I grew up reading Borodino, Mikhail Lermontov’s romantic poem on the deadliest battle of the Napoleonic wars, and along with War and Peace, it formed a certain understanding of the time period in my head. Now that I’m starting to delve into Russia’s imperial history, and trying to understand the postcolonial circumstances all across the region, I love looking at things from the other perspective. And Pan Tadeusz, in a fresh new translation by Bill Johnston, is perfect for this purpose. To see the struggle of the war of 1812 (the European one, you know) through the eyes of the colonized by Russia was refreshing, illuminating and very interesting. Johnston’s translation is remarkable because I felt like I was hearing Slavic rhyming throughout my reading experience. I think this is quite an achievement.
The text itself accomplished a lot: epic and sweeping in its take, it offered anything from the microcosm of a couple’s relationship, to a macrocosm of Poland’s history and nature. I’m always iffy about nationalism, and observed from the time of right-wing sentiments on the rise in contemporary Poland, it was sometimes hard to find distance between the praise for a nation-state emerging from the constraints of colonialism in Mieckiewicz’s verse from the sad aftermath of it we currently see in the 98% National majority country. Also the numerous jabs at Jewishness irked me a ton. Like, I can picture some contemporary neo-Nazi somewhere in Rzeszow reading Pan Tadeusz and being like, hell yeah. Although, to be fair, most of them read much dumber books, and also the constant switch between Poland and Lithuania of the confederate years would probably be a bummer.
Pan Tadeusz: The Last Foray in Lithuania by Adam Mickiewicz
Translated from Polish by Bill Johnston
Published by Archipelago Books in 2018