Monday, June 30, 2014
Pan Tadeusz by Adam Mickiewicz
Better bone up on your Polish history
Pan Tadeusz is an epic poem written in the Polish language by Adam Mickiewicz. It is considered the national epic of Poland and, though published in 1834, perhaps the last great epic poem in European literature. Although it was written in verse, my review is based on the English prose translation by George Rapall Noyes, published in 1917.
Although many Poles consider this to be their country’s greatest work of literature, the story takes place entirely in Lithuania. Prior to 1795, Poland and Lithuania were united into one Commonwealth, and the two regions traditionally shared a great deal of cultural common ground. The events of the story occur in the years 1911 and 1912. At this time neither Poland nor Lithuania existed as an independent state, as the Commonwealth had been conquered and partitioned by Prussia, Austria, and Russia. Lithuania was under the jurisdiction of Russia, and its inhabitants chafed under the constrictive rule of the Muscovites. Meanwhile, Napoleon was conquering much of Europe, and the Poles and Lithuanians looked to him in anticipation as a possible savior who could free their nation from Russian oppression and help them regain their independence.
During this period in history, Polish society was still operating under a system of feudalism. Poland had a weak central government which allowed a great deal of autonomy on the part of the nobles. Landowners could even summon their own armies and attack their neighbors as a means of settling disputes. This figures into the story of Pan Tadeusz, which deals with a long-standing feud between two Lithuanian families, the Soplicas and the Horeszkos. Tadeusz Soplica arrives at the estate of his uncle, referred to simply as the Judge. There a group of nobles and public dignitaries have assembled, where they all engage in banquets and hunting parties. While a few of the younger attendees occupy themselves with matters of love, a contentious lawsuit between the two aforementioned families engenders an animosity that leads to violence.
Though the plot of Pan Tadeusz is sufficiently engaging, it doesn’t seem to be Mickiewicz’s primary concern. He’s more interested in creating a patriotic tribute to his beloved country. Each chapter opens with a beautiful paean to the natural beauty of Lithuania. Then Mickiewicz minutely describes each meal, dance, and costume in loving detail, while dropping the names of glorious generals from Poland’s military past. Along the way the non-Polish reader learns a lot about that nation’s culture, but a lot of prior knowledge is required to truly understand everything that’s taking place. The Noyes edition is heavily loaded with explanatory footnotes, which provide helpful context but tend to overwhelm the narrative. I’m no scholar of Polish history, but I do know enough to have read the works of Polish authors like Henryk Sienkiewicz, Wladyslaw Reymont, Boleslaw Prus, and others. Yet this one was really tough to get through. Stylistically it bears much resemblance to the romantic epics of Sienkiewicz, but it’s not nearly as accessible to the non-Polish reader.
I certainly won’t fault the author for writing a book that appeals primarily to his countrymen rather than to the American reader. I think the translator does deserve a little blame, however, for some clumsy and mystifying passages. Pan Tadeusz is no doubt a great work of literature, but for this Polish-American reader, reading it was often not so much a labor of love as just simply a labor.
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