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    Why Sienkiewicz?
Sienkiewicz and National Identity: With Whom and Against Whom?

Michael J. Mikoś

[Po co Sienkiewicz? Sienkiewicz a tožsamość narodowa: z kim i przeciw komu?] Edited by Tadeusz Bujnicki and Jerzy Axer. Warsaw-Kiejdany-Łuck-Zbaraž-Beresteczko: Wydawnictwo DiG (, 2007. 430 pages plus color illustration. English summary, index of names, list of illustrations. ISBN 83-9232-823-0. Hardcover. In Polish.

Since May 2, 1883 when the first installment of With Fire and Sword appeared in the Warsaw newspaper Słowo, Sienkiewicz has reigned as the most popular Polish novelist surrounded by public admiration and critical acclaim. This volume contains the proceedings of a two-phased conference held in Poland and Lithuania 21-28 October 2003, and in Ukraine 7-11 July 2004. The meetings brought together scholars, mostly from the host countries, who gathered to reevaluate Sienkiewicz’s oeuvre and his place in the post-1990 world. They focused on two substantive issues: the multifaceted myth of Kresy (or, in Jerzy Giedroyc’s modern version, the historical territories of Lithuania, Ukraine, and Belarus), and the culture of the Sarmatian Baroque, both essential for understanding the Trilogy. Conference presentations were amplified by polemics and interlaced with comments and panel discussions. Appendix I registered reports on Reading Sienkiewicz at school, while Appendix II listed responses to a questionnaire titled Our opinion of Sienkiewicz’s place in contemporary literature in which several Polish writers and critics, among them Czesław Miłosz (like Stanisław Brzozowski and Witold Gombrowicz before him), revealed their negative fascination with Sienkiewicz.

In the introductory paper, “Sienkiewicz’s Place in Polish Literature and National Consciousness,” Tadeusz Bujnicki recounts conditions in partitioned Poland during the nineteenth century. He presents Sienkiewicz as the author of a national patriotic program designed “to uplift men’s hearts” that drew its inspiration from the cult of the past. In her paper “Sarmatism and Baroque in the Trilogy,” Anna Nowicka-Ježowa reconstructs Sienkiewicz’s vision of the Sarmatian Baroque, its religiosity and love of freedom; its integrative formula of a multiethnic Poland comprised of Polish, Lithuanian, and Ruthenian peoples; and its fidelity to the cultural tradition of Latinate Western Europe. In “Sienkiewicz’s Reading of the Bible,” Jolanta Sztachelska identifies the Bible as a covert source of Sienkiewicz’s writing, while in “Sienkiewicz’s ars scribendi” she discusses his poetics, aesthetics, and artistic strategies, placing his novels in the tradition of antiquity and the Polish Baroque. Sztachelska defines Sienkiewicz’s style as classical and romantic, with strong reliance on the genres of world literature such as epic, drama, Shakespearian theater, Baroque romance, and melodrama. Analyzing Sienkiewicz’s art, Bogdan Mazan describes the development of his style that ranges from realistic chronicles to epics in the tradition of Homer, Shakespeare, Dickens, Scott, and Dumas, seasoned with elements of legend, fable, comic book, and Western. Several participants describe Sienkiewicz as a superb stylist and storyteller, and point out that his language finds resonance in the Polish ear to this day. Thanks to his knowledge of historical and literary sources, especially chronicles, memoirs, diaries, and oral tales, Sienkiewicz succeeded both in creating a stylized language of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and in fashioning a classical diction based on Greek and Latin sources.

Discussing the issue of Kresy, Ewa Kosowska assesses “Sienkiewicz’s Anthropology of Polishness,” while Marceli Kosman identifies Sienkiewicz as a Pole, European, and Slav who showed particular interest in the history of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Beata Kal´ba reports that during the period of the national revival Lithuanian critics took exception to Sienkiewicz’s version of their country’s history. Tadeusz Bujnicki recalls “A Romantic Picture of Ukraine,” seeing it as a historic vision based on the tradition of the “Ukrainian school” in Polish literature represented by Antoni Malczewski, Józef Bohdan Zaleski, Juliusz Słowacki, and others, and promoted by the “Cracovian school” of history (Karol Szajnocha amd Michał Bobrzyński). This romantic fiction, captured in the paintings of Józef Brandt, advances the topos of the Wild Steppes, a world steeped in Ukrainian folklore, myth, and historical legend and inhabited by Cossacks, Ruthenians, and Sarmatians, who are entangled in a ruthless fraternal struggle.

The Ukrainian point of view on Sienkiewicz was also present. In a discussion devoted to Ukrainian history and Ukrainian revival, Wołodymyr Krawczenko discussed formation of the nation and national myths, paying special attention to the role of the Cossacks in the Ukrainian ethos. Natalia Jakowenko concentrated on the difference between historical and literary truth. Addressing the same topic, Tadeusz Bujnicki pointed out that Sienkiewicz was writing about the history of the seventeenth century in the nineteenth century, while we in turn are analyzing his novels over one hundred years later. Stanisław Uliasz concluded that the topic of Kresy as the cultural borderlands, forbidden by communist censors, returned in the 1980s and has recently become a topic of vigorous research in Poland and other countries. Similarly, the notion of Sarmatism, understood as a model of the nobleman’s worldview, culture, behavior, and knightly ethos, has become the subject of renewed study.

In other sessions a number of speakers took part in a discussion of “Sienkiewicz’s Cossacks and Gogol’s Cossacks,” and a panel discussed “Kisiel, Chmielnicki, Wiśniowiecki-were they good Ukrainians?” Teresa Âw´tosławska read a paper on “Christians and the Ancient World in Quo Vadis,” Jerzy Axer on “Rome in Quo Vadis” and “The Trilogy As a Role-playing Game,” while Andrzej Mencwel talked about Sienkiewicz and Brzozowski, Bogdan Mazan about Sienkiewicz and film, and Tadeusz Îabski about Sienkiewicz and mass culture. The conference also paid tribute to Henryk Sienkiewicz the man, described by Ignacy Paderewski in 1915 as “the most praiseworthy, most estimable of all the living sons of Poland.”

The rich material culled from the conference produced a variety of topics, approaches, and interpretations, making for uneven reading at times. Yet a vigorous exchange of ideas advanced from different national perspectives affirms Sienkiewicz’s art, and opens vistas for new research in a postcolonial spirit.

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The Sarmatian Review
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