the Little Red Reviewer

The Investigation, by Stanislaw Lem

Posted on: October 8, 2011

I know, I know, classics month isn’t until January, but I’d started reading this book (and couldn’t put it down) before I made that announcement the other day.

The Investigation, by Stanislaw Lem

published in 1974

where I got it: purchased used

why I read it: had read his Fiasco many years ago and was looking to read more of his books.

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I think I’m finally old enough to appreciate Stanslaw Lem. I read his Fiasco when I was in college, and I enjoyed it, but I didn’t get it (huh, maybe I should have taken that Literature class).   Maybe it’s a Eastern European thing (Lem is Polish), but his books simply don’t read like American or British books.  Metaphysical double meanings, characters who are 100% in the dark about what’s going on, and little if any closure at the end.  He’s not an easy guy to read. So of course, when I saw his The Investigation at the used bookstore, I grabbed it in a heartbeat.

The Investigation isn’t science fiction by any means, but depending on how you interpret it, it could be.  Let me explain.  The police are investigating rural cases of body snatching. The night before a burial, to the horror of the family, the body is moved in the coffin, dragged across the room, or disappears completely from the mortuary.  The obvious answer is someone is trying to steal the bodies and is only sometimes successful.  the post-modern answer is the dead people are turning into golems or limited zombies of some sort.  See how it could be SF?

But the investigators at Scotland Yard don’t believe in impossibilities or miracles. They only believe in facts, in what witnesses saw, in what they see with their own eyes. Investigator Gregory insists on treating this as a criminal case. For him, there are only facts, and impossibilities simply don’t occur. Oddly enough, Gregory himself is surrounded by surreal impossibilities: a haunted apartment, a landlord who claims to be a medium, and midnight meetings in dark rooms with the Chief.

Everyone is acting like this is a completely normal case.  That they are chasing some kind of genius body snatcher who plans everything perfectly, never makes a mistake, never leaves a footprint. But what kind of body snatcher carrying a heavy body could scare a constable so badly that he would run into the path of an oncoming car? There is something more than denial going on here, and no matter Gregory says, this is not a normal criminal investigation.

It’s a fun question to play with: how would the police investigate cases of moving bodies or the undead if they had never heard of zombies? I have no idea if that’s what Lem was going for, or he was just writing a quick mystery about how we choose to view reality and how we react when our chosen reality refuses to match what we are experiencing.

Inspector Gregory has to come to grips with reality.  Through thorough investigation of where the constable was hit by a car, conversations with other witnesses and long involved conversations with the overly analytical statistician Dr. Sciss regarding facts versus explanations, Gregory will have to come to his own conclusions.

The Investigation is a very strange book, but a very good one. It doesn’t read at all like a typical thriller or murder mystery, yet I couldn’t put it down.  Fiction like this falls so far out of my usual MO, that it’s very hard for me to compare this to anything I’ve ever read. For obvious reasons  I can compare it to Lem’s Fiasco, where for the first 200 pages I didn’t get it, thought it was slow and boring and couldn’t understand why anyone would read this Lem fellow. And then I got to the last chapter and did a complete 180, realizing Fiasco was one of the most incredible First Contact Scifi books I’d ever read.  I can compare The Investigation to Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, which again, had a very slow burn, but as you get closer to the end, you realize it’s not really a murder investigation at all, but something completely different.  Yet again, books that don’t fall into my usual reading MO, but books that have had a impact on me over the years.

So the short of the long is that Lem is good, but strange. If you pick up one of his books and don’t care for it, don’t beat yourself up.  But if you see one of his titles on the shelf at the used bookstore, buy it. When the day comes that you are ready to read him, it will be there on your bookshelf waiting for you.

 

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6 Responses to "The Investigation, by Stanislaw Lem"

Intriiiiiiguing. I will have to check it out!

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For more Lem, I recommend The Cyberiad. It’s a book of funny and thought-provoking SF short stories, and I found it pretty accessible, compared to other books I’ve read by him.

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I’ll be keeping an eye out for Cyberiad, but if I see Lem’s name on anything, I’m probably going to buy it! what else have you read by him?

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Redhead, do you think the book is allegorical or satirical? I remember reading The Futurological Congress in college (though I barely remember it now) and as I recall it was a cultural satire. I’d say a hefty proportion of all sci fi is cultural satire.

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that’s certainly something to ponder. And I’d agree, much SF is cultural satire, or at least cultural commentary. But is The Investigation? on first blush, I’d say it’s more allegorical. That we see what we want to see, what we’ve been told to see, that most people aren’t interested in anything outside the ordinary or expected.

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I will keep my eye out for that short story collection and must say that this one sounds very, very interesting. I am not sure why Lem has never been on my radar. His name is of course familiar but I’ve never actually been drawn to find out what kind of books he writes. This one actually sounds really great, even if it is somewhat enigmatic. Or maybe because it is.

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