Polish novelist Konwicki explores the meaning of character, A Minor Apocalypse, by Tadeusz Konwicki. Translated from the Polish by Richard Lourie. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux Inc. 232 pp. $16.95.

Nearly everyone in the West has heard of Lech Walesa, the labor leader whose name became synonymous with the struggle for wider freedom in Poland after the birth of Solidarity in 1980 and who was awarded this year's Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts.

Yet few Westerners, beyond a small literary elite, have heard of Tadeusz Konwicki, a Polish novelist who is engaged in the same struggle, but in a very different way.

Walesa seems to embody the kind of heroism we admire - rich in courage, character, and hope for change, emblazoned for the whole world to see. Konwicki deals with the unheroic in human character, painted in shades of gray.

''A Minor Apocalypse,'' published in 1979, the fourth of his novels to appear in English translation, is too human to appeal to the part of us that wants to believe in heroism, in the capacity to transcend the mundane and somehow improve it. And Konwicki's characters are plagued by too many questions, too many doubts to measure up as heroes. Their questions are perennials - the meaning of identity, freedom, and purpose. Yet they are posed in this very personal novel with a fresh, earthy eloquence. This text reads like a grim daydream, with the author imagining for himself a melodramatic ending. But Konwicki is never entirely beguiled by his little dream. Everything about his unnamed central character is self-depreciating, uncertain. It is this naked honesty that makes the novel worth reading.

The central question of the work turns out to be the meaning of character and its value in a world of endless lines at shops, decaying buildings, censorship, and harassment of free thinkers.

In a typical brooding aside, Konwicki's protaganist throws out an idea, possibly to bait readers: ''Character has outlived its day. In ancient, primitive times, when biologically weak man struggled against omnipotent nature, character was useful, beneficial. . . . In today's ambiguous world, character means despotism, tyranny, absolute intolerance. At last it is time to admire a lack of character, inner weakness. Our epoch is that of noble doubts, blessed uncertainty, sacred hypersensitivity, divine wishy-washiness.''

Set in the future, the novel opens on what might be the anonymous protagonist's last day. Early one morning, this middle-aged former writer (who seems very much like Konwicki himself) is approached by his old dissident cohorts and urged to mount the ultimate protest against the Soviet domination of Poland by setting himself on fire in front of Communist Party headquarters. He tentativly agrees, and decides to spend the day roaming the streets and taverns of Poland, carrying his gas can, in the company of a pesty young poet-cum-KGB agent and a stray dog. As he tugs the can along, he observes with overwhelming bitterness the decaying grey city of Warsaw.

Now, as commentators talk of the demise of Solidarity, it seems a good time to look back on Konwicki's difficult and sometimes vulgar novel, but one which offers a detailed view of the struggle within a communist state to define justice in a way that dissolves simplistic propaganda.

As the protagonist approaches the moment of decision about seeing his protest through to its fiery conclusion, he reflects: ''I beg for justice, but how many times was I myself just? I cry out for moral order, but for how many years have I been trampling it myself?''

Because of such self-questioning, Konwicki's work is disturbing. Leaders of mass labor or political movements tend to let us off easy - without examining our own responsibilities. It's as if strikes, fasts, and mass demonstrations were enough; as if a change in the world could happen without a change in our hearts. Tadeusz Konwicki is determined to make us wriggle.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.