Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Tales by Polish Authors by Henryk Sienkiewicz, et al.

An introduction to Polish literature at the turn of the last century
Henryk Sienkiewicz
This collection features six strong stories by four Polish literary masters of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. More than half of the book is taken up by the brilliantly satirical novella “Bartek the Conqueror,” by Nobel Prize-winning author Henryk Sienkiewicz. Bartek is a Polish everyman, a blockheaded peasant who symbolizes the lower class agrarian Pole of the 19th century. He is drafted to fight for the Germans in the Franco-Prussian War, where he is hailed as a hero in the battles of Gravelotte and Sedan. Sienkiewicz celebrates the bravery of the Polish peasants in this war, while making it clear that it was a bravery born of blindness and ignorance. At times the novella resembles Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage in its depiction of the pointlessness of war, yet this war is even more pointless because the Poles were fighting for an empire that was oppressing their own nation. After the war, Bartek expects to be hailed as a hero, but he soon learns he and his fellow villagers must face the same old discrimination at the hands of the occupying Germans. Though far different from the epic historical novels for which Sienkiewicz is famous, “Bartek the Conqueror” is a masterpiece in its own right and the obvious standout in this admirable collection.

Stefan Zeromski’s “Twilight” is a bleak but beautifully drawn naturalistic depiction of the harsh life of two day laborers, a husband and wife, and the suffering they will endure to ensure their family’s survival. “Temptation,” also by Zeromski, tells of a young man on the verge of entering the priesthood who experiences a painful reminder of what he will be sacrificing when he takes his vows. Adam Szymanski’s “Srul—from Lubartow” is a tale of Polish exiles in Siberia. In the near arctic town of Yakutsk, the former Poles find the icebound landscape a far cry from the warmly remembered beauty of their home country. The final two selections, both by Waclaw Sieroszewski, are also set in Siberia, but primarily deal with the lives of the indigenous peoples there. “In Autumn” is about a Polish visitor living among the Yakut people who embarks on a hunting trip through a forest believed to be inhabited by demons, while “In Sacrifice to the Gods” tells of the Tungus people, nomadic herders who are beset by a mysterious plague that kills their reindeer.

Tales by Polish Authors was compiled by translator Else C. M. Benecke and originally published in 1915. If the idea behind this collection was to showcase the best in Polish fiction, it seems an odd choice that three out of the six stories take place in Siberia. If there’s a common thread running through the pieces included here, it is that they are all in some way concerned with the plight of the lower classes, whether peasants, exiles, or aboriginal peoples. The life of the poor is depicted as incredibly harsh and bleak. The only aspect of life that’s given a positive treatment is the beauty of the natural landscape. Given the time period when this book was published, these authors could be seen as the Polish equivalents of the American “muckrakers,” who wrote about social injustice and the reality of poverty. Even Sienkiewicz, the renowned writer of romantic historical novels, comes across as somewhat of a naturalist here.

This is an impressive collection of stories, containing some profoundly moving moments. Sienkiewicz shines above the rest, but the other three authors also prove themselves worthy of further investigation. Else Benecke produced a second collection of stories, More Tales by Polish Authors, which is also available for free Kindle download.

Stories in this collection
Bartek the Conqueror by Henryk Sienkiewicz 
Twilight by Stefan Zeromski 
Temptation by Stefan Zeromski 
Srul—from Lubartów by Adam Szymanski 
In Autumn by Waclaw Sieroszewski 
In Sacrifice to the Gods by Waclaw Sieroszewski 

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