Two young men show up at a bed & breakfast in the Polish countryside. They've come there to get away from the hustle and bustle of the big city and have some peace and quiet, but it turns out to be anything but; not only do they find a macabre and mystifying corpse nearby, but the family they get to live with seems to have a lot of unresolved issues, which the two youngsters soon find themselves caught up in... and as always in these types of stories, somebody's going to die before it's all over.
Cosmos, like all detective novels, is all about finding the clues. Clues being that which deviates from what we perceive to be the norm; the "C'est un cauchemar!" spoken in the wrong language, the mysterious blue key on the table, the rake moved to point at the servant's window. So our hero and narrator Witold and his friend start to gather evidence. But how, in a world they don't know, surrounded by people they don't know, are they supposed to know what are actual clues and what is normal? In trying to find out what things mean, at what point do they go from observing to concluding to ascribing?
The defining ability of mankind is not our sense of humour, or our love, or our hate, or our ability to use tools; animals can do all of that, in one way or another. What we can do, what only we can do, is to try and figure out meaning, to make sense. We (supposedly) understand intricate chains of cause-and-effect, we (supposedly) understand symbolism, we (supposedly) understand how context matters... and even when we get it wrong, even when there is no sense, we can make it. We look at a bunch of stars that are hundreds of light years apart and call them a constellation; we look at an abstract painting and call it a portrait; we look at a bunch of possibly related lives and call them a plot. Where there is no causal relationship, we'll invent one ? thereby becoming both cause and effect ourselves.
...As you may gather, Cosmos is not your typical detective story. The obsession with the tiniest details is similar to another novel I read recently, Le Clezio's Terra Amata, but the difference couldn't be more drastic; where Le Clezio's protagonist sees only beauty and harmony in the great jumble of existence, Gombrowicz's sees perversion, deviance and taboo in everything that doesn't fit his picture of what's normal; and being a good catholic, he's both repulsed and attracted, ashamed and excited by it. It's not an easy read; it's confusing, with a narrator who at times is verging on either stream-of-consciousness or full-on paranoia, another main character who speaks complete nonsense half the time, and those looking for a straight A to Z plot are advised to stay away. As darkly humorous as Gombrowicz always is, the narrator gets on my nerves a bit after a while. Not a lot, but a little bit.
And yet somehow, Cosmos is a detective story. A surreal, nightmarish, perverted detective story, but a detective story nonetheless in both plot and form. (Then again, so is Crime And Punishment.) And like all great detective stories (and opposed to the vast majority of them) it goes much further than that; in trying to ferret out the cause and effect of what's going on, it's a perfect analogy for modern man trying to find his way in an ever more confusing world. Find the killer, save the damsel, save the world, figure out how everything works, live happily ever after. And so, the one place where Cosmos deviates (heh) from the norm is in its perception of whether that is at all possible. The traditional detective story tries to create order from chaos; take a number of seemingly unrelated clues, and then use your little grey cells to piece them all together into a watertight cause-and-effect narration of what happened; the killer is caught, the deviant object is removed and order is restored. The story has a clear beginning and a clear end. Except Gombrowicz won't play that game; he can't see one clear meaning, one clear plot rising from chaos - you can't return to normalcy since there was never any normalcy to begin with. In trying to solve one mystery, bring order to one seemingly chaotic chain of events, the detective has just created new mysteries, uncovered new deviations. At some point, the deviation becomes the norm; as Frank Zappa once said, "anything played wrong twice in a row is a new arrangement".
It's a hell of a novel. It gives me a headache, and I'm actually not sure I enjoyed it all that much, but it's certainly a thinker. Much like Witold, your experience of it will probably depend on what you bring into it and how much you're willing to work. It's a novel that makes you doubt your own reading of it, and that can only be a good thing.
"I accept chaos. I hope it accepts me." - B. Dylan