Thursday, June 26, 2008

Chapter 1, Part 2

Night came down upon the Wild Lands, and with it the hour of ghosts. Cossacks on guard in the outposts related in those days that the shadows of men who had fallen in sudden death and in sin used to rise up at night and carry on dances in which they were hindered neither by the cross nor the Church. Also, when the wicks which showed the time of night began to burn out, prayers for the dead were offered throughout the outposts. It was said, too, that the shadows of mounted men coursing through the wasteland barred the road to wayfarers, whining and begging them for a sign of the holy cross. Among these ghosts, vampires also were met with, who pursued people with howls. A trained ear might distinguish at a distance the howls of a vampire from those of a wolf. Whole legions of shadows were also seen, which sometimes came so near the outposts that the sentries sounded the alarm. This was generally the harbinger of a great war. The meeting of a single ghost foreboded no good, either; but it was not always necessarily of evil omen, for frequently a living man would appear before travellers and vanish like a shadow, and therefore might easily and often be taken for a ghost.

Night came quickly on the Omelnik, so it was not unusual that a man or a ghost made an appearance at the side of the deserted stanitsa. The moon coming out form behind the Dnieper whitened the wasteland, the tops of the thistles, and the distance of the steppe. Immediately there appeared lower down on the plain some other beings of the night. The flitting clouds hid the light of the moon from moment to moment; consequently those figures flashed up in the darkness in one instant and in the next they were blurred. At times they disappeared altogether and seemed to melt in the shadows. Pushing on toward the height on which the first rider was standing, they stole up quietly, carefully, slowly, halting at intervals.

There was something awe-exciting in their movements, as there was in all that steppe which was so calm in appearance. The wind at times blew from the Dnieper, causing a mournful rustle among the dried thistles, which bent and trembled as in fear. At last the figures vanished in the shadows of the ruins. In the uncertain light of that hour nothing could be seen save the single horseman on the height.

But the rustle arrested his attention. Approaching the edge of the mound, he began to look carefully into the steppe. At that moment the wind stopped, the rustling ceased, and there was perfect silence.

Suddenly a piercing whistle was heard; confused voices began to shout stridently, "Allah! Allah! Jesus Christ! Help! Kill!" The report of muskets echoed; red flashes rent the darkness. The tramp of horses mingled with the clash of steel. Some new horsemen rose as if from under the ground of the steppe. You would have said that a storm had sprung up suddenly in that silent, ominous land. Human moans replaced the horrible shouting; finally all was quiet: the fighting was over.

Apparently a typical scene had been played out in the Wild Lands.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Chapter 1, Part 1

The year 1647 was that strange year in which various signs in the heavens and on earth announced misfortunes of some kind and unusual events.
Contemporary chroniclers relate that beginning with the spring myriads of locusts swarmed from the Wild Lands, destroying grain and grass; this was a harbinger of Tartar raids. In the summer there was a great eclipse of the sun, and soon after a comet appeared in the sky. In Warsaw, grave-mounds were seen over the city, and a fiery cross was seen in the clouds; therefore, fasts were held and alms given, for some men declared that a plague would come over the land and destroy the human race. Finally, a winter so mild set in that the oldest inhabitants could not remember one like it. In the southern provinces ice did not confine the rivers, which, swollen by the morning melting of snows, left their courses and flooded the banks. Rainfalls were frequent. The steppe was drenched and became an immense slough. The sun was so warm in the south that--wonder of wonders!--in the province of Braclaw and in the Wild Lands a green fleece covered the steppes and plains in the middle of December. The swarms in the beehives began to buzz and bustle; cattle were bellowing in the fields. Since such an order of things appeared altogether unnatural, all men in Rus who were waiting or looking for unusual events turned their excited minds and eyes especially to the Wild Lands, from which danger might easier show itself than anywhere else.

At that time there was nothing unusual in the Wild Lands--no struggles there, nor encounters, beyond those of ordinary occurrence and known only to the eagles, hawks, ravens, and beasts of the plain.

For such were the Wild Lands at that period. The last traces of settled life ended on the way to the south, at no great distance beyond Chigirin on the side of the Dnieper, and on the side of the Dniester not far from Uman; then forward to the bays and sea there was nothing but steppe after steppe, hemmed in by the two rivers as if by a frame. At the bend of the Dnieper in the lower country beyond the Cataracts, Cossack life was seething, but in the open plains no man dwelt; only along the shores were nestled here and there little fields, like islands in the sea. The land belonged de nomine to the Commonwealth, but it was an empty land, in which the Commonwealth permitted the Tartars to graze their herds; but since the Cossacks prevented this frequently, the field of pasture was a field of battle, too.

How many struggles were fought in that region, how many people had laid down their lives there, no man had counted, no man remembered. Eagles, falcons, and ravens alone saw these; and whoever heard from a distance the sound of wings and the call of ravens, whoever beheld the whirl of birds circling over one place, knew that corpses or unburied bones were lying beneath. Men were hunted in the grass as if they were wolves or wild goats. All who wished, engaged in this hunt. Fugitives form the law defended themselves in the wild steppes. The armed herdsman guarded his flock, the warrior sought adventure, the robber plunder, the Cossack a Tartar, the Tartar a Cossack. It happened that whole bands guarded herds from troops of robbers. The steppe was both empty and filled, quiet and terrible, peaceable and full of ambushes; wild by reason of its wild plains, but wild, too, from the wild spirit of men.

At times a great war filled it. Then there flowed over it, like waves, Tartar chambuls, Cossack regiments, Polish or Wallachian companies. In the nighttime the neighing of horses answered the howling of wolves, the voices of drums and brazen trumpets flew on to the island of Ovid and the sea, and along the black trail of Kutchman there seemed an inundation of men. The boundaries of the Commonwealth were guarded from Kamenyets to the Dnieper by outposts and stanitsas; and when the roads were about to swarm with people, it was known especially by the countless flocks of birds which, frightened by the Tartars, flew onward to the north. But the Tartar, if he slipped out form the Black Forest or crossed the Dnieper from the Wallachian side, came by the southern provinces together with the birds.

That winter, however, the birds did not come with their uproar to the Commonwealth. It was stiller on the steppe than usual. At the moment when our narrative begins the sun was just setting, and its reddish rays threw light on a land entirely empty. On the northern rim of the Wild Lands, along the Omelnik to its mouth, the sharpest eye could not discover a living soul, nor even a movement in the dark, dry, and withered steppe grass. The sun showed but half its shield from behind the horizon. The heavens became obscured, and then the steppe grew darker and darker by degrees. Near the left bank, on a small height resembling more a grave-mound than a hill, were the mere remnants of a walled outpost which once upon a time had been built by Teodoryk Buczacki and then torn down by raids. A long shadow stretched from this ruin. In the distance gleamed the waters of the widespread Omelnik, which in that place turned toward the Dnieper. But the lights went out each moment in the heavens and on the earth. From the sky were heard the cries of storks in their flight to the sea; with this exception, the stillness was unbroken by a sound.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Is Sienkiewicz Relevant in the 21st Century?

Whenever one contemplates a lengthy project, one has to ask about its relevancy. And so, the question arises: Is Sienkiewicz relevant in the 21st Century?

We now see before us a European Union, the absence of conflicts between nations in Europe, and freedom of nations to live without the military domination of an outside force--circumstances perhaps dreamed of in Sienkiewicz's time, but certainly very far from any reality.

Sienkiewicz was certainly a product of his time. Much of his passion can be directly related to the environment he grew up in, and his work reflects that passion. But what of us who live under vastly different conditions? Can we appreciate and find value in Sienkiewicz's work?

I believe so.

Firstly, on a basic level, Sienkiewicz was a great storyteller, and so his literary output can be read for the simple, but no less significant, pleasure of a splendid read.

Secondly, Sienkiewicz was a talented Romanticist, and his best works enthrall one with poetry, passion and a sense of life as being bigger and grander than we usually think of it. There are many passages in Sienkiewicz's books which nearly stun the reader with their Romantic beauty and power.

Thirdly, he was an honest writer, demanding the truth in the historical fiction he wrote and truth in the contemporary novels he wrote about the human condition. Readers will get as accurate a reflection of life in historical times as it was possible for Sienkiewicz to research, and they will certainly get an accurate reflection of what life and thought was like in Sienkiewicz's time in novels of contemporary life in Poland.

So, yes, we can find value in Sienkiewicz's work, and even get spiritual nourishment from it, that nourishment that comes with any great work of art.

If there is one problematic strain in Sienkiewicz's work for today's reader, it is the author's deep patriotism that seems at odds with our modern sensibility. And, of course, considering the conditions that Sienkiewicz lived under, in which Poland did not even exist and the Polish people were under the domination of foreign elements, the different tone of his patriotism and ours is completely understandable. What should be kept in mind for those to whom patriotism may be a bad mindset is that Sienkiewicz was never a jingoistic nationalist who wished that Poland would dominate other nations. He merely wanted Poland to exist and the Polish people to be free.

There is another strain in Sienkiewicz's work that may bother certain contemporary readers: his Catholicism. But, here again, Sienkiewicz was merely being honest with the historical and contemporary times he was writing about. Yes, he was a Christian, but he was an intelligent Christian, non-dogmatic and burdened as all thinking Christians are by doubt and bouts of lack of faith.

In summation, Sienkiewicz was a great writer, and much of his writing is extraordinary and astonishing and transformational. He was a titan and remains a titan--yes, even in this 21st Century.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Three Available English Translations of WITH FIRE AND SWORD

WITH FIRE AND SWORD saw its first English translation in 1890, less than a decade after it was published in the original Polish. The translator, Jeremiah Curtin, rendered his work with fidelity but a literalness that was, at times, too strict. For instance, the old Polish greeting of "czolem" was literally translated as "with the forehead," much to the future merriment or annoyance of a Polish-speaking American-based intelligentsia who felt that Curtin, through what they considered faulty and awkward translations, had handicapped the appreciation of Sienkiewicz in academic circles in the United States. This judgment was made with little actual study of Curtin's translations, however, and not much appreciation for the fact that Curtin was responsible in making Sienkiewicz's works so popular at the turn of the 20th century and beyond. When the dust of the Curtin debate settles, it should be evident that Curtin is the major figure in presenting Sienkiewicz to the English-speaking world. His importance is invaluable.

Samuel A. Binion, the second translator of WITH FIRE AND SWORD, came onto the scene at a time (1897) when Sienkiewicz had already become a phenomenon due to the surprising popularity of QUO VADIS (first translated into English by Curtin, who by this time had become Sienkiewicz's foremost translator). Binion's translation is commendable, but he too made mistakes. He also deleted the entire epilogue of the original. While Curtin translated most of Sienkiewicz's work, including the entire Trilogy, Binion tackled only four works: WITH FIRE AND SWORD, PAN MICHAEL, KNIGHTS OF THE CROSS, and QUO VADIS (the later, his first Sienkiewicz translation, with the assistance of S. Malevsky.)

In 1991, W.S. Kuniczak, a talented author in his own right, rendered a controversial "modern translation." This translation altered Sienkiewicz's text by adding words and sentences never written by Sienkiewicz, while removing others that Sienkiewicz wrote. Like Binion, Kuniczak expunged the original's entire important epilogue. Stylistically, the Kuniczak translation is far removed from Sienkiewicz's Romantic pacing and poetry. He set the writing style in a late 1900s tone and made his characters sound as if they stepped out of the latter part of 20th Century America rather than 17th Century Poland. Apparently, Sienkiewicz's work had to be made palpable to a contemporary American audience, or else Kuniczak felt the need to inject himself and his own artistic ethos into the century-old work. (Both reasons are probably true.) Nevertheless, Kuniczak's modern translation, propelled by a laudatory front page review in the New York Times' Book Review section, swept up many who had never read Sienkiewicz in the English language and initiated renewed interest in Sienkiewicz in America, though on a far smaller scale than what had occurred a century earlier with Curtin's efforts. At the same time, it must be noted, Kuniczak's version perturbed and even angered those familiar with the original who considered any tampering or "modernization" sacrilegious.