Friday, August 16, 2013
The Returning Wave by Boleslaw Prus
A brief but profoundly moving masterwork
The Returning Wave is a short novel of about 100 pages by Polish author Boleslaw Prus, originally published in 1880. An English translation of the novel by Else C. M. Benecke and Marie Busch is included in their collection More Tales by Polish Authors, and Amazon also sells a bilingual Polish and English edition in paperback, under its Polish title of Powracajaca Fala. I have only read the English version, but I can say that this is an excellent little piece of literature that’s worth reading in any language.
Two childhood friends, Martin Boehme and Gottlieb Adler, grew up together in Germany. As adults, they are neighbors and friends in a small town in Poland. Boehme is the town’s protestant pastor, while Adler owns the textile factory and is the town’s primary employer. Adler is a self-made man who worked his way up from nothing to a position of wealth. His motivation for hard work is the hope of someday living a life of leisure, yet he becomes so addicted to work that he little enjoys the riches he has acquired. Adler allows his son Ferdinand to live an idle, self-indulgent life, so that the father may live vicariously through the young man’s frivolous adventures. Adler looks forward to the day when his savings reach a million roubles, so he can retire and travel the world with his son. In the meantime, Ferdinand racks up tremendous debts, which Adler transfers to his factory laborers through economizing measures which extend the workers hours and lower their wages. Adler considers his wealth and power equivalent to the divine right of kings. He consciously exploits the lower classes and sees himself as immune to any repercussions for doing so. Under his iron hand, however, the workers begin to show signs of unrest.
Prus does an expert job of shifting perspective between Adler, Boehme, Ferdinand, and the workers. The characters are all superbly well-drawn, and the plot is captivating. This story has a fabulistic tone that resembles the better morality tales of Honoré de Balzac. The title refers to a conversation between two characters in the book. One speaker uses ripples or waves in the water as a metaphor for what is essentially the concept of karma—the idea that if you do bad things they will eventually come back to haunt you, like a wave returning to shore. Despite the ethical lessons being taught, the story never departs from the naturalistic realm of gritty reality. Prus displays a social consciousness and a precision of detail reminiscent of some of Emile Zola’s best novels. The Returning Wave is just one example of how the great authors of Polish literature—though lesser known than their French, Russian, or English counterparts—deserve a place of renown among the highest ranks of world literature.
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