Monday, January 14, 2013

Quo Vadis by Henryk Sienkiewicz

The sacred and the profane
During his illustrious career, Noble Prize-winning novelist Henryk Sienkiewicz created an impressive array of epic historical novels chronicling the history of his native Poland, yet to international audiences he is best known for another epic work, Quo Vadis, a novel of ancient Rome. Originally published in 1895, Quo Vadis—the title is Latin for “Whither goest thou?”—is set around the year AD 64 during the reign of the emperor Nero. Marcus Vinicius, a Roman patrician and military tribune, falls in love at first sight with Lygia, the beautiful daughter of a foreign king. He immediately determines to possess her at any cost. Through the influence of his uncle Petronius, Nero decrees that the maiden be taken from her family and granted to Vinicius. Though Lygia loves Vinicius, she does not wish to be taken by force as his concubine. With the aid of friends she escapes, and a maddened Vinicius pursues her. His search leads to the discovery that the girl is a member of a new and mysterious religious sect, the Christians. Through his investigations, Vinicius discovers that, contrary to reports that the Christians worship donkeys and eat babies, there are some truly worthwhile aspects to their teachings, and he begins to sympathize with their faith. When Nero sets in motion a merciless persecution of the Christians, rounding them up for torture and slaughter, Vinicius’s search for Lygia becomes a race to save her life.

More than any other novelist, with the possible exception of Victor Hugo, Sienkiewicz knows how to deliver Romanticism with a capital R. Everything about the book is grandiose, bombastic, and larger than life, each character a colossus in and of themselves. Yet Sienkiewicz also captures all the minute details of Roman life with a vivid, naturalistic clarity. Whether he’s depicting an orgy, a gladiatorial battle, a crucifixion, or Nero’s burning of Rome, the reader feels himself totally immersed in the scene. Sienkiewicz also expertly interprets the mind-set of ancient Rome—from its glory and honor to its depravity and debauchery—and the environment of fear under Nero’s despotic regime. The bloody, sexy, grittily realistic vision of Rome that we come to expect today in our movies, television shows, and novels most likely originated with Quo Vadis. This book was inspired by Alexandre Dumas’s 1838 novel Acté, which also tells the story of Nero, but Sienkiewicz’s Rome is a far cry from the picturesque, sanitized vision of Rome that prevailed in the literature of Dumas’s time.

Sienkiewicz, a fervid Catholic, implanted Quo Vadis with a strong religious message. Devout Christians could certainly read this novel as a work of inspirational literature. Yet Sienkiewicz is not overly preachy or dogmatic. Though Saints Peter and Paul have supporting roles, most of the story is told through the eyes of the Romans. Non-believers can read this story simply as a historical novel about the clash between the Roman Empire and a burgeoning religious movement. It must be admitted that, while the Roman characters run the gamut from honorable to depraved, the Christians are all depicted as perfectly virtuous, without a coward or a Judas among them. On the other hand, perhaps the most sympathetic character in the book is not a Christian at all, but Petronius, an Epicurean. Theist or Atheist alike can enjoy Quo Vadis simply as a masterful work of historical literature. Its only literary fault is that the plotting drags a bit in its final third, a defect that’s mostly wiped from memory by the book’s monumental and unforgettable closing scenes. Regardless of your religious inclination, if you have any interest in ancient Rome or a taste for historical fiction, Quo Vadis is a must-read.

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1 comment:

  1. "It must be admitted that, while the Roman characters run the gamut from honorable to depraved, the Christians are all depicted as perfectly virtuous, without a coward or a Judas among them."

    The Christians are not all perfectly virtuous. Ursus originally consents to Chilo's plot to murder Glaucus. Crispus harshly condemns his fellow Christians, before being corrected first by Peter and later by Paul.

    The book even refers to a Judas among the Christians (although he died before the period covered by the novel).