Friday, December 26, 2014

Life and Death and Other Legends and Stories by Henryk Sienkiewicz

Short cuts
Despite its unnecessarily long title, Life and Death and Other Legends and Stories is a thin volume of short works by Nobel Prize-winning Polish author Henryk Sienkiewicz. This collection was first published in 1904 and contains English-language translations of five brief writings.

The collection opens with its title selection, “Life and Death: A Hindu Legend.” As the subtitle indicates, this is Sienkiewicz’s retelling of an ancient Indian myth. It explains how Brahma created a bipartite world consisting of the Plain of Life, governed by Vishnu, and the Plain of Death, governed by Siva, and how he tailored this division to suit the needs of mankind. This is simply a beautiful tale well-told. In “Is He the Dearest One?” a mother is visited by a wanderer who brings her news of her sons. This one’s so brief there’s little point in summarizing it, but despite its brevity it’s a moving piece. “A Legend of the Sea” is the least effective selection of the book. Sienkiewicz describes a majestic ship named The Purple that is obviously a metaphor for some nation, Poland being the most likely candidate. The author makes his point, but the analogy between ship and country feels forced at times, and the story just isn’t all that interesting. “The Cranes,” on the other hand, succeeds far better. It’s an autobiographical sketch of his time spent in California, describing one period when he felt particularly homesick for mother Poland. In addition to being perhaps Poland’s most patriotic author, Sienkiewicz is also unapologetically pro-Christian. Lest we forget, he gives us “The Judgment of Peter and Paul on Olympus,” in which the two apostles journey to the mythical mountain to pass judgment on the pagan gods of the Greek pantheon.

All five stories are very short, so they tend to end abruptly and leave the reader wanting more. That said, for the most part they succeed in what they set out to accomplish. It’s doubtful that Sienkiewicz intended any of these short-shorts to be masterpieces, and they aren’t masterpieces, but together they make for a pleasant 65-page read. The English translations are by Jeremiah Curtin, the perennial translator of Sienkiewicz’s works. If you’re a fan of Sienkiewicz, you’ve no doubt come across reviews that complain about Curtin’s inadequate translation skills. Perhaps that’s true for the complex historical novels, but for these simple stories he does a fine job. The English prose is fluid and elegant.

Sienkiewicz and Curtin published a handful of these hodgepodge collections of short works in translation, among them So Runs the World, Sielanka: An Idyll, Hania, and Lillian Morris and Other Stories. None of them measures up to the power of his great novels, but each has its own buried treasures, and this one’s pretty good overall. Besides, the whole book can be read in little more than a half hour, so what have you got to lose?

Works in this collection
Life and Death: A Hindu Legend 
Is He the Dearest One?
A Legend of the Sea 
The Cranes 
The Judgment of Peter and Paul on Olympus 

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