Welcome back! To kick off our Nobel journey, I’m bringing you a pretty hefty historical novel – ‘Quo Vadis?’, by Henryk Sienkiewicz.
First published in 1895, it comes from a Polish writer whose spotless Catholicism is perhaps best indicated by the fact that, at his funeral in 1916, Pope Benedict XVI made a personal address! The book itself revolves around the story of Saint Peter in Ancient Rome; his determined residence beneath the notoriously ‘sinful’ Emperor Caesar has become a symbol of the Christian mission. Peter only forms a backdrop, however, to the more clichéd romance between a Christian beauty and a wild Roman notable.
Overall, it’s a great book, despite its traditional subject matter. In particular, the descriptive skill (which in part must be due to fantastic translation from Jeremiah Curtin) is at times truly beautiful; the shocking scenes within the Colosseum had me completely hooked. The characterisation of Nero, too, as the novel’s ‘villain’, is very effective – hateful but nuanced. Whether this is an accurate image of the Emperor or not, it’s impressive.
On the down-side, the novel is predictably biased in favour of Christianity – perhaps without this Western focus, Henryk would not have been awarded the Nobel Prize. I had read this comment in other reviews before reading, and was expecting it to be extremely sanctimonious. However, it’s not impossible to get over – most of the Roman citizens aren’t treated as irredeemable sinners.
Another possible flaw is the verbosity of the text, especially in the beginning. In honesty, though, this isn’t really a fault on the writer’s part – he clearly had done much research into Ancient Rome, and wanted to appear authentic. Unfortunately, this at times translates into a muddle of Roman terms which might feel, to those not clued up on ancient history, somewhat pretentious. Again, though, this is a matter of opinion, and personally I felt it did less harm than good for the reading experience.
Overall, for any interested in religious history, this is a monumental work which deserves your attention. For those not normally inclined to this kind of thing, give it a go! Thinking about it, the themes raised resonate with the state of current world affairs. With immigrants and refugees being scattered and, at times, hounded by the ‘dominant’ society of today, and *ahem* certain leaders doing little to make them feel safe, ‘Quo Vadis?’ has a lesson – however moralistic – which we could all stand to keep in mind.
Upcoming novel: ‘The Elephant’s Journey’, by José Saramago
Image: ‘Triumph of Faith: Christian Martyrs in the Time of Nero 65AD’, Eugene Thirion (1839-1910) taken from https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/331085010088268640/