Lem fled from people to machines, from human world to the world of infinite spaces of the Cosmos, the “eternal silence” of which did not terrify him, as it had once terrified Pascal, but on the contrary, it filled him with peace. But he could not get rid of his own memory and smuggled its contents into his fiction. He once compared the creative act to flushing the toilet, which means that he associated writing with removing some impurities from the mind. But he probably referred more to the trauma – if we were to use fashionable terms – than abjection. Saying that Lem’s writings are a testimony of the Holocaust would then be less ridiculous than it might seem at first sight.

The eponymous “Master’s Voice” is a stream of neutrino emission characterised by an intriguing regularity, the discovery of which scientists owe not to themselves but to a few conmen, frauds and madmen. The research group trying to read and understand this message they are people with rich, difficult personalities, with a dramatic personal and historical past behind them, and the project itself is subject to political and military pressure in the cold war era. Lem conducts the narrative in such a way that all these factors overlap and mutually reinforce their impact, and the mystery of the comic message is lost in the labyrinth of human matters, more “unsolved” than the puzzle itself.

“Master’s Voice” in this novel is the absent centre of human condition, a radically external element around which all our internal problems converge. It endows them with a structure of a higher order, it brings together the pain of history and the pain of individuals crushed by it. But its overwhelming presence remains a phantom presence, as if the researchers placed their unfulfilled hopes in an empty vessel which can be filled with any content. It is visible in the title itself, invoking both religious and mystical contexts and the name of an American record company, its famous logo showing a dog listening to a gramophone tube. The lack of the possessive pronoun – “Master’s Voice” instead of “His Master’s Voice” – additionally confirms that the message is external to the human community. (But in the English translation this omission was scrupulously repaired).

All attempts at a symbolic or semantic interpretation of the neutrino cosmic noise get mired in the contradictions of human semiotics. The only material effect of studying the messages is a substance called “Frog’s Spawn” or “The Lord of Flies” – produced by two experiencing groups, it assumes two slightly different forms and receives two separate names. As “The Lord of Flies” (the meaning of “Beelzebub” in Hebrew) it constitutes a handful of pulsating red matter, observed by the narrator through a small pane of bullet-proof glass, in the company of numerous guards wearing protective overalls, in a deep well… The substance generates a frantic activity in flies and other insects placed near it.

Such is the material dimension of the Great Mystery. An instrument of crime or a chunk of meat hidden from the public – out of embarrassment or caution – and writhing convulsively in a air-tight chamber, among professional staff.


Stanisław Lem, Głos Pana, original publication: Warszawa 1968; several dozen Polish and foreign editions.