Henryk Sienkiewicz, In Desert and Wilderness
August 8, 2012 § 4 Comments
The new abode, which Stas named “Cracow,” was completed in the course of three days. But before that time the principal luggage was deposited in the “men’s quarters” and during great downpours the young quartette staid in the gigantic trunk, perfectly sheltered. The rainy season began in earnest but it was not one of our long autumn rains during which the heavens are heavy with dark clouds and the tedious, vexatious bad weather lasts for weeks. There, about a dozen times during the day, the wind drives over the sky the swollen clouds, which water the earth copiously, after which the sun shines brightly, as if freshly bathed, and flood with a golden luster the rocks, the river, the trees, and the entire jungle. The grass grew almost before their eyes. The trees were clad with more abundant leaves, and, before the old fruit fell, buds of the new germinated. The air, owing to the tiny drops of water suspended in it, grew so transparent that even distant objects became entirely distinct and the view extended into the immeasurably far expanse. On the sky hung charming, seven-colored rainbows and the waterfall was almost continually attired with them. The brief dawn and twilight played with thousands of lights of such brilliance that the children had not seen anything like it, even on the Libyan Desert. The lower clouds, those nearest the earth, were dyed cherry-colored, the upper, better illuminated, overflowed in the shape of a lake of purple and gold, and the tiny woolly cloudlets changed colors like rubies, amethysts, and opals. During the night time, between one downpour of rain and another, the moon transformed into diamonds the drops of dew which clung on the mimosa and acacia leaves, and the zodiacal light shone in the reflected transparent air more brightly than at any other season of the year. (Part II, Chapter VII)
As a six-year old boy in 1980, I have a memory of one of my paternal aunts taking me and a couple of my cousins to see a showing of the 1940s Disney film The Song of the South. I remember singing (and failing to learn how to whistle correctly) “Zip-A-Dee-Do-Dah” and getting a kick out of the adventures of Brer Rabbit as he outwitted Brer Fox and others. It was a movie that I think I would want to watch even today. But when I grew older, I learned that within that movie were some elements that were prejudicial toward African-Americans. I hadn’t realized that at 6, but those elements (revolving around the depictions of Reconstruction plantation life) became so controversial over a generation after the movie’s initial release that even today Disney has not released the full film version in video/DVD format.
I mention this anecdote because sometimes stories that contain elements of great beauty and warmth can also include elements that changing social conventions have made quite odious. This was the case for me as I read the 1912 English translation of Nobel Prize-winning author Henryk Sienkiewicz’s final novel, the children’s adventure In Desert and Wilderness. Set in eastern Africa during the Mahdist state in the Sudan in 1885 (just before the Mahdi’s death), In Desert and Wilderness is a story of hope prevailing over despair; of two children, the 14 year-old Pole Stas and the 8-year-old English Nell, growing close to one another as they battle against their kidnappers and later the dangers of nature; of the terrible beauties that exist in Africa (a realm as much fantastical as real to Europeans even in the early decades of the 20th century); and lastly, of civilization and Christianity battling against savagery and superstition. This final theme is today the most controversial and perhaps will dissuade readers from considering this novel.
In Desert and Wilderness is an uneven novel. In Sienkiewicz’s only novel featuring juvenile protagonists, there are scenes of great wonder. Consider the passage quoted above. In reading it, it is difficult not to get drawn into the almost-hypnotic quality of the descriptive prose. There is a real palpable sense of wonderment in that scene, as if the world were born anew and words were barely adequate in depicting just the shadow of its full splendor. Sienkiewicz is at his best in the second part of the story in showing just how marvelous the lands are that the children are traversing (it should be noted that Sienkiewicz bases these descriptions not just on travelers’ tales but also on his 1891 voyage to eastern Africa). Stas and Nell serve as perfect witnesses for this, with the older Stas displaying a curiosity as to the origins of these natural beauties and Nell being more awestuck and providing almost-mute testimony to the power found within these natural features.
Yet despite the well-drawn dynamics between the two main protagonists, In Desert and Wilderness devolves into something much less wonderful in several scenes involving the duo’s interactions with other human beings. While it is understandable that for the plot tension to work properly that there be almost-inhuman enemies such as the Arab kidnappers who transport Stas and Nell to the Mahdi, Sienkiewicz peppers his narrative with such stereotypical, prejudical, racist portrayals of Arabs and black Africans that modern-day readers may be taken aback:
“Perhaps the extraordinarily fine stature of the little girl contributed to this, and also that there was in her something of the nature of a flower and of a bird, and this charm even the savage and undeveloped souls of the Arabs could not resist.” (Part I, Chapter XII)
“Among the blacks there are honest souls, though as a rule you cannot depend upon their gratitude; they are children who forget what happened the day before.” (Part II, Chapter XII)
“Nevertheless, not a spear was aimed against the travelers, for negroes, until Mohammedanism fills their souls with cruelties and hatred against infidels, are rather timid and gentle.” (Part II, Chapter XVIII)
“Listen, then! The Wahimas have black brains, but your brains ought to be white.” (Part II, Chapter XX)
What makes this racism even more disconcerting is that the two black African companions of Stas and Nell, the crown prince Kali and the Dinka female Mea, do not conform well to the then-current stereotypes that Stas (and the narrator) utter. They are stalwart companions and although they do fall into that sort of native guide/servant role, there is enough personality and wit about the two of them (particularly Kali) that there are times that Sienkiewicz almost manages to create a subversive subtext in which Stas’s attitudes can be seen to be ill-informed. Yet almost is not the same as “does.” As the narrative winds its way to an exciting, danger-filled conclusion, we see Kali and Mea fade into mere props along the way. This is, naturally, the story of the two European children and although the two Africans make for nice window dressing, they are not to be the feature of this tale. A pity, as there was real potential there, especially with Kali.
Despite this racist portrayal of Arabs and Africans, it is easy to see why In Desert and Wilderness has enjoyed a century of popularity in Europe (and to a lesser extent, the Americas). Sienkiewicz’s prose often captivates (even when the themes explored are deplorable for many). Even though the plot is not as moving as those found in his “adult” novels, such as Quo Vadis or the With Fire and Sword trilogy, it certainly is rousing and evocative in turns. It is hard not to sympathize with either Stas or Nell, as their battles to remain optimistic in the midst of terror-inspiring situations certainly tugs at the hearts of many readers. It just is frustrating to have such a touching tale (based loosely upon actual occurrences in the late 19th century) tainted with such racist rhetoric. Yes, In Desert and Wilderness is a product of its time, but readers today are products of their own and this disconnect certainly can detract from what otherwise would be an exciting, well-written adventure. It is, like Song of the South, something that can be admired in parts, but the totality can be disturbing to consider.