Memoirs Found in a Bathtub was published in English in 1973 (it was originally published in Polish). The title is a reference to a work by Edgar Allen Poe.
Most places and people categorize this book as science fiction, which I think is incorrect. It does take place in the future, but nothing really futuristic is relevant to the story. The year 3149 is really just a fact that provides an overarching frame for the book, but there really is not anything one could point at and call “science fiction.” At least not how it is commonly defined and referred to.
The book has, really, two parts. I think most assessments would say that the novel is one whole, but with an introduction. I want to insist that the introduction is a separate part – in fact, it’s really a misnomer to call it an introduction. In any case, the introduction provides a framework and leads the reader to understand that the rest of the book is actually the “memoirs found in a bathtub.”
Ultimately, this book is what happens when you cross Orwell’s 1984, Kafka’s Castle, and Ismail Kadare’s The Pyramid. Smash! Then out pops Memoirs Found in a Bathtub.
The Introduction is exceedingly well-written and depicts a dystopian future in which the reader is reminded of both A Canticle for Leibowitz and Alasdair MacIntyre’s first part of After Virtue. A Canticle for Leibowitz begins 6 centuries after 20th century civilization has been destroyed by a global nuclear war. As a result of the war, there was a violent backlash against the culture of advanced knowledge and technology that had led to the development of nuclear weapons. During this backlash, called the “Simplification,” anyone of learning, and eventually anyone who could even read, was likely to be killed by rampaging mobs, who proudly took on the name of “Simpletons.” Illiteracy became almost universal and books were destroyed en masse. MacIntyre also discusses the idea of a world wherein all sciences have been dismantled quickly and completely. MacIntyre asks what the sciences would look like if they were reassembled from the remnants of scientific knowledge that survived the catastrophe. He claims that the new sciences, though superficially similar to the old, would in fact be devoid of real scientific content, because key suppositions and attitudes would be absent. MacIntyre obviously turns this toward an ethical review of the situation, particularly focusing on virtue ethics.
Lem, writing in a tone/style that is similar to Kadare and Kafka, is able to present the future as a place wherein such a ruination of knowledge has occurred – especially in terms of the papyralysis, which is a destruction of all knowledge recorded on paper. Even today in 2012, the complete loss of the information contained within notebooks, books, newspapers, magazines, etc. would be catastrophic. Lem wrote this novel in the 1970s – long before iPads and cloud drives. The reader really feels the horror and magnitude of such a loss. Unlike Miller and MacIntyre, Lem focuses on a memoirs that are found in a bathtub. Not just any bathtub, but a bathtub that was found in the fourth level of the Third Pentagon. The Third Pentagon is looked upon much like we, in current day, look upon the pyramids of Egypt. There is an unbridgeable gap between our culture and that of Ancient Egypt such that the pyramids (no matter how much we know) remain mysterious, intimidating, and awesome. The Third Pentagon is buried deep in a mountain – the result of political bureaucracy gone to paranoid lengths. What was the original Pentagon, anyway – some sort of temple?
The first half of the story is interesting and very Kafka-like. We meet the main character in media res without ever learning his name. We then follow his descent into madness via the Building. The Building, as the character refers to it, is supposedly the Third Pentagon. The majority of this section describes the suspicions, labyrinth, and corruption that is found in the Building. Everyone is a spy, a traitor, and on a mission. No one knows what the missions are, or if they do they also constantly misdirect and mislead others. Who is following orders? Who is a spy? And many may even be double or even triple-agents!
The writing is good and eerie. It’s not a read for everyone, if you dislike Kafka or Kadare, you will dislike this. Nevertheless, it is a very cerebral read and fits nicely with 1984 and the Castle. I am giving the book only three stars, though, because I feel too much is derivative of Kafka, Miller, etc. Also, I really disliked the entirety of Chapter 11. The ending of the book was consistent, but Chapter 11 really took the wind out of the sails. In the end, it is a satisfying read – very cerebral and a decent satire of bureaucracy.
There are some neat sub-ideas here, as well. For example on page 75, in Chapter 5, the main character finds a book that describes original sin as the division of the world into information and misinformation – which is a pretty neat twist on the “deceitfulness” of the devil in Exodus. Overall, I find it difficult to classify this book as science fiction. While the setting is briefly the year 3149, but is all about memoirs that occurred in the past, this really is not a science fiction novel. Dystopian, satirical, and cerebral, but not science fiction. I feel, in reality, this should get something like 3.7 stars, but that’s not how this works around here!