Henryk Sienkiewicz - Sielanka
In Sielanka, Christian religion is shown by Polish Nobel Laureate Henryk Sienkiewicz as, first, an ethereal and beautiful (almost mystical) expression of love and then, in the second of two stories, as powerfully redemptive, a good capable of following any bad. Sielanka and Orso, the two stories in the collection, are paired oddly together, and it is difficult to see a connection beyond the religious. Oddness is not, however, synonymous with a lack of artistry or literary merit, and the stories, though brief, are interesting and stand up against repeated reading.
The first, Sielanka (“idyll” in Polish, and also the name of the collection as a whole), concerns a budding young woman, Kasya, and the walk she takes through the forest with Burek, her dog, and John, a young man and, perhaps, a soon-to-be lover. Kasya “was the light of the household, as bright and fresh as the morning.” She was also, “brought up in great innocence and in the fear of God.” Immediately, Sienkiewicz begins to work in the dominant theme of Sielanka – that being the beautiful in God and the light airiness of religion.
The story is drenched with religion. Sienkiewicz links religious love with the romantic, intertwining metaphors to show the harmony of the spiritual with the physical. At times this works, such as in this lovely passage:
Never before had the forest sung so wonderfully over their heads, never was the wind so sweet and caressing, never at any time had the noises of the forest, the rustling of the breeze in the trees, the voices of the birds, the echoes of the woods, seemed to merge into such an angelic choir, so sweet and grand, as at this moment, full of unconscious happiness.
And sometimes it doesn’t, such as when, in an ecstasy of love and religion, the trees, saying goodnight to the world, pray:
"...the pines pondered a moment upon the words of the oaks, and then they raised their voices together, saying:
'Now, O Lord, to they great glory, we, as censers, offer to Thee the incense of our sweet-smelling balsam, strong, resinous and fragrant. "Our Father, who are in heaven, hallowed by Thy Name.”’
Other trees follow suit, and the back and forth of the forest’s harmony is shown. The writing is, without doubt, quite beautiful, but the substance of it is lacking unless you agree with the author’s acceptance of and veneration for Christian religious feeling. Sienkiewicz takes it a step further in his use of speech; his characters are inordinately fond of using ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ in their conversation – conversations which are, aside from the archaic terminology, sweet and gentle in their expression of love, but also largely ordinary, and thus somewhat lacking in impact. In a sense, the words are too high-concept for the comparatively regular expressions, and this holds true for the overall language of the story as well.
In effect, the story is more beautiful than it should be, and this beauty only satisfies if the reader possesses a similar sense of religion as the author. It is rare for an author as perceptive as Sienkiewicz to (all but) require specificity in his readers rather than generality, but it is indeed the case here. There is some lovely imagery in Sielanka, including one inspired passage where Sienkiewicz describes doves settling on roofs and trees at sunset as scattered rose leaves or flames, or in this extended quote:
A willfull young girl quarrels with her lover and enumerates the means she intends to use to escape from him. But it is useless. When she says that she will be a golden ring and will roll away on the road, he says that he will quickly see and recover her. When she wants to be a golden fish in the water he sings to her of the silken net; when she wants to be a wild fowl on the lake he appears before her as a hunter.
But lovely imagery is not always enough, and for someone who isn’t Christian (or indeed, religious at all), then the story falls flat. Beautiful, but lacking in weight.
This leads us to the second piece, Orso, which also leans heavily upon religion. This story, however, is not beautiful. No, it is a cacophony, a barrage of words and things, and of deeds and reports. Unlike Sielanka’s gossamer connection to the concrete, Orso is engaged with the world; it is a story of newspapers and countries, where stories are told and, more importantly, heard. It is staunchly realist, in that the events described could, without too much of a stretch, happen anywhere. But they happen in California, and the largeness of American when compared to the history and centuries of Europe, plays nicely into the themes of the piece.
In California the events happen, and what they are is the arrival of a circus. People from many nationalities have come to see the festivities, one of the most important being Orso, a sixteen year-old Indian who fights lions and displays his strength and savagery. Orso’s
powerful form seems as if it were hewn out with an ax. He has all the features of a circus athlete, but so magnified that they make him noticeable; besides, his face is not handsome. Sometimes, when he raises his head, you can see his face, the lines of which are regular, perhaps too regular, and somewhat rigid, as if carved from marble...He is not of a good disposition
The circus is a success. People love it, and newspapers happily report on its mysteries and excitements. Sienkiewicz provides layer after layer of detail, highlighting the richness and chaos of a circus in full swing. The shift from Sielanka is remarkable, but then Jenny is introduced, and the focus shifts. Jenny is a young girl, thirteen, and is dangerously close to becoming a woman. The owner of the circus, Mr. Hirsch, has noticed, and Orso has noticed him noticing. Orso is somewhat slow, but his heart is pure, and he becomes devoted to Jenny through their shared readings of the Bible. Orso believes the book is true and just, and has an answer for any problem they may have. The devout Jenny is delighted to have a friend who shares her faith, and a sort of puppy love begins to blossom.
Needless to say, the events that occur are telegraphed early, and should be obvious to anyone. Orso and Jenny fall in love, Mr. Hirsch doesn’t like it and beats Orso, Orso fights back, Jenny and Orso escape the circus to live off in the wilderness. The strength of the story’s first half is badly wounded by the too-obvious plotting and overly heavy reliance on the Bible. Unlike Sielanka, the language of the story doesn’t hold up as well, because Sienkiewicz has a lot of plot to get through in only thirty pages. So, what happens is that the Bible becomes the touchstone, religion becomes salvation, and all ills are fixed simply by praying. This is shown most absurdly when Jenny and Orso meet an old man living in the wild
We are from the circus, kind sir! Mr. Hirsch beat Orso very much and then wanted to beat me, but Orso did not let him, and fought Mr. Hirsch and four negroes, and then we ran off on the plains, and went a long distance through the cacti, and Orso carried me; then we came here and are very hungry.
And that’s that. They live together, happily ever after, and the story ends.
Sielanka and Orso are very different pieces, both in style and content, and their paring together in this slim collection is more perplexing than beneficial. As a sampler of Sienkiewicz' work, his short masterpiece The Light-house Keeper (among many other smaller pieces) should definitely have been included over either of these works, and, bluntly, these two do not work together. Sielanka is a deeply Christian work of ethereal religious expression, a light story that touches delicately on beautiful topics, whereas Orso is visceral, physical, a wide-ranging panoply of peoples and types, and, most often, of lists - lists of people, lists of places, lists of animals, towns, wonders, motions. Orso provides, in its first half, an orgy of description and of things being described, and in its second, shifts to a parable on the power of love and faith. Indeed, the connecting thread for both stories is the religion, and specifically Christian faith – but it is the only connection, and, though religion is strong in both, the connection is not.
That said, this is a small piece, and the price (from Project Gutenberg) is persuasive – it can be read for free if you enjoy reading text online, and on various ebook readers. Sienkiewicz is a very strong writer, and these stories, while weak, remain engaging and interesting. Perhaps a reader with a strong religious connection would enjoy them more, but for me there was not enough substance to them. If you are curious about Sienkiewicz, a worthwhile collection is Stories by Foreign Authors: Polish, Greek, Belgian, Hungarian, which includes one of his great short works. Sielanka is simply too minor, unfortunately.
Works by Henryk Sienkiewicz under review include:
---So Runs the World
---Stories by Foreign Authors: Polish, Greek, Belgian, Hungarian
List of Polish authors under review
"because of his outstanding merits as an epic writer"
-Nobel Prize in Literature, 1905