The novelist Henryk Sienkiewicz is, alongside the poet and playwright Adam Mickiewicz, the best known Polish author. His most important works are his trilogy of historical novels—With Fire and Sword, The Deluge and Sir Wołodyjowski—set in the seventeenth century, and Quo Vadis, about the persecution of Christians in Nero’s Rome. He also wrote The Teutonic Knights, a long book about the Teutonic Order that is more popular in Poland than abroad, and a children’s novel, In Desert and Wilderness, about the adventures of a Polish boy and English girl in Sudan during the Mahdist War.
Charcoal Sketches isn’t any of those, which makes it a minor Sienkiewicz. It’s also a novella and quite funny, which makes it unlike Sienkiewicz’s mostly serious, long works. The story takes place in the Russian partition of Poland, where the bureaucracy is corrupt, the newly freed peasants are inept and lacking initiative, and the aloof nobility has decided to stay out of local affairs to the detriment of everyone, including itself. Indeed, Sienkiewicz intended Charcoal Sketches to be a criticism of Poland, one that was sparked by a trip to America, where instead of disorder, disorganization and malaise, he noticed instead a self-motivated citizenry, action and a hardy progress.
The novella starts on a light-hearted note. We enter a municipal building in a small village and meet the chief bureaucrat, an arrogant writer and a swarm of flies in various states of animation. The first wants to prevent the army from taking his son. The second wants to sleep with a peasant woman. The narrator doesn’t tell us what the flies want. The chief bureaucrat and the writer plot. They decide that if they manage to get the peasant woman’s husband, Rzepa, to go off to war, both their problems will be solved. There’s a memorable scene—representative of Sienkiewicz’s humour—of the writer attempting to force himself on the peasant woman, only to end up having his ass bitten by her dog. It’s the type of scene that’s funny only until you stop laughing and realize someone almost got raped.
Eventually, the chief bureaucrat and the writer get Rzepa drunk and he signs what he thinks is a favourable property agreement about his land but that is actually a document by which he has agreed to join the army. All the proper legalities are observed. He signs of his free will and in front of a witness. In the morning, poor Rzepa has a nasty surprise to go with his headache.
Rzepa’s wife desperately tries to find a solution to this problem. She doesn’t want to be left alone. They have a child. She even visits a priest, who tells her most unhelpfully that God’s will is God’s will. Rzepa no doubt deserves what he’s getting. Eventually, she sets off to visit a nearby town, hoping to convince an important official to help her. Unfortunately, she succeeds merely in spending a day in the municipal building, waiting on the wrong benches, watching the wrong doors, and then making a fool of herself when finally she gets the brief chance to state her case to the official. He and his cronies laugh her out of town. On the way home, she’s almost raped by a drunk peasant who tells her to be a good woman and go into the wheat with her, then bonks her on the head with a rock after she refuses; gets caught in a thunderstorm; and becomes the butt of a nobleman’s signature joke: seeing her walking down the road, he slows his carriage and calls out to her—only to then speed off without a word.
She makes it home nevertheless because she’s a tough little woman. But she’s defeated. She follows questionable advice and meets with the writer, who, as we remember, wants to sleep with her and who helped dupe her husband. She lets him do what he wants. Nothing comes of it. She crawls back home, where Rzepa has been drinking and is feeling increasingly suicidal. This is where Sienkiewicz absolutely turns the screw, and the plot, and shocked at least this reader into blunt submission. Rzepa wants to die, but upon learning of his wife’s infidelity he decides he wants to kill her first. He picks up his axe and swings. Although my translation doesn’t do it justice, Sienkiewicz ends the chapter like this:
There sounded a hollow blow, followed by a moan and the knock of a head against the floor; then a second blow, a weaker moan; then a third blow, a fourth, a fifth, a sixth. A stream of blood poured onto the floor, the coal in the fireplace grew dimmer. A vibration swept through Rzepa’s wife, from her head to her toes, and then her corpse stiffened and remained unmoving.
Shortly after, a wide, bloody glow tore apart the darkness: the farmhouses were burning.
As if that wasn’t horrible enough, Rzepa isn’t actually able to murder the writer. He’s stopped by the locals. And, in a short epilogue, the novella’s narrator proceeds to kick us further in the gut by telling us that the document Rzepa signed—you see, it was never going to be enough to get him into the army anyway…
All was for nothing. How’s that for a joke?
And so life continues. In its disorganized, corrupt and stupid manner, selfish bureaucrats take advantage of doltish peasants under the disinterested eye of the nobility, who stroll in blissful wonder under the afternoon sun, holding hands, avoiding puddles and discussing poetry.
If there’s any consolation to be had, it’s that although the writer wanted to sleep with Rzepa’s wife, his true feelings were for a noblewoman, a goal beyond the reach of even the most cunning psychopath. The writer will have to keep dreaming about his advances, playing footsies under the table and holding hands with his most-powdered of adorations, who is melding slowly in his mind with characters in a cheesy novel he’s obsessed with, a melodrama set in noble Spain. There’s an irony here, because in Spain, they used to hand out titles like candy. Our writer, too, hurts because he’s not important enough. His skills will only get him so high. The rest is unattainable. The fruits of hard work have their limits. As they say, apples and oranges.