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Books | Christian readers should discover Henryk Sienkiewicz

Issue: "Finster's unusual art," April 27, 1996

Henryk Sienkiewicz was an international phenomenon at the end of the 19th century. He was trained in both law and medicine. He was a respected historian. He was a successful journalist. He was a widely sought-after critic and editor. In addition, he was a popularly renowned novelist-selling millions of copies of his books in nearly 300 editions in the United States alone.

He wowed the world with his grace, his learning, his courage, his depth of character, and his writing-which included some of the most memorable works of prose ever penned. And, as if that were not enough, in 1905, Sienkiewicz (pronounced sin-KAY-vitch) capped his brilliant career, winning the Nobel Prize for literature.

It was an unlikely destiny for a passionately ethnic novelist from the isolated Podlasie region of Poland to fulfill.

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Born in 1846, he lived during one of the most tumultuous periods of Central European history. Ideological evolutions, utopian uprisings, base conspiracies, nationalistic movements, and imperialistic expansions racked the continent with wars, rumors of wars, and rumors of rumors. His own nation was cruelly and bitterly subjugated to the Russian Czar.

In his writing, Sienkiewicz used the backdrop of that chaos to reflect the tragedy of his people and at the same time reveal their glory. He was a true traditionalist at a time when traditionalism was thoroughly discredited-and thus his distinctive voice rang out in stark contrast to the din of vogue conformity. Thus his historical novels not only introduced the world to Poland, but they reintroduced young Poles to their own great heritage.

His massive Trilogy, published between 1884 and 1887, tells the story of an ill-fated attempt to save his homeland from foreign domination during the previous century. With all the scope of Tolstoy's War and Peace, the depth of Martorell's Tirant Lo Blanc, and the passion of Hugo's Les Miserables, the novels are unquestionably a monumental achievement of prose mastery-regaling the essence of the culture upon the canvas of an eminently readable adventure story. Happily, a remarkable new translation of the books by W.S. Kuniczak has been released by Hippocrene Books as With Fire and Sword, The Deluge, and Fire in the Steppe.

When they were first released in the United States, the books became instant best-sellers. They made Sienkiewicz an instant celebrity. Even so, they did not even come close to the acclaim that his Quo Vadis? would later receive. That book became nothing less than a literary blockbuster.

Quo Vadis? is a retelling of the story of the apostle Peter's long harassment and ultimate execution by Nero. According to legend, Peter was fleeing the Emperor's persecutions when he had a vision of Christ along the Appian Way. Awestruck, he asked him, "Quo vadis?" or "Whither do you go?" The Lord answered, "To Rome, to be crucified anew, inasmuch as you have abandoned my sheep." Realizing the rebuke, the apostle returns to the city to face his martyrdom.

In the hands of Sienkiewicz, the legend comes alive with bristling dialogue, fully dimensional characters, and informed political rage. His portrait of the Roman world and its ethos is dynamic. His faithfulness to the straightforward gospel message of the early church is inspiring. And his ability to emotionally identify with protagonists across the centuries is stunning.

Not surprisingly, the book became a model for aspiring writers-both Hemingway and Faulkner argued that it was the finest historical novel ever written. It has been lauded by such widely varying authors as Mario Vargas Llosa, James Michener, Shusaku Endo, David Morrell, and Peter Ackroyd. In addition, four film versions of the story have been made in Hollywood, two more in France, another in Italy, and still another in Poland. The 1951 MGM big-budget production, starring Peter Ustinov, Robert Taylor, and Deborah Kerr, is a confirmed classic-and is now available in video.

For many years the only version of the book available in English was the abridged British translation of C.J. Hogarth, published by Hippocrene. That was recently remedied however, by a welcome new edition compiled by James Bell, the talented scholar at the helm of Moody Press.

Quo Vadis? is a classic work with which the ever-growing Christian market needs to be nurtured. And Sienkiewicz is a masterful author with whom the ever-hungry Christian community needs to become acquainted.

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