#language & literature
‘In Desert and Wilderness’ is a young adult adventure novel set in Africa during the Mahdist War in the late 19th century. It is Henryk Sienkiewicz’s last major work, and also his most international, as it focuses on conflicts within the British colonial empire.
Henryk Sienkiewicz was one of Poland’s most popular and beloved novelists. He won the Nobel Prize in 1905 and greatly influenced the modern Polish national identity. In his last work, the main characters are a Polish boy with a French mum, Staś Tarkowski, age 14, and an English girl, Nel Rawlison, age 8. They are the children of engineers working for the Suez Canal Company. The children are kidnapped by Mahdists, a rebel group revolting against British colonial rule in Sudan. In the first half of the book, the dangers that the kids face have a human face. They deal with their kidnappers and fanatical dervishes. In the second part, after escaping their kidnappers, the children travel a great distance, trying to reach British outposts in Zanzibar. They must survive in the wilderness, confronting wild animals, tropical illnesses, dangerous people and extreme climates.
Sienkiewicz’s book was written in 1911 and uses classic patterns of the adventure novel genre. It’s thanks to willpower, endurance and creativity that the travellers and castaways of these novels manage to survive in a hostile environment. The whole genre mythologised the experience of geographical discoveries. It was also evolving, together with the growth of European self-esteem and pride. The first and perhaps most famous representative of this genre was Daniel Defoe with his Adventures of Robinson Crusoe from 1719. Crusoe’s exploits are somehow limited and humble, as he tries to kindle fire, catch fish, bake bread and convert his pagan, cannibalistic henchman, Friday. In Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island from 1874, the scale of achievements is much more impressive. A group of men are shipwrecked on a deserted island, but, since they are smart engineers and scientists, they manage to turn the deserted island into a successful industrial hub with factories, ship docks and mines. The kids from In Desert and Wilderness have some supplies at their disposal: matches and a hunting rifle, not to mention their animal companions, such as a faithful mastiff dog, Saba, and an elephant, encountered and tamed on the way. They also have a loyal friend, Kali, the son of a tribal chief.
More than a hundred years after publishing, the book is still a good read. The characters are simple but well-drawn. Arrogant Staś has to confront his own self-image in the face of actual challenges and dangers. He tries to protect little Nel, who suffers from tropical fever and ague. Nel is pretty, angelic and naïve, vulnerable, boring and absolutely hopeless. There is a scene where she leaves Staś in the jungle for just five seconds and is almost immediately attacked by some vile beast. On a side note, I wonder if the author ever considered setting his story in the opposite way, with a hopeless, clumsy Polish boy being rescued by a brave English girl? Or, at least, a Polish girl being rescued by a dashing English lad? In the chosen setting, the author’s intention is kind of obvious. Look, he says to the reader. The Brits conquered the globe, but who saves their girl, ha?
The novel has plenty of dramatic, thrilling and epic moments. Like one when ensnared Staś tries to sneak for his rifle and shoot their kidnappers in their sleep, but finds it a big moral challenge. Or when the Prophet Mahdi asks him to convert to Islam in order to save him and Nel. The nature, animals and elements are vivid and picturesque. You almost feel as if you’re travelling with these kids, being burnt by the sun and poured on by rainstorms. Sienkewicz was, indeed, a master entertainer and magician of Polish literature.
It’s often said that thanks to him books ‘came down under the thatched roofs’, and reached much wider audiences. His novels appealed to international audiences, too. Quo Vadis, a love story set in ancient Rome, was translated into 57 languages and later filmed in Hollywood, with a star-studded cast including Peter Ustinov and Deborah Kerr.
What makes In Desert and Wilderness particularly interesting, aside from being a well-written, engaging adventure novel, is its historical frame, its values. It’s not exotic just because of the scenery, but because of the way this scenery was shown. It displays very particular patterns of thinking. Some modern critics accuse this novel of enforcing Islamophobia and racism, especially since the book was brought back as part of the educational curriculum in Polish schools a couple of years ago.
The Mahdi rebellion was an anti-colonial movement, and in the book, it’s shown without any sympathy or respect. The prophet Mahdi himself is fat and grotesque, in spite of his contemporary portraits being available to Sienkiewicz and showing him as a slim ascetic, a Sufi dervish and a holy man. His rogue state is full of cruelty, fanaticism and hunger. All Arabs in the novel are more or less evil and sick, at best cunning, ambitious and ruthless, at worse, full of bestial cruelty. They deceive and lie, ‘as only people in the East can’. The reader was supposed to be shocked at the gore in scenes from the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, overrun by Mahdists, with the chopped off head of British general Gordon, displayed on a pike. They have an almost post-apocalyptic intensity in them. Sienkiewicz was very suggestive at showing slaughters and historical disasters, be it a Rome burned by emperor Nero, or Cossack rebels pillaging Polish noblemen mansions in Ukraine.
This part of the novel, even if well written, lacks empathy. Especially if we consider who the author was. Sienkiewicz, as a Pole, belonged to a nation that shared similar experiences with Sudanese and other colonised people. The Polish Commonwealth was conquered and divided by stronger and, arguably, more ‘advanced’ nations, at least in terms of governorship and order. In fact, Poland’s critics, such as famous military theoretician form Prussia, von Clausewitz, compared Poles to Tartar Horde, or savage tribes form North America. To non-Europeans, to savages. Poland was perceived as something exotic and unruly, a territory which ought to be tamed. Such is the moral legitimisation of colonialism; being weaker and different excludes you from those, who deserve a just treatment.
Since its loss of independence, the Poland was obsessed with freedom. Poles joined various rebellions of other nations, under the slogan ‘Za naszą i waszą’, for our freedom and yours. The Heart of Darkness had been already published by Joseph Conrad 12 years earlier. The evils and cruelties of colonial rule in Africa weren’t secret anymore. And Staś’s father in the novel is said to be a Polish freedom fighter during the January Uprising. A rebel and a convict. Someone who believed in freedom. You would expect that passing judgement about uprisings against British colonial rule in Africa should be kind of problematic for Henryk Sienkiewicz or characters in his book. Well, it wasn’t.
For Sienkiewicz, just like for Rudyard Kipling in his famous poem The White Man’s Burden, the Western empires were just bringing progress and light to the savage people, ‘partially demons, partially children’. The Mahdists are shown as a bunch of fanatics, murderers and slave traders. This perspective makes Sienkiewicz’s novel somehow problematic for a 21st-century reader. In modern movies about colonisation, such as the latest film about Tarzan, set in the Belgian Kongo, the sympathy is usually on the side of the freedom fighters, not the invading empires.
The goal of Sienkiewicz’s novels was always to ‘strengthen the hearts’, to bring hope. In the case of In Desert and Wilderness, this result was achieved by showing how the Polish boy saves the British girl and earns respect and admiration from the Brits, people from the number one global power at the time. It seems the author calculated that this is what his readers want.
In the second part of the novel, the characters meet indigenous tribes of Eastern Africa. Here the author has more sympathy for the people, yet his descriptions of tribal cultures are often vague and shallow, ignoring any anthropological knowledge of the era. Africans shown in the novel are like naïve children that need a guiding hand and a baptism, even if they are in a coma. There is a bizarre scene when an African girl, Mea, cries after her baptism because she thought it would turn her white. Staś comforts her, explaining that her soul is white now.
The famous scene in which Staś tries to teach Kali about morality is a good example of Sienkiewicz's paternalism. When asked, what is Evil, Kali answers that Evil occurs when someone steals Kalis’s cow. What is good then, asks Staś, pleased. Good is, answers the African, when Kali steals the cow. This exchange became known in the Polish language as ‘Kali’s morality’, which means taking selfish and shallow ethical positions. Sienkiewicz later adds that such logic is very common in European politics nowadays. It seems Kali’s ‘primitive’ beliefs play the role of a useful satire, just like weird customs of people, encountered by Gulliver. There is also a scene when Staś is beaten and flogged by his kidnapper, a Sudanese brute, and ‘he is hurt in his pride of a white man’. But what does that mean, actually?
The case of Henryk Sienkiewicz’s alleged racism is not so obvious and simple. In fact, one of the important plots of the novel deals with a racial stereotype. The main African character, the young prince Kali, liberated from slavery by Staś, is brave, creative and honourable. In spite of a warning received by Staś from a Belgian traveller that Kali will abandon the kids in dire times because ‘Africans lack endurance in tough circumstances’, Kali saves the kids more than once and stays with them in the worse moments, risking his own life. Later, he becomes a fair and successful leader of his people. Some argue: would a true racist portrait a black character in that way?
20th century polish literature
Defenders of Henryk Sienkiewicz point out, that the language he used was typical for the era. You will find similar expressions elsewhere, in popular African novels by English writer H. Rider Haggard, for example. But it doesn’t mean that it should be accepted of course. Or left without a comment. But it’s always too easy and not necessarily wise to put harsh moral verdicts on the books – and sensitivity – from the past. Some people wish to censor or banish any art that is offensive to someone. But if we follow this route, we could ban literally everything.
Perhaps Sienkiewicz’s opinions and values shall be seen as some sort of historical testimony. A monument from the era, when Europe was narcissistic and indeed superior, compared to the rest of the world, in terms of material and scientific progress. For Sienkiewicz, Great Britain and its Empire are eternal and invulnerable. And that’s very interesting because if anyone was qualified to forecast the future, it would be Sienkiewicz, a man of great imagination and knowledge. The novel was written in 1910. Four years later, Prince Ferdinand was shot on Sarajevo and Europe started its mass suicide, the Great War. The recruits from colonies were drafted into the military and learned that they are not inferior to their European officers. The British Empire started to wane, the same as other colonial empires. One reflection, from reading In Desert and Wilderness now, could be about impermanence and change. But not just that. It’s somehow optimistic and reassuring, especially in the dread year 2020, to admit, how little we know.