Monday, July 23, 2012

The Deluge by Henryk Sienkiewicz

A sequel that improves upon its predecessor
The Deluge (also known by its Polish title, Potop) is the second novel in “The Trilogy” by Nobel prize-winning Polish author Henryk Sienkiewicz. First published in 1886, it picks up where the first volume, With Fire and Sword, left off. The term “The Deluge” refers to a period in Polish history when the nation was plagued by multiple wars. The story takes place from 1654 to 1657, during which time the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was simultaneously invaded by no less than three occupying forces: the Russians from the northeast, the Cossacks from the southeast, and the Swedes from the northwest. In addition, a civil war erupted within the Commonwealth between those loyal to the elected Polish king Yan Kazimir, and those who aligned themselves with Yanush Radziwill, a powerful noble who advocated a bloodless surrender to the Swedes. (This review is based on the English translation by Jeremiah Curtin, so I am using his spellings of proper names.) The historical context is intricately complex, and Sienkiewicz builds an excellent novel upon this fascinating framework.

The Deluge brings back several characters from With Fire and Sword, among them Pan Michael Volodyovski, Pan Yan Skshetuski, and the inimitable Pan Zagloba. Sienkiewicz also introduces a new protagonist, Andrei Kmita, a fierce but lawless warrior whose headstrong nature often leads him into trouble. To win the hand of Olenka Billevich, the beautiful noblewoman whom he loves, he most atone for his past transgressions through service to God and country. Volodyovski and Kmita, perhaps the two most highly skilled warriors in the Commonwealth, find themselves on opposite sides of the civil war. Though each is faithful to the Commonwealth in his own way, their conflicting ideologies may force one brave soldier to take the life of the other.

Though With Fire and Sword is a great novel, The Deluge far surpasses it. There is never a dull moment in this one. Sienkiewicz grabs your attention in chapter one and holds it all the way through chapter 97. While With Fire and Sword was a book that dripped with gore galore, the action in The Deluge relies more on political intrigue and military strategy. It very much resembles the Three Musketeers novels of Alexandre Dumas, but with less comic relief (though Zagloba is always good for a laugh). In addition to the swashbuckling, mano-a-mano sword fights, there’s plenty of detailed blow-by-blow battlefield commentary for tactical enthusiasts. Lovers of romantic literature will enjoy the epic adventure, and history buffs will be more than satisfied with the wealth of knowledge they receive in Eastern European history. The Deluge never reads like a textbook, however; in fact it rivals masterpieces of historical fiction by Dumas, Victor Hugo, or Sir Walter Scott.

One warning: this may be the longest book I’ve ever read. It’s definitely up there in the Anna Karenina range. Though that’s not necessarily a fault, readers should be prepared for a significant investment in time. This book will occupy you, enjoyably, for quite a while.

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  1. Hi there, great review, thanks ; ) Was Jeremiah Curtin translation as good as Kuniczaks?

    1. I haven't read Kuniczak's translation, so I can't answer that. From reviews I've read on the internet, I've heard Kuniczak's version is much better. The advantage to Curtin's translation, of course, is that it's in the public domain and therefore available free of charge.