It took me twenty years to find Stanisław Lem. For the first 19 years I didn’t really know I was looking, but apparently I was. The last year was the hardest, not least because the guy was dead by then and consequently rarely attended book signings.
I started not looking for Stanisław Lem in 1988. As a callow young student of philosophy I was handed a collection of essays facetiously entitled The Mind’s I. Three of Mr Lem’s mind-expanding pieces were included and I liked them very much. In fact they changed my life, but that was nothing particularly unusual when I was 18; a couple of weeks later something else changed my life as well, and then something else a few days after that. When you’re 18 life-changing experiences can be stumbled upon up to 14 times a week with minimum effort.
I liked these essays so much in fact that I even bothered to remember the name of the author. Stanisław Lem. Pronounced Stanislaw Lem in the untutored English mind. Apparently he was from Poland, wherever the hell that was. Lem lived in the part of my mind that thought about mind-body conundrums, Cartesian duality, and the Chinese Room – this department rarely got in touch with the Real-World Geography department or went out for a pint with them on a Friday.
Tribodice family, by Stanisław Lem
I continued not looking for Lem for about a decade. Whenever I happened across one of his books in a second hand emporium, however, I seized it and hid it down the front of my trousers. My my, what strange and illuminating things they were, and not just because they made odd angular bulges in my Levis. On the TV news came and went about revolutions, upheavals, Solidarities, Wałęsas, and John Pauls. I paid them little heed.
In 1998 my continuing non search for Stanisław Lem took a sudden and unexpected turn when I inexplicably moved to Poland.
I completely failed to look for Stanisław Lem for another year, until I happened across one of his slim, intriguing volumes in a branch of Empik. The chaps from Mind-Body Conundrums and Real-World Geography finally got together for a chin wag and telexed me an important message, it said:
“Hey you, brain guy. You see this strange country all around you full of scowling people, trams, and balconies? Well we’ve just figured out this is where that Lem guy is from. Pay attention, you might learn something.”
I paid attention. I learned that Stanisław Lem lived in somewhere called Krakow, which was a magical city far away in the south where there were, quite literally, dragons. This intelligence seemed rather unlikely, and confirming it apparently meant sitting on a train for 5 hours, so I hung loose and waited. After a bit I forgot all about it and accidentally moved back to England.
Most of another decade passed in the ineffable way that decades have of passing. I periodically unearthed copies of Lem’s works that I had stashed in strategic book dumps around the world, reread them and had my mind expanded or infuriatingly confounded all over again.
Family in a tube, by Stanisław Lem
In 2002 George Clooney starred in a James Cameron production of Solaris, which is Lem’s most easily digested novel. This was too much to ignore. I had seen the 1972 Tarkowski version and recalled the scene where Kris Kelvin stands watching the rain falling on the lake before leaving Earth as one of my favourite moments in cinema history. In my typically perverse way I had always refused to seek out and read the novel itself. I still can’t bring myself to read Roadside Picnic for the same reason, I always chicken out after the first two pages.
The homunculi had a bit of a conflab and decided to send me back to Poland. The first I heard about this was a strange compulsion to spend the summer of 2006 in Krakow. At the last moment I received an interdepartmental email suggesting that I try and find out exactly where Lem lived so that we could hang around outside his house and see the great man nipping out for his morning paper. I looked, and found out that he had died about four days earlier; morning papers were no longer on the agenda.
Now that Stanisław Lem was actually dead I could safely start looking for him. I told you I was perverse.
I found the cemetery with minimum effort. Of course, if the internet had existed in 1988 my entire non plan would no doubt have been scuppered right away by a foolishly hasty google search that would have fed me into a livecam from the Lem bedroom.
Stanisław Lem is buried in the Salwator Cemetery about half way up Bronisława Hill in the west of Krakow. It’s a truly spectacular cemetery. Situated on the southern shoulder of the hill it commands fabulous views of the city and the river. I went there right away.
The Temple to Fallen Octabods, possibly
How do you find a dead man in a cemetery? Not hard. How do you find a dead Stanisław Lem in a cemetery? Not so easy. I looked around for a bit and saw a lot of interesting things, but I didn’t see the grave of Stanisław Lem. I could have asked somebody, but I hope by now you understand that wouldn’t have been in the spirit of the non search.
Just read the names. It can’t be that easy… can it?
A year has passed and now I know where the gravestone with Stanisław Lem’s name on it is, whatever that means. I won’t spoil anything, your non search is just beginning.