Tuesday, 5 February 2019

Salt of the Earth by Jozef Wittlin


Salt of the Earth by Jozef Wittlin
First published in Polish as Sol Ziemi in 1935. English language translation by Patrick Corness published by Pushkin Press in November 2018.

My 1930s read for my 2018-19 Decade Challenge and one of my Classics Club reads

How I got this book:
Received a review copy from the publisher via NetGalley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


At the beginning of the twentieth century the villagers of the Carpathian mountains lead a simple life, much as they have always done. The modern world has yet to reach the inhabitants of this remote region of the Habsburg Empire. Among them is Piotr, a bandy-legged peasant, who wants nothing more from life than an official railway cap, a cottage, and a bride with a dowry.

But then the First World War reaches the mountains and Piotr is drafted into the army. All the weight of imperial authority is used to mould him into an unthinking fighting machine, forced to fight a war he does not understand, for interests other than his own.

The Salt of the Earth is a classic war novel and a powerfully pacifist tale about the consequences of war for ordinary men.

The story behind the creation of Salt Of The Earth is as poignant as the book itself. Originally written as a trilogy, all but a fragment of the second and all of the third volume were lost when, in France in 1940, a soldier hurled Wittlin's suitcase into the sea. He never re-wrote the novels. What remains of Piotr's story is a wonderful portrayal of Polish life just over a century ago. Salt Of The Earth is set at the very beginning of the First World War, when Wittlin himself would have been not much younger than Piotr, and was was written in the 1930s so I am confident that much of the fine, everyday detail is accurate and a record of a now-vanished way of life.

I loved Wittlin's rich poetic prose and Patrick Corness has done a superb job of rendering this in English. Piotr's Hutsul home is beautifully portrayed and I felt that we are given a great sense of how this uneducated socially isolated man lived. Ideas such as Piotr's deliberate shunning of the Devil's Signs (ordinary writing) were incredible to me as I often forget that not everybody has or, even so recently (historically speaking), had the same access to education. Piotr and his peers choose to hide their illiteracy behind superstition rather than allow the priest to teach them letters.

Wittlin follows Piotr though his unexpected promotion to signalman as a result of trained railwaymen being called up to war service, to Piotr receiving his own infantry uniform several months later in a barracks hundreds of miles from his home. All through this time Piotr has only a limited grasp of what the war is about in national terms or even how it is likely to affect him personally. His trust in his beloved Emperor is absolute therefore whatever the Emperor has ordered must be right. Such blind obedience - before any military training - was also a concept I didn't find it easy to empathise with although Wittlin's writing is utterly convincing and I never doubted Piotr's faith.

Salt Of The Earth is a very differently styled novel to my more usually modern reads. Partly I think this is due to its having been written over eighty years ago, but I was also always aware that its author came from another culture, somewhere with different ideas about what makes for a good life and a life well lived. As such, I found Salt Of The Earth a fascinating novel and I wish the trilogy's second and third volumes could have survived.


Search Lit Flits for more:
Books by Jozef Wittlin / War fiction / Books from Poland

6 comments:

  1. While it's not my kind of book, I'm glad to hear you enjoyed it.

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    1. Wittlin gives us great insights into pre-WW1 rural Poland

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  2. I like the idea of the decade challenge. Glad you enjoyed the book!

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    1. I love challenges that prompt me to make wider reading choices. I've found some fab older books through the past few years of Decade Challenges :-)

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  3. That is so interesting to hear about how it was supposed to be a very long trilogy but then it was destroyed in the war -- when it is about war itself -- and so he left it as it is. That alone gives the book a lot of history. So interesting! It sounds like the writing is wonderful and that the translation seems to do the original text a lot of justice.

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    1. I've chosen books before because of their translator rather than necessarily because of the author. Patrick Corness is getting added to that lust! He's done a superb job with a potentially difficult novel

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