‘The Rat’ by Witold Gombrowicz, translated by Bill Johnston

Pitched in period and mood between Kafka and Orwell, Gombrowicz’s stories of the Twenties and Thirties filter contemporary horrors through his macabre and surreal imagination. They can still shake readers who succumb to its power. In ‘The Rat’, a fearsome brigand named only “Hooligan” falls into the clutches of a torturing judge, Skorabkowski. How can this vengeful enforcer of the law “transform the bandit’s nature” when the impenitent Hooligan mocks every physical torment? The titular rat alone – first a rodent, then a kind of absolute Platonic idea of terror – can gnaw into his soul.  As in Kafka (and Orwell?), order needs transgression; but does crime also crave punishment?

First published 1937; collected in Bacacay, Archipelago Books, 2010