As regular readers of this blog will know, I have been participating in Nick Senger’s 2021 chapter a day readalong project. The second book in the series has been Quo Vadis by Henryk Sienkiewicz and I have been reading the translation by W S Kuniczak.
From the blurb:
An epic saga of love, courage and devotion in Nero’s time, Quo Vadis portrays the degenerate days leading to the fall of the Roman empire and the glory and the agony of early Christianity. Set at a turning point in history (AD54-68), as Christianity replaces the era of corruption and gluttony that marked Nero’s Rome, Quo Vadis brims with life.
Sienkiewicz was Polish and won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1905 for his ‘outstanding merits as an epic writer’. Quo Vadis is his most well-known work. According to Wikipedia, this story of early Christianity in Rome, with protagonists struggling against the Emperor Nero’s regime, ‘draws parallels between repressed early Christians and contemporary Poles; and, due to its focus on Christianity, it became widely popular in the Christian West. The triumph of spiritual Christianity over materialist Rome was a critique of materialism and decadence, and was seen as an allegory for the strength of the Polish spirit’.
I must admit to having mixed feelings about this book. As someone without a religion, it was at times difficult to stick with the very relentless focus on Christian teaching. On the other hand, I find it fascinating to read about people with a strong faith. As such, it was interesting to read about how Christianity may have developed after the death of Christ. I also felt that the book did a good job of conveying the challenge of having one’s lifelong views and beliefs undermined, as was the case with one of the main characters, Vinicius. As a senior solider in the Roman army, and therefore of important rank in society generally, Vinicius was used to total obedience and subservience by those around him. His world order is, however, overturned when he starts to engage with Christians, leading him to question even his own sanity. This aspect of the book was particularly well handled.
It also helped that Sienkiewicz’s style, albeit in translation, is lyrical and very beautiful. Here’s an example:
The eastern sky was already tinged a misty, pale shade of green, framed at the base by a sharper boundary of saffron. Branches with silvered leaves, the white walls of nearing villages, and the tall arches of the viaducts that ran across the plain toward Rome could be seen in the shadows. Gold seeped into the greenish sky and filled it with brightness, and then a reddening rosy glow bloomed in the East behind the Alban hills, painting them lilac and making them seem spun wholly out of light.
Dawn’s pearly light trembled on the dew that clung to the leaves. The mists receded, opening a broader vista to the level plains, villas, cemeteries, small country towns and groves, and the white temple columns gleaming among the trees.
So overall, I am glad to have read this book. I am also pleased to have done so via the readalong; I might not have stuck with it otherwise. It’s definitely not a book for everyone (what book is?). But I found it to be an interesting take on a significant time in history.
Next up in Nick’s readalong series is Notre Dame de Paris, or more famously The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo. You can join in or follow our progress with the hashtag #hunchbackreadalong.
And stay tuned for an announcement next week about my very own readalong (to run in parallel with Nick’s, and shamelessly cribbing his approach, sorry Nick!). If I tell you that the hashtag for this project is #karamazovreadalong, I’m sure you will be able to guess what it will be about. 😀