The OF Blog: Andrzej Sapkowski, Narrenturm

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Andrzej Sapkowski, Narrenturm

The early 15th century CE was a fascinating time all across Europe.  Two generations after the 1348-1350 Black Death had decimated (or worse) Southern, Western, and Central Europe, the feudal social order was in flux.  In England, Wycliffe's Lollards continued to be such a threat to established Church hierarchy that in 1415 the Council of Constance declared him to be a heretic nearly 30 years after his death (his body was later exhumed in 1428 under orders from Pope Martin V and was burned, with the ashes scattered in the River Swift).  There were military innovations, such as the Turks using crude cannons and the precursors to guns in their invasion of southeastern Europe following their recovery from the bloody 1389 Battle of Kosovo.  The English annihilated a larger French force at the 1415 Battle of Agincourt with their use of longbows and pikemen. 

In this climate rose a movement in Bohemia (now part of the Czech Republic) that threatened to overturn the socio-religious/military orders:  the Hussites.  Followers of the Czech reformist Jan Hus (who was burned at the stake in 1415 at the Council of Constance), the Hussites (who in actuality were two distinct branches, the more moderate Utraquists and the more radical Taborites) rose up in Bohemia in protest and soon began nearly 20 years of warfare that engulfed not just Bohemia, but also neighboring states and principalities, including Moravia and Silesia (as well as Poland, Prussia, and several other states within the Holy Roman Empire).  Comprised largely of the lower classes, the Hussites managed to not just stave off repeated "crusades" against them, but to go on the offensive due to their use of handcannons and innovative mobile defensive fortifications that rendered ineffective cavalry charges against them.  The fighting also took on a religious characteristic, not just in the Catholic forces arrayed against "the heretics," but also in the more apocalyptic language used by the Hussites (the Taborites in particular).

This tumultuous era provides an excellent setting for Polish writer Andrzej Sapkowski's Hussite Trilogy, which begins with Narrenturm (its name being derived from the German term for a madhouse).  Readers who expect Sapkowski's writing and structure to be similar to those of his Witcher novels may be surprised to see that his writing here takes on more of a historical fiction quality, but with the twist of having certain characters capable of utilizing witchcraft/magic in order to battle their enemies.  The melding of the historical with the magical can be problematic, as the author is constrained by actual events and cannot deviate too far from known events/personages in telling his/her story.  If one deviates too far, such as the case with Naomi Novik's Temeraire series (which contain dragons in Napoleonic era Europe), the author risks downgrading the "seriousness" of the events in favor of "lighter" fare that might be diverting yet ultimately empty entertainment devoid of anything beyond a mindless reading romp.

This is not the case here in Narrenturm.  Sapkowski clearly has imbued this novel (and presumably the trilogy, of which only the first two volumes have been translated so far into Spanish) with references not just to historical events (his prologue consists almost entirely of narrating the historical trends noted in the introductory paragraphs above) but there is a wealth of songs, religious motifs, and other cultural elements that add a richness to the narrative.  In reading Narrenturm, I was reminded not only of Umberto Eco's excellent The Name of the Rose for Sapkowski's citations of Latin, medieval High German and medieval Czech, but also of Serbian writer Goran Petrović's The Siege of the Church of Holy Salvation for its treatment of the chaotic nature of late medieval/early modern society under both literal and metaphorical siege.  As a historian who remembers some of his undergraduate courses on the pre-Charles V Holy Roman Empire and associated lands, Sapkowski's detailed description of the locales and customs is near pitch-perfect.  From his description of a particular Narrenturm to the tactics used by Hussite soldiers to certain medieval customs and beliefs, the setting in the novel is well-realized and dynamic, providing surprising level of detail for a historically-based fiction.

Although the magic scenes do not dominate the action, they are an important part of the narrative, particularly toward the end of the novel.  The magic is based on folk beliefs and does not feel contrived or separate from the religious/social themes explored during the course of the book.  Too easily this magical addition could have weakened the novel's sense of plausibility; here, it feels almost too "natural" to be remarked upon while reading, a testimony to Sapkowski's skills as a writer.  The scenes involving magic serve to add to the compelling events transpiring on stage; they do not distract nor detract from the reader's enjoyment of the historical fiction.

Characterizations in a historical novel can be tricky.  A balance has to be struck between having created characters knowing too much about actual events and characters and having these fictional personages be passive observers.  Sapkowski's characters, particularly that of the star-crossed lover/young scion of Silesian nobility/budding alchemist Reynevan, are knowledgeable, active participants in the chaotic events of the 1420s in Silesia and Bohemia, yet they are not so active that they play a direct role (as yet) in the fighting in Bohemia.  Instead, their main role is to provide a closer look at the transpiring events, to add a sense of "we were there" to theological (and magical) debates, conflicting customs and new-fangled social beliefs, and other, less bloody but still important conflicts of the 1420s.  Reynevan and those around him do not come across as clichéd, static characters; they delve, probe, and they change their minds and attitudes based on what they encounter in their travels (including a sojourn in a "tower of the crazies").  Historical personages are met with along the way, but not to such a degree that it is implied nor stated that Reynevan, Scharley, and others directly influenced the course of events.  Instead, they are witnesses to these massive changes and they serve as a sort of avatar for readers who may find themselves imagining what it would be like to live there at that time.

Narrenturm is a challenging read at times.  Readers who are unaware of the events surrounding the Hussite Wars or who lack knowledge of Latin and medieval dialects of German and Czech (and a bit of Polish) may find themselves consulting the glossary of terms/translations at the back of the Spanish edition.  Yet if a reader is curious to learn more about the Hussite Wars while accepting the fantastical elements presented within at face value, s/he may discover that Narrenturm is one of the finest meldings of historical and fantastical fiction that I have read in quite some time.  Hopefully, there will be an English translation at some point in the future, but for now, there are versions available in Polish, German, Czech, Russian, and Spanish (for the first two volumes; the third is forthcoming) for those readers in those languages.

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