My rating: 5 of 5 stars
If you enjoyed Joseph Heller’s Catch 22, which is to say you like gallows humor that scoffs at the folly of thinking of “bureaucratic logic” as anything other than an oxymoron, then Stanislaw Lem’s Memoirs Found in a Bathtub will be right up your alley. The premise is that future archeologists are trying to decipher what happened to humanity from a dearth of remaining documentation. One of the best and most extensive of these records is the memoirs of a bureaucrat telling of his experience in a subterranean complex that reads a lot like a spoof on the Pentagon. The 31st century timeline in which a future generation tries to understand the intervening dark ages is only discussed in the prologue, the remainder is the first person account of this bureaucrat of ill-chosen profession.
The narrator tells us about his final assignment, one that was so secret that his superiors couldn’t even tell him what it was. When he finally does get some written guidance, it’s stolen. Throughout the story, the author is shifting through various departments of this complex trying to figure out what is going on and with little initial success. At first he’s trying to figure out what his mission is, but later he’s just trying to figure out what’s real and meaningful–and if those concepts retain any usefulness. Along the way, odd and spectacular events occur that leave him thinking he’s being framed. He doesn’t know if he’s in a test, in the middle of a conspiracy, or amid a collection of lunatics.
There are sections that read quite like a Monty Python sketch, and the absurdist humor is sometimes like that of Douglas Adams–though more sparing and dark. There’s a scene featuring an officer who tries to talk the narrator into confessing, and I could only picture said officer in my mind as Eric Idle. Among the absurdist elements is the explanation of office operations. We are told that command was unable to deal with accurately and swiftly circulating memos because of the volume, and so they took to a random system in which paperwork was indiscriminately circulated until it happened upon the correct desk. There’s an officer who begins to chew and swallow envelopes to prevent information from falling into the wrong hands. One of the best examples of absurdist humor is a conversation with a cryptologist who suggests that everything is a code and, ignoring messages that seem to be of military value and that are not coded, takes to using a machine to “decipher” random literature into nonsensical messages.
Nothing is as it seems in this book, and the humor derives from the narrator being the only individual who insists on the world making sense. If you’ve ever been in a position where you had to interact regularly with a bureaucracy, you’ll understand the value of laughing at such humor to avoid weeping. Much of the humor comes from the desire to keep things secret while trying to know everything there is. The narrator keeps finding not-so-subtle fly-shaped spy devices on his coffee saucer. There are blatant lies about behavior that takes place right before the narrator’s eyes. When he’s institutionalized, it turns out that the other inmates are not at all who they seem to be either.
If Stanislaw Lem is not an author familiar to you (he’s a Polish writer who died in 2006), this is a good work to cut your teeth on. It’s not one of his most well-known pieces, but it’s humorous and easier to follow than Solaris. Fans of Kurt Vonnegut and Robert Heinlein are also likely to enjoy this book. I recommend it.