Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

"A Pinch of Salt" by Adam Szymánsky (1904, trans. by Else C. M. Benecke and Marie Busch)

"But no! those deserts, equal in extent to the half of Europe, are only the purgatory, not yet the real Siberian hell. You still find woods there, poor, thin, dwarfed woods, it is true, but where there is wood there is fire and vitality. The true hell of human torture begins beyond the line of the woods; then there is nothing but ice and snow; ice that does not even melt in the plains in summer—and in the midst of that icy desert, miserable human beings thrown upon this shore by an alien fate."

Adam Szymánsky is one of the great chroniclers of Polish life under the last years of the Russian Czars.  He was born and educated in Warsaw, studied law and classical literature.  He became active in Socialist groups and for this in 1882 he was sent to Siberia, returning to Warsaw in 1885. He is most now read for his collection of stories about his experiences while in Siberia, Siberian Sketches, in which "A Pinch of Salt" first appeared.  

There were degrees of punishment by Exile to Siberia.  Some were just taken to a town there and not allowed to leave for a proscribed period.  Some were sent to labor camps, places of terrible suffering.
The narrator of the story was just made to live in a town there.  (Part of the idea was that many exiles would end up settling in the sparsely populated region.). He and a group of fellow exiles hear a close student days friend of one of the exiles has been released from a  camp in the worst part of Siberia and is passing through their town on the way back to Warsaw. The fact that he survived exalted them and gives them hope.

"A passionate desire seized us to look upon that life out there in its unveiled nakedness, its horrible cruelty. This curiosity meant more than narrow selfishness; it had a special reason. The fact that a human being had been able to survive in that far-distant world, bore witness to the strength and resistance of the human spirit; the iron will and energy of the one doubled and steeled the strength of all the others."

 They plan a great feast in his honor, much labor and expense goes into the event with a magnificent sturgeon as the center piece of the meal.  On the big day, the man can eat none of the food.  I will leave the end untold.  "A Pinch of Salt" can be read in just a few minutes but many could probably be found in Warsaw who read it decades ago who still remember the story well.  I will seek out more work by Adam Szymánsky.

You can read this story and several other late Czarist Era Polish works by going to and search on the term "Polish".  Two now in the public domain collections of translations originally published by Basil Blackwell can be downloaded for free.  This is the third work I have read from this source.

Mel u

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