‘The Elephant’ by Sławomir Mrożek, translated by Konrad Syrop

Mrożek’s compact fables turn the bureaucratic illogic and rigidity of life in the Stalinist Poland of the 1950s into deadpan satirical vignettes. The pieces find “absurdity” not in some abstruse realm of avant-garde ideas, but in the frustrations and deceptions of everyday life. In the title-story to this collection, the “elephant” allocated to a cash-starved zoo turns out to be ersatz: a rubber surrogate that modestly refuses to waste the precious hard currency that a real beast would cost. But even simulacra (that inescapable Polish motif again) may acquire a transformative life of their own…

First published 1957; collected in The Elephant, Penguin Central Europe Classics, 2010

‘The Elephant’ by Slawomir Mrozek

The One with the Inflatable Elephant: 

You’ve obviously already read this classic short story because you’re smart and literary as well as being gorgeous to look at, but I’m still going to talk about it because it’s perfect (just like you).

When a provincial zoo in communist Poland is allocated an elephant, the ambitious zoo director instead suggests exhibiting a fake, inflatable elephant in order to save money. But the keepers tasked with inflating the model elephant decide to save time and effort by attaching it to a gas pipe…

In the morning the elephant was moved to a special run in a central position, next to the monkey cage. Placed in front of a large real rock it looked fierce and magnificent. A big notice proclaimed: “Particularly sluggish. Hardly moves”…

Totalitarian regimes are always ripe for satire, but Mrozek’s deadpan (there’s that word ‘deadpan’ again, hmm) stories are more like fairy tales than straight allegories. There’s always something else going on – the anarchic joy of anticipation as we wait for the inevitable disaster, the ‘astonished monkeys’ watching the elephant fly away, the brief mention of children turned into drunken hooligans by the horror of what they’ve witnessed…

(in The Elephant, 1957)