[Cross-posted here, but with pretty pictures!]
"Bohun was more like the passing spirit of their own cruel and heroic era than just another man."
This book reminded me why it is that I love serialized fiction so very much. Had it been planned out and written all at once, I think it’s safe to say that With Fire and Sword
wouldn’t be the novel it is.
Henryk Sienkiewicz (and yes, one of my childhood heroes
is his descendant) is a difficult author for an English-speaker to explore. In Poland, the man is so important that the trilogy that With Fire and Sword
begins is simply known as "The Trilogy," while in the English-speaking world he's pretty much just known as "That Guy Who Wrote [b:Quo Vadis|538845|Quo Vadis|Henryk Sienkiewicz|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1340709653s/538845.jpg|44995]
," and anyone who does talk about The Trilogy just goes "uh, he's kind of a Polish Tolstoy?"
Well, first of all, let me just say that Sienkiewicz is in no way a Polish Tolstoy. Sure, he's from what we Americans understand to be that general part of the world
, and this is a really long book about a war that was very important in the history of his country, but that's where similarities between With Fire and Sword
and [b:War and Peace|656|War and Peace|Leo Tolstoy|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1222897284s/656.jpg|4912783]
end. And that's OK. Because if there's no The Polish Tolstoy
in Sienkiewicz, there's a whole lot of The Polish Dumas
there, which may not sound quite as intellectual, but is just as good, if you ask me. (Allowing, of course, that this kind of comparison is sort of a lazy exercise in the first place, and needs to be qualified.) All told, after reading this book there was no doubt in my mind that Sienkiewicz must have loved [b:The Three Musketeers|7190|The Three Musketeers|Alexandre Dumas|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1320436982s/7190.jpg|1263212]
After all, With Fire and Sword
, boiled down to its essence, is about a hero who tries to find the woman he loves, with the help of his three eccentric friends, all against a backdrop of a grand historical conflict (the Khmelnytsky Uprising
, which is a fascinating and massive war that I was never taught about in school
) the author tries, and fails, to not be one-sided about. But, despite the clear Musketeers
influence, it’s very much its own book, with a lot of its own stuff going on (which is good, ‘cause Skrzetuski is no D'artagnan).
A Dumas comparison also brings us back to the serialization angle, which is important because the characters in With Fire and Sword
build in the same way that good TV characters do. They begin as broad figures with easily identifiable character traits: the hero Skrzetuski, the friendly giant Podbipięta, the blustery Falstaff-like Zagloba, and the ladies’ man Wołodyjowski. Each has an extra quirk here and there (the best being that the friendly giant is also chafing under an ill-advised vow of chastity that’s driving him crazy) but can essentially be summed up easily and quickly. It’s clear that, at the beginning, Skrzetuski is meant to be our hero and central character, and for the first third of the book he is.
But then a funny thing happens. Somewhere along the line, Sienkiewicz realizes that Skrzetuski just isn’t that interesting a character (he never really moves beyond "the hero") and so he begins to fade into the background, still important to the plot but letting more interesting supporting characters do the heavy lifting. (It’s a bit like how the title character of [b:Ivanhoe|6440|Ivanhoe|Walter Scott|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1358725730s/6440.jpg|1039021]
fades a bit into the background, except moreso.) More interesting characters like Zagloba. In a book full of virtuous and valorous knights, it’s the fat, blustering, drinking, cowardly, possibly-actually-a-peasant-pretending-to-be-a-noble Zagloba who emerges as the book’s best character -- and one of the greatest fictional characters I think I’ve ever encountered.
Now, I can’t say this for sure, but I get the feeling that, had the book had been written all at once, without the feedback of readers as it was being published, Zagloba would have still been its best character, but would not have taken over the book, essentially becoming its lead. I would have to go back chapter by chapter, but I get the feeling that Zagloba actually graces more pages than Skrzetuski ever does -- certainly by the end the book seems to have this bizarre contrast between epic adventure and the goofy man at its center. The real highlight may very well be a section that covers Zagloba and Helena, our female lead, sneaking through enemy territory. It’s the first long section without Skrzetuski, it's when Zagloba comes into his own as a character, as well as when Helena becomes more than The Girl.
Come to think of it, Wołodyjowski also
becomes a genuinely likeable character once he gets Zagloba to bounce off of for awhile, and Podbipięta almost always has Zagloba as a foil and is a joy to read from the start, if not of the most impressive depth. Zagloba is just, it seems, one of those characters who brings out the best in whoever he’s paired with, along with being a bully, a sweetheart, a coward, a bad-ass, a bigot, extremely crafty, and (through his cowardice in a roundabout way) the only character who really gets how terrible and wasteful this war is. He's one of the best examples I have ever seen of a broad outline being filled in with the most wonderful character.
Helena also has to grow into her character a bit. Very early in the book, She and Skrzetuski have one of those silly love-at-first-sight moments, after which they are entirely in love even though the reader never has any idea why. There is no sense of what it is about these two characters that brings them together, and one gets the sense that Sienkiewicz is saying, "They’re the leads, of course they’re in love! Why spend time on it?" Yet in this shallow relationship, it’s Helena, as the book progresses, who overcomes cliché to becomes a great character, and not our "hero." It’s a welcome surprise in a 19th century adventure novel. She does still spend most of the book as a captive, regrettably, but even then she gets a genuinely bad-ass moment.
These characters are most of what makes the book, but not all: it has that beautifully wide historical scope that I was looking for. There are surprising duels and snarling villains and beautiful/sickening panoramas and a last-ditch defense of a fortress that felt like motherfucking Helms Deep
. Oh, also the Polish hussars
, which are pretty much the most amazing and frightening cavalry ever (they wore crazy wings into battle!
So, what are the problems? Well, the largest is probably trying to figure out where the line between "this is how they saw things back then" and "this is what I, the author, am glorifying right now" is. After a certain point, of course, authorial intent shouldn’t matter and we should just take what’s there, but I can’t help it being a sticking point for me, at times.
The quote at the top of the article, which names the book’s lead villain, makes a good case for seeing the novel’s setting as old-fashioned and cruel. Hell, Bohun would easily be the dashing hero of a less thoughtful old adventure novel -- he’s a brave, handsome, brooding warrior who kidnaps a lady to make her realize how much she loves him. But since he is the villain, we're clearly not meant to see the era through too rosy of a view.
But then there’s also the use of religion. Every Christian character is so sure that God wants them to kill as many of their enemies as possible: especially Muslims, but Cossacks too, and I was never clear on whether the book was going, "Look at how strange it was that they thought it was Christian to kill people!" or "That’s right! They thought that because it is." Much of this comes as they’re fighting for the ideals of a surprisingly forward-thinking, for its time, Polish commonwealth, that had some inklings of a multi-religious democracy -- so whether it’s in the characters or the author, the push-and-pull between worldviews is fascinating. This, to an extent, redeemed the incongruity for me.
So too with bigotry. Many people (especially in the Ukraine) consider the book offensive, and I can certainly see why. In it, Ukrainian peasants are almost always shown as violent savages, but it gets particularly strange later on, when our author describes why it is, he thinks that they are such:
There were no peasants like them anywhere in Europe, Hmyelnitzki was certain; no, nor anywhere else on earth where the wretched peasantry bowed without a murmur under the burdens of serfdom and oppression. But the Ukrainians were a different breed. They breathed a different air. Why should they crawl behind some noble's plow when the horizons promised them a masterless existence everywhere they looked? The open steppe beckoned to them every day. The tall grasses whispered. The wilderness filled their minds and souls with such insatiable hunger to be free, and with such abundant sense of space and of their own unfettered possibilities, that they clung to their liberty even more ferociously than to life itself.
It’s a strangely beautiful explanation, that skirts more toward "noble savage" territory, and had me admiring the people in question, even as I realized how backward it is characterize them all as one thing.
Still, these problems are often part and parcel of 19th century literature, especially of the nationalistic variety. Sienkiewicz explicitly wrote his Trilogy with an eye toward lifting up the people of a conquered Poland by taking a look at the romantic old days of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. So, in the end, I take more issue with how long it took the book to realize which characters deserved its page space, (a problem more likely to be rectified in books two
) than I do with its moral failings, because those are still part of the larger picture of a man struggling with his country’s history, and also writing a kick-ass adventure story that gets invaded by some tender and haunting moments
.A note on the translation:
Some laud this early 90s translation and denigrate the older 19th century one, some do the opposite, many don’t like either one. This one seemed like the better choice to me, although it did transliterate the names, which meant that to write this review and get the correct names I had to look them up. I also just found out that Kuniczak entirely excised an epilogue that tells about the end of the war, which is very disappointing. But, as of now, there doesn’t seem to be a better option.