Monday, August 18, 2014

Sielanka: An Idyll by Henryk Sienkiewicz

Another day in paradise
This little book of about a hundred pages consists of two short stories by Polish author Henryk Sienkiewicz, winner of the 1905 Nobel Prize in Literature. The first story is the title selection, “Sielanka: An Idyll,” followed by a story entitled “Orso.” These two pieces were translated into English by Vatslaf A. Hlasko and Thomas H. Bullick and published together in an 1898 edition. This is not to be confused with an 1899 book entitled Sielanka: A Forest Picture, translated by Jeremiah Curtin, which contains 17 short works by Sienkiewicz. The Hlasko and Bullick edition is the one I’m reviewing, and it’s the one that’s available as a free Kindle file on Amazon.

The subtitle tells you most of what you need to know about “Sielanka.” It describes the idyllic life of a father and daughter who reside in a picturesque forest glade, surrounded by flowers, birds, and insects. All is pretty and pleasant in this little world. A young man shows up, obviously very much in love with the girl, and they spend the day together gathering herbs in the forest. The story has almost no plot, but it’s not without its charms. It starts out with some very beautiful depictions of the natural environment that are a joy to read. In the latter half of the narrative Sienkiewicz introduces more religious imagery. It eventually became too much for me when the trees, birds, and humans all began offering their vociferous prayers to God. Sienkiewicz at times is an overtly Christian author, which is great for some readers, but not my cup of tea.

The second story, “Orso,” is set in America, where Sienkiewicz lived from 1876 to 1878. It describes a paradise of a different kind: Southern California. It’s harvest time in Anaheim, and the population, mostly of Mexican and Native American origin, are celebrating with a fair. Part of the festivities includes a traveling circus. The main attraction among the performers is Orso the strong man, a teenage half-breed Hercules. His partner Jenny, whom he loves dearly, is a petite young acrobat billed as the world’s most beautiful girl. Fed up with the abuse of the ringmaster, these two long to escape from the circus and start a new life. Sienkiewicz sets the stage beautifully by describing the setting in a vividly naturalistic style, reminiscent of the writing of California author Frank Norris in such pieces as “The Santa Cruz Venetian Carnival.” More than just a pretty picture however, the story is also very engaging, and the reader becomes quite taken with this young couple and their hopes and fears.

Sienkiewicz is known for his epics, but these two stories illustrate that he could also write compelling fiction on a smaller scale. Stylistically, he straddles the line between romanticism and realism, taking what he needs from both and combining them as needed. Neither of these two stories is an earth-shattering masterpiece, but together they sure do make for a pleasurable hour of reading. “Orso” in particular is a gem that makes me want to seek out more of Sienkiewicz’s writings on America.

Stories in this collection

Sielanka: An Idyll 

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