A Saga of National Survival Modern Translation of a Classic Polish Epic Turns a Troubled History into a Living Entity

Article excerpt

'TO catch hold of and encompass in words - to describe exactly - the life of a single people, much less humanity would appear impossible," wrote Leo Tolstoy in "War and Peace." Despite Count Tolstoy's gloomy pronouncement, 17 years later Henryk Sienkiewicz challenged these words when the Polish novelist began to write the first volume of his epic, "Trilogy."

Not only did Sienkiewicz describe the very heart and soul of the Poles, he went a step further. He captured the national character of Poland. The book's impact on Polish national consciousness is almost impossible to overestimate.

In the foreword of this new English translation by W. S. Kuniczak, James A. Michener writes: "The Sienkiewicz 'Trilogy' stands with that handful of novels which not only depict but also help to determine the soul and character of the nation they describe.... The 'Trilogy' is a sacred book."

The "Trilogy" is not only a mirror of a nation's soul, as so many critics recognize today, but also a compendium of all those racial memories and feelings that make history a living entity rather than just a listing of facts, dates, and figures.

National epics are rare indeed; perhaps a handful exist in the great literatures of the world. These sagas with their heroes emerge as a byproduct of a long history - of wars and the struggle for nationhood.

Volume I of the "Trilogy,With Fire and Sword," opens in 1647 with the Cossack rebellions, which broke the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth's hold on its Eastern territories. The second volume, "The Deluge," revolves around the dynastic wars with the Swedes, and the third, "Fire in the Steppe," concludes the epic with the Tartar and Turkish invasions that precipitated the formation of the Russian Empire. The first book is now available in translation; the others will be published in 1992.

When Sienkiewicz wrote his epic (1882-86), Poland had been wiped off the map. It was shrouded in oblivion. Therefore, it is understandable that Sienkiewicz harbored strong nationalistic feelings. Like his Romantic predecessors, he was consumed by the nation's tragedy and yet passionately enamored of its past. While others went on to search for mystical explorations, he went back to history. In his view, the Commonwealth (which included Poland, Lithuania, and the Ukraine) was in its Golden Age in the 17th century.

Sienkiewicz's vision was clear. He would forge his "Trilogy" in the shadow of war while resurrecting the Commonwealth's glorious heroes in Homeric splendor. In turn, he expected that his writing would revive nationalistic pride and thus renew a spirit of patriotism in his countrymen.

Unlike Alexander Dumas, Sienkiewicz thought that the novelist did not have to distort historical facts to fit the story. He filled gaps in the history with his intuition and imagination. He was not writing history, but an adventurous historical epic, as he once said, "that would uplift the hearts of his countrymen."

The framework of the main plot is built around a class rebellion among the Cossacks, who bring into the picture their Tartar allies. The Cossacks lived in the Steppes along the Dnieper River - the Wild Lands of the Ukraine. Outsiders of society and its classes, the Cossacks were rebels to all authority and made their livelihood by raiding and plundering their Mongolian neighbors.

The Commonwealth sought to convert them into a class of serfs. As a result, tensions began to rise. Soon these savage uprisings gained momentum.

In 1648, a war broke out in the Ukraine. A separatist movement erupted when the Cossacks found a first-rank leader in Bohdan Hmyelnitzki, a member of the gentry who had a petty grievance with Yermi Vishnovyetzki, prince of the Ukraine. The neighborhood grievance exploded into a battle with fire and sword against the Commonwealth. …

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