With a daunting number of recent arrivals, I’ve had to look ahead a little more than I normally would and organise my reading and reviewing accordingly. One up-side of this, though, is that I’ve been able to group some of the books together, so the next few weeks will see a bit of a regional trend, with a couple of books per week from a particular country. That starts today with the first of two recent Polish releases, and when it comes to Polish classics, there’s only one place to go…
…funnily enough, it’s not Poland…
Adam Mickiewicz’s Pan Tadeusz: The Last Foray in Lithuania, an epic poem that first appeared in 1832, is easily the most famous work of literature written in Polish and has already appeared in English several times. However, Archipelago Books have commissioned a new version, leaving it in the capable hands of Bill Johnston (winner of the Best Translated Book Award for his work on Wiesław Myśliwski’s Stone Upon Stone). Written from the author’s self-imposed exile in Paris, the book looks back to events that happened twenty years earlier when petty squabbles in the countryside sparked a minor uprising against the Russian occupiers. It’s a story to stir the soul of the reader as they cheer the insurgents on, all the while dreaming of a brighter future for their homeland.
To understand and fully appreciate Pan Tadeusz, it’s important to have a little background knowledge, and Johnston’s excellent introduction fills the Anglophone reader in on the fate that befell Poland in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. From a major European power that helped repel the Turkish push into the old continent, the country became a plaything for its powerful neighbours, with Prussia, Russia and the Austro-Hungarian empire slicing off pieces of its territory until there was virtually nothing left. Also, when we speak of the Poland of this time, what we really mean is a state whose borders were very different to those on today’s maps, with the action of the book taking place in modern-day Lithuania.
The story begins with the titular Tadeusz, a young man studying in Vilna (Vilnius), returning to his family home in the village of Soplicowo. There he finds not only his uncle, the Judge, a wealthy landowner, but a couple of unfamiliar female faces. Being young and foolish, his heart is torn between the older Telimena and her young ward, Zosia, but he’s not the only one drawn to the women. An aristocratic neighbour, the Count, also has his eye on them, and it’s inevitable that the two men will come to blows.
However, there’s a far more serious conflict on the horizon. Between the properties of the Judge and the Count, there’s an old neglected castle that once belonged to the Count’s ancestors, and both men wish to attach it to their own estates. While the start of the book sees them attempting to be polite, the Count’s steward Gerwazy is determined not to give way. In an attempt to stop his master ceding the property, he lets him in on a family secret, uncovering the true cause of the family’s demise, and pledges to stop the Judge taking possession of the castle:
“…Let his unworthy foot
Step in my lord’s spilled blood and blot it out?
No! Not while I have breath left in my chest
And strength in a single finger at the least
For Jackknife – hanging on the wall still – never
Will a Soplica have this place – not ever!”
Book II, p.89 (Archipelago Books, 2018)
Not long after, a dinner held amongst the ruins turns violent, and the two factions prepare for the inevitable battle.
Mickeiewicz sets this local squabble against a far more momentous occasion. Napoleon’s Grande Armée is slowly making its way towards Russia, an event long hoped for by the Poles, who believe its coming will herald the restoration of their country’s independence. An army of emigrant Poles marches among the throng, and another visitor to Soplicowo, the itinerant monk Robak, suggests that it might be best to prepare for their arrival. Why waste time on fighting with your neighbours when there’s a far better opponent just waiting to be beaten?
As you can see, Pan Tadeusz has all the elements of an entertaining story, and that’s exactly what unfolds. Tadeusz himself is actually fairly nondescript for the most part, and I was never really engaged in his affairs of the heart, but there are plenty of other characters who leap off the page, old battle-hardened veterans just itching to take their weapons down from their wall mountings and enter the fray once more. Egging them all on is Robak, a man of mysterious origins who turns out to be the key to the novel, both the cause of the quarrel and the man hoping to bring the two sides together. However, having stirred up bloodlust among the locals, he soon realises he needs to tone it down, lest the farmers and minor gentry get carried away too soon. Don’t worry – the fireside warriors will get their chance to go into battle again, and it’s an awesome sight.
A major aspect of the novel is its historical sketches, and in his introduction Johnston makes comparisons with Thomas Hardy in what Mickiewicz was trying to do here. The writer was painting a picture of a traditional lifestyle that was swiftly dying out. His descriptions of an elaborate wedding banquet, a hunt for a wild bear and the local dances, with the musicians and their old-fashioned instruments, would all have been vivid and familiar to the Polish reader of the time. Yet these descriptions were also tinged with a painful poignancy. While most contemporary readers would have recognised the customs, few of them would still have been carrying them out…
As enticing as this sounds, though, it’s all for naught if the writing doesn’t cut it, so it’s a good job that Pan Tadeusz is a pleasure to read. Epic poetry isn’t to everyone’s liking, but once you dive in, the book very quickly becomes an absorbing read with the fact of the rhyme and rhythm fading into the background. Johnston worked on the book for about ten years in an attempt to do justice to the text, and it shows. He discusses his approach in the introduction, and the end product is magnificent, simple and poetic in places:
Above the bright-hued snarl of shoots, stems, sprays,
There hung like a baldachin a close-knit haze
Of dragonflies. Their four wings float in air –
Transparent as glass, weightless as gossamer,
Almost invisible; though they produce
A buzzing sound, you’d swear they’re motionless.
Book III, p.113
While in others, there’s a distinct sense of the epic, with hints of The Iliad in the counsels of war:
“Baptist” was backed by Bartek Razor, known
For his thin sword, and Maciej Watering Can,
Named for his blunderbuss, its mouth so wide
It scattered shot like rain on every side.
Both cried: “Go Sprinkler!” The Prussian sought the floor
But was outshouted by a scornful roar:
“Down with the Prussians, spineless one and all!
Let cowards hide beneath a friar’s cowl!”
Book VII, p.256
Mickiewicz and Johnston cleverly blend some of the ridiculous elements of these meetings (featuring old men determined for one last hurrah, even if a few of them are a little long in the tooth) with the genuine passion felt for the land they are sworn to defend.
The book culminates in the titular foray, which turns out to be rather different from what the ageing warriors had expected. Instead of recounting a settling of old scores between two feuding clans, Pan Tadeusz becomes the story of a people raging against the machine, proud warriors shaking off their torpor and the chains of enslavement. It’s little wonder that those reading it at the time were so affected by the book; even less so that in later times, when both Poland and Lithuania were once again occupied by foreign troops, it continued to be a call to arms. Whether you have Polish blood in your veins or not, you can’t help but be moved by the story of a people fighting for their right to exist.
Pan Tadeusz is certainly worthy of attention, but it might struggle to get it as it’s unlikely to make many longlists. The BTBA doesn’t accept retranslations, and with no UK release – or living author – the Man Booker International Prize is out, too. Hopefully, though, it will receive praise and coverage and find a readership out there. While epic poetry might sound like a hard slog, this is by no means a dull classic. Star-crossed lovers, feuding clans and spontaneous uprisings – what’s not to like? 😉