Monday, March 22, 2010

QUO VADIS by Henryk Sienkiewicz

Quo Vadis is an 1896 historical novel by Henryk Sienkiewicz. I am specifically reviewing Jeremiah Curtin’s translation. In first-century Rome, during the time of Nero, young tribune Marcus Vinicius falls in love with Lygia, daughter of a conquered barbarian king and hostage of the Roman government. As he pursues her, Vinicius begins inadvertently to learn about her Christian faith. Quo Vadis features a number of historical figures, including Emperor Nero, Petronius, Saint Peter and Saint Paul.

Sienkiewicz does a fine job of immersing the reader in the Roman culture of the day, and of developing Vinicius and Petronius, his two main characters. They are well-rounded, and their significant differences in personality contribute to a multidimensional view of the story. Petronius, the clever hedonist, is likeable from page one, but Vinicius is rather unlikeable, and Sienkiewicz does a fine job of changing and evolving the character as the story progresses.

Beyond that, Sienkiewicz’s writing has a number of problems. Supporting characters are not nearly as well done – many are one-dimensional. Characters like Ursus and Lygia are astoundingly naïve – at times they seem like small children, and have to be dealt with by other characters as such. Lygia certainly has little going for her other than that she’s extremely attractive. Also, Sienkiewicz’s foreshadowing is profuse and heavy-handed throughout the novel. The parallels he draws between Nero’s corrupt empire and the future Rome-based Catholic Church are similarly overt (but the comparisons between the decadent Roman life and the liberating Christian life are well done).

Pacing is Quo Vadis’s biggest flaw. At times, particularly at the beginning, the novel absolutely crawls, and the reader has to put in a great deal of work just to get into the story. Throughout the book, Vinicius does a painful amount of moping and pining after Lygia, often for pages on end. The last hundred or so pages, though, make everything worthwhile – Sienkiewicz generates and maintains a great deal of suspense, and they absolutely fly by.

Perhaps what is most impressive here is Sienkiewicz’s treatment of Christians and Christian martyrs. Here we have genuine, committed, upstanding Christians of integrity, who would rather love their enemies than retaliate against unjust persecution. At the same time, they aren’t perfect people – some are naïve, some are petty, and so on. Sienkiewicz’s handling of their noble, willing deaths is similarly noteworthy.

I have not read any other translations of this novel, nor have I read it in the original Polish, so about Curtin’s translation I can only say this: the archaic pronouns thee and thou have (and had) long since passed out of common usage, and whether Curtin used them to make the book feel more period or more epic, I don’t know – but their use is annoying.

On the whole, Quo Vadis is an impressive piece of epic historical fiction whose scope and story and treatment of Christianity overcome the author’s flaws. It’s one of those books that everyone should read once.