The unknown masterpiece
Mathias Boryna, the most prosperous farmer in Lipka, is getting on in years. His adult children want him to retire and hand the family land over to them. Boryna, on the other hand, still considers himself hale and hearty and decides to remarry to a young bride, much to the chagrin of his offspring. Complicating matters is the fact that Yagna, his new wife, is the most beautiful girl in the village, and she’s had a promiscuous past, including an affair with Boryna’s son Antek.
In subject matter this book bears some similarity to Emile Zola’s novel The Earth, and Reymont’s writing bears a striking resemblance to Zola’s brand of Naturalism as well. While many early 20th-century novelists were influenced by Zola, Reymont is the first I’ve come across that actually rivals the master himself. While I have read that this novel is set in the early years of the 20th century, it is really a timeless story, taking place in an indeterminate age. The only hint of temporal specificity is the fact that Lipka, at the time of the story, is under Russian rule. For the most part it deals with everyday issues of family life and community that transcend any particular time and place. You don’t have to know anything about Polish history to read this novel. It does not discuss any major historical or political events. You will, however, learn much about the customs, superstitions, farming practices, living conditions, and religious rituals of rural life in Poland. Reymont populates Lipka with so many complex characters and intertwining storylines that it surpasses William Falkner’s Yoknapatawpha County in its richness of detail and the completeness of its depiction of country life. You become so involved in the lives of these characters that by the time you get to the fourth volume you feel as if you’re ready to get behind the plow or vote in the local elections. This book is long out of print, but for lovers of great literature it’s definitely worth a search online or a trip to your local university library. (This review is based on the English translation by Michael H. Dziewicki.)
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