Another great collection of Polish short fiction
The book leads off with two stories by Adam Szymanski, “Maciej the Mazur” and “Two Prayers.” Both depict the lives of Polish political exiles and colonists in Siberia. In Szymanski’s portrayal, Siberia is a bleak, frozen place inhabited by lonely souls who desperately seek each other out for any opportunity to share their memories, both good and bad, of the former lives they led in the beloved mother country. “The Chukchee” by Waclaw Sieroszewski is also set in Siberia, but deals with the indigenous population. A Polish colonist meets with a band of the nomadic Chukchee people, in hopes of opening a trading relationship with them. After the tribe departs his village, he joins a missionary expedition through treacherous terrain to visit the native people at their home camp in the remote tundra.
The bleak atmosphere that permeates this book is not confined to Siberia, but is applied to the small towns and rural villages of Poland as well. In “The Trial” by Nobel Prize winner Wladyslaw Reymont, when a mob of peasants discover the thieves who have been committing robberies in their village, they take the law into their own hands, trying and sentencing the accused with their own brutal brand of jurisprudence. Stefan Zeromski’s “The Stronger Sex” tells of a poor, idealistic doctor who opens a practice in a small provincial town. The overwhelming ignorance, superstition, and conservatism of the peasant populace deadens his intellect and robs him of any professional drive he once possessed. He is shaken from his lethargy one night, however, when he is informed that a school teacher in the next town has taken deathly ill.
The longest and best piece in the book is a 100-page novella by Boleslaw Prus entitled “The Returning Wave.” Gottlieb Adler is a self-made man who worked his way up from nothing to a position of wealth. As owner of a textile factory, he is the primary employer in his small town. Adler allows his son Ferdinand to live an idle, self-indulgent life. When the young man racks up tremendous debts, Adler transfers them to his factory laborers through economizing measures which extend the workers hours and lower their wages. Under his iron hand, however, the workers begin to show signs of unrest. This is an excellent piece of literature reminiscent of some of the best works by Emile Zola and Honoré de Balzac.
I don’t read Polish, so I can’t critique the translation, but I will say that at times the English prose is a bit awkward and hampers readability. Occasionally the text could use some clarification in simple matters like who’s speaking in a conversation or which direction a character is moving. This is more evident in the works of Szymanski and Sieroszewski, but not much of a problem in the Reymont or Prus entries. This collection has no introduction and only very limited footnotes, so you are expected to know the historical context behind these stories. American readers unfamiliar with Polish history may have to consult Wikipedia to get their bearings. These stories are worth the extra work, however. If you enjoy naturalistic literature of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, you will find that the Polish offerings in this series deserve a distinguished place in the canon of world literature.
Stories in this collection
Maciej the Mazur by Adam Szymanski
Two Prayers by Adam Szymanski
The Trial by Wladyslaw Reymont
The Stronger Sex by Stefan Zeromski
The Chukchee by Waclaw Sieroszewski
The Returning Wave by Boleslaw Prus
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