Sunday, September 01, 2013

Henryk Sienkiewicz, Quo Vadis: A Narrative of the Time of Nero (1895)

Let us read a Christian novel by an early Nobel-Prize Winner, shall we?  Quo Vadis takes place in Rome during the time of Nero.  The central plot concerns a tribune named Vinicius, (fictional) nephew of Petronius, who falls in love with a Christian girl, Lygia, and, as his uncle skeptically looks on, tries to win her, at first being all high-handed and brutal about it but, inevitably, learning more about Christianity and finally converting himself.  But then the shit really hits the fan, as the fire that destroyed Rome (at which Nero apocryphally fiddled) goes up and Christians are scapegoated and persecuted.  What will happen to our star-crossed lovers?!?

Now, it must be admitted, first: the central love story is pretty weak.  The part where Vinicius is gradually learning to be less of a dick is pretty good, but once he's all converted…well, there's not much more to it.  He and Lygia spend a lot of time enthusing about how much they love each other and also Christ and isn't this great? but it doesn't make all that much impact.  It doesn't help that Lygia in particular doesn't really have any discernible personality traits beyond "Christian."  Sienkiewicz sort of makes it work, to a limited extent, though sheer brute force, but it's still about the least interesting thing in the novel.

That notwithstanding, I still found the book to be highly engaging.  Sienkiewicz isn't the world's greatest stylist (one can only imagine how amazing the scenes of feasting, fire, and colosseum spectacle would've been as written by Zola), but he captures the decadence of Rome (as compared to the new way introduced by the Christians) quite well, and occasionally, he even manages to capture the numinous.  I would prefer not to spoil anything, even though you're unlikely to read this, but there's one conversion scene towards the end in particular that's just stunningly powerful.  The persecutions also are harrowing: there are Christians-vs-lions scenes and similar that are as bloody as you like.  Finally, Petronius's story (given the historical record, it's no spoiler that it doesn't end well for him) is subtly and sensitively told.  He's portrayed as something of a tragic figure, too rooted in ideas of aestheticism and "elegance" to really commit to anything profound, so that even his more humane side gets tangled up in the superficial.  It's to Sienkiewicz's credit, I think, that, in spite of this being an intensely pro-Christian novel, he's able to depict a non-Christian character so sympathetically.

It may seem like I'm ignoring the elephant in the room by not directly addressing the novel's Christianity.  I am, as you know, not a Christian, but I am kind of a fan, and I'm irritated that I feel a compulsion to clarify that I'm obviously not referring here to the kind of Christianity where you gorge yourself on shitty chicken sandwiches to prove how much you hate gay people.  

Well, the idea that no other, pre-Christian faith ever really "meant" anything to anyone the way this new one does might seem kind of dubious, but this certainly is not the kind of "say the right code words" Christianity that you find in Chick tracts and The World's Worst Novels.  It's a pretty intense turn-the-other-cheek, radical-forgiveness kind of thing, and contrasted with Rome's prevailing mood at the time, it's really easy to see how it could appeal (and unlike in the Left Behind books, converting actually involves becoming a better person.  One could write a whole essay comparing the LB franchise to Quo Vadis; suffice to say, it would lay bare its spiritual poverty even further, if that's possible).  Also, the book isn't at all vindictive; there's none of the "ha! Those Unchristians think they're so great, but wait 'til they're burning in Hell and we're LAUGHING at them!"

I do feel as though Sienkiewicz goes a little overboard in places in showing how, in spite of being persecuted, the Christians' faith makes them totally serene.  You can be one hundred percent certain of the radical, transformative power of Christ and still be a little freaked out when you're about to be torn apart by wild animals.  I don't think acknowledging that psychological reality would be damaging to The Cause.  There are several scenes where onlookers are astonished to find that Christians--who ought to be suffering--are actually singing triumphant songs, and one cannot help but make unfortunate comparisons with the Whos down in Whoville ("But that sound wasn't sad! Why, this sound sounded merry!  It couldn't be so, but it was merry--very!").  But the only thing that really rankles is Sienkiewicz's inevitable insistence that, oh ho, look how powerful this faith is!  Its adherents may be persecuted now, but in the future--as we, being from the future, all know--it will rule the world.  To which I can only say: yeah, but politically powerful Christianity is qualitatively different than the kind that Quo Vadis depicts (not in a good way), and today's politically-ascendent iteration has far more in common with the court of Nero than it does with martyrs preaching a philosophy of humility, forgiveness, and love.  But that, I suppose, is a whole other tragedy.

I'd been meaning to read this book for a long time, and now I've done it.  To be honest, I was a little skeptical at first, but now I'm more or less a believer (this is NOT meant as a metaphor, dammit!  Go away!).  I may not be one hundred percent philosophically in accord with Sienkiewicz, but he can sure tell a Ripping Yarn with--surprisingly!--some measure of real spiritual resonance.  It might be worth looking at some of his other novels.  I read the original translation by Jeremiah Curtin; it has its idiosyncrasies, but on the whole I found it to be fine.  You quickly get used to his use of thou-thine archaicisms in the dialogue, and although he does on occasion do weird things with verb tenses, either he stopped doing them later in the book, or I just stopped noticing them.

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