By Henryk Sienkiewicz. Translated by Stanley F. Conrad. New York Hippocrene/Dedalus. l993. 493 pages + map. Paperback.
By Henryk Sienkiewicz. Translated by W.S. Kuniczak. New York. Macmillan. l993. 579 pages. Hardcover.
It is encouraging to note the number of recent English translations of classics of Polish literature. Recent translations of Sienkiewicz's The Trilogy (With Fire and Sword, The Deluge, and Fire in the Steppe), In Desert and Wilderness and The Teutonic Knights are now available, as well as two new translations of Quo Vadis? which earned Sienkiewicz a Nobel Prize for literature in l906. The American public is most familiar with the latter work, which Hollywood has twice (in l929 and l951) adapted for the screen.
Quo Vadis? tells the story of the early Christian community in Rome in the time of Nero, Roman emperor from 54-68 A.D. Vinitius, a military hero and member of Nero's court, falls in love with Ligia, a Christian. This is essentially the tale of Vinitius' religious conversion set against the background of Nero's burning of Rome and the persecution of the catacomb community of Christians.
A vague Polish connection is introduced in the novel's heroine Ligia (Callina), daughter of the king of the distant "Ligians." Parts of modern Poland in the prehistoric era were inhabited by the tribe of Lugiones. It was believed in Sienkiewicz's day that these were Slavs, although it is more likely that their origin was Germanic or Celto-Germanic. Sienkiewicz's characterization of Ligia and her servant, the gentle giant Ursus, owes much to the romantic notions of the nineteenth century Polish Messianism.
Sienkiewicz is very much a Catholic writer and Quo Vadis? is, in many respects, a Catholic novel. The role of St. Peter, "Christ's appointed shepherd" and "the foremost disciple of Christ," is emphasized throughout the novel. The novel ends with Nero's death and the author notes (trans. S.F. Conrad): "Nero passed on ...but the Basilica of Peter still stands on the Vatican Hill and rules over the city and the world."
Both translators have done a competent job. The novelist Kuniczak previously translated Sienkiewicz's The Trilogy. The Hippocrene/Dedalus edition was translated by Stanley F. Conrad, a Polish-born American priest. Biographical notes describing the characters of the novel and maps of Rome and central Italy in the time of Nero are appended to Conrad's translation. The cover of the Hippocrene/Dedalus edition is illustrated with a detail from the painting The Torches of Nero, by Sienkiewicz's contemporary Henryk Siemiradzki. There are several typographical errors in the Conrad edition, including misspellings on pages 26l and 27l.
Quo Vadis? remains a treasure of Polish literature. Yet despite the popular success it has enjoyed over the years, this is not Sienkiewicz's best work. Sienkiewicz's characters from Polish history somehow ring more authentic than those created for Quo Vadis? Readers unfamiliar with Polish history may find the subject matter of Quo Vadis? more accessible than The Trilogy or other of the author's historical novels set in Poland, yet the latter are artistically more successful.
Kevin Hannan has just received his PhD from the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Texas.