Review: Henryk Sienkiewicz – The Deluge

As the weather outside is frightful, and the fire is delightful, and we have no place to go, why don’t we read a good book for once? And, coming to that, why not a good old classic? And this classic book could be, perhaps, a nineteenth century romance, written by a Nobel Prize winner and, just for asking, staged in a relevant historical moment.

Well, there, in a corner in the library, was “The Deluge” the central volume in a trilogy written by the Polish literary hero Henryk Sienkiewicz. This is a story with plenty of incentives for the reader: there is a love story in the bombastic mood of the XIX century romantics; there is a terrible war, conquerors and defenders; there are traitors, friends, turncoats and all that fanfare. But above all, this is a story of personal redemption, the story of how a young brave man, confused between loyalties and desperate with love, finds his way through war and treachery till he becomes a national hero and the inspiration for his peers to defeat their bitter enemies, both inside and outside the Republic.

It is important to note that the political stage was quite strange for the modern standards: at the time when the story develops, late XVII century, there was a great political structure in Eastern Europe called the Dual Republic, which was, curiously enough, not a Republic but a Monarchy, and represented the union between the Great Duchy of Lithuania and the Kingdom of Poland, better known as the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. And the head of the state was not hereditary, but elective; this as one can understand, was not precisely the better foundations for stability.

So there we are, just in the middle of a war, going to and fro with Andrezj Kmicic, noble, adventurer, soldier of reputation, and deeply in love with his fiancée Aleksandra Billewiczówna. This is a man of character, brave but violent, extremely proud, and his character would eventually put him in trouble. Through the eyes of Kmicic we will see the treacherous politics of the age, the sense of fate, the seeking for redemption and the search for immortal love amidst impending difficulties. There are other strong and very well depicted characters in the novel, particularly the handsome gentleman Michal Wolodijowskyi, somewhat the reverse of Kmicic , that being a more balanced, better settled man with at least the same bravery and sense of honour. Inevitably, friendship will grow between both, and also between some of the other warrior and patriot characters, giving the whole work a very rich environment of comradeship and soldierly friendship which pervades every line. In fact that is one of the strongest points in the book, the other being probably the rich portrait of a society overwhelmed by the strength of war and politics, mainly depicted by the deeds of the knighthood of the realm, but also in little brushstrokes about the feeling of the rural inhabitants, and the relations between nobles and servants. The weakest part, as it is usual with the Romantic writers, is the love story, extremely excessive and with too much affectation, and a wording that sometimes, to the modern ear, sounds quite more hilarious than tragic.

If you like a good action story, then this will suit you too. There is plenty of fighting, being the siege of Jasna Gora Monastery a centre-piece not only in the book but also in the creation of the Polish national spirit, which for sure was one of the aims pursued by Sienkiewicz at the time of its writing. That is another thing you have to think about when reading this book: that it is not only a very enjoyable piece of literature but also a political statement in behalf of a people who had been subdued for a long time, although not precisely by those enemies menacing in the events related in this novel, in this case Sweden, but by some new enemies who were beginning to rise, as the story suggests, in Russia and Prussia.

The character of Kmicic or his alter ego Babinic, alias very conveniently used when changing sides to cover his previous steps, is then composed of all those elements: bravery, nationalistic feeling, friendship, endurance, love over gold and matter, ingenuity…that Sienkiewicz would like to associate with the Polish people, so creating what is surely one of the more charismatic characters of the epic literature of the XIX Century.

Now go to your local book store or library and ask for The Deluge. Open it, with a good cup of tea or chocolate by your side, get in the mood for love and war, and, just in case you are of the inquisitive kind, submerge yourself in a fascinating yet poor known part of Europe’s history… And if you are of a romantic inclination, then you can sigh and cry with the almost impossible relation between our hero and his would-be-fiancée (and, of course, legendary belle)… Or if you just want to leave reality behind and enter a world of glorious deeds and everyday heroism, but you do not like elves and trolls…this is a book for you. o more volumes to go!

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