The Island - Three Tales
Translated from the Polish by Ronald Strom. "The Island" and "The Tower" were originally published in Polish by the Institut Littéraire, Paris (c) 1960, under the title Skrzydła Ołtarza. "The Second Coming" was originally published by Institut Littéraire, Paris (c) 1963, under the title Drugie Przyjście.
Although he lived in Italy for over 50 years, Gustaw Herling, best known for his autobiographical novel A World Apart, was widely regarded as Poland's greatest living writer.
These three fictions - all set in an Italy of abysmal poverty and medieval superstition - confirm his reputation, and introduce us to a writer whose command of language is matched by the unblinking observation of his characters' stumbling progress towards salvation.
Whether he is writing about the ravages of plague in medieval Orvieto; a bizarre tragedy on an island off the coast of Naples; or a leper confined to the 18th-century 'Tower of Fright,' Herling dazzles us with his sensuous prose and compassion that is limitless but never sentimental.
"The three tales in this volume rightfully belong to the canon of great works of literature. Gustaw Herling, who lives in Italy but writes in his native Polish, has taken a long time to come to the attention of the world. Until the fall of Communism, his fiction was banned entirely in Poland, and in the West it has been translated only very slowly. Yet any reader approaching these stories will find a timeless world like no other. A Herling story is multilayered, complex and told in a detached voice that bespeaks a wonderful air of courtesy toward the reader; this writer is a supremely civilized man. In each story -- two of them connect morally and physically the actions of people deeply separated by time and distance -- he probes with thrilling delicacy the infinite and eternal consequences of human decisions and intentions. Mr Herling's vision is humanistic, compassionate, illuminating; it can leave one speechless with gratitude."
- Editor's Choice, The New York Times
"The publication of "The Island," by Gustaw Herling, is an important event: first, because it makes available in English to American readers a collection of three tales that rightfully belong to the canon of great works of literature, and second, because it will serve to make more widely known a Polish writer of extraordinary talent and scope.
A single theme unifies the three admirable tales that make up "The Island." It is the atrocious persistence of life, and of a kind of hope, in the face of pain, humiliation and extremes of solitude. The title story is set on Capri; the paradisiacal beauty of "the pearl of the Mediterranean" is rendered with the eye for detail and descriptive gifts of a nature writer. So is the contrast, in the story called "The Tower," between the Val d'Aosta, a "domain of darkness," and the green countryside where the valley suddenly opens up and makes the traveler forget how "nature has imprisoned this colored bowl in a dead fist of naked peaks and glaciers." In "The Second Coming: A Medieval Tale," it is 13th-century Orvieto and its surroundings that are depicted with the precision and sense of mute menace that recall the landscapes of Passion scenes in Umbrian altarpieces.
Each of these tales is multilayered and complex, narrated with a detachment that borders on aloofness. Mr Herling's style -- chaste and sinuous -- has a wonderful air of courtesy about it. He is a supremely civilized man.
In "The Island," the Carthusians living on Capri in their fortress-monastery, the Certosa, grow fabulously rich and equally selfish; when the plague ravages the island in the 17th century, they bar the monastery doors, indifferent to the agony that surrounds them -- until the islanders begin to throw corpses over the wall. An opportunity for expiation comes when the three priests ministering to the islanders have all died. Four Carthusian monks set out from the monastery to take the priests' place, bearing on their shoulders the famous (and dreadfully heavy) sculpture known as the Pieta Dell'Isola. So burdened, as though it were their Calvary, they reach the church at the other end of the island. There they celebrate Mass, ignoring the danger of remaining among the villagers.
The plague ends, but not the shame that leads to the decline of the Certosa; later, its monks banished under Joseph Bonaparte, the monastery falls into ruin. It becomes inhabited again and partly restored only on the eve of World War I, when four monks from the north obtain permission to take up residence. They learn the history of the plague years, and henceforth the procession in which the monks carry the statue of the Virgin is repeated on each anniversary of that distant day when their predecessors ventured forth. Very quickly, it becomes the principal festival of Capri.
That is the story within the story of "The Island." The other is a romance that begins in pagan sunlight and ends as a nightmare. A gifted mason loves a young woman and promises to marry her. He is restoring one of the broken walls of the Certosa. At midday the woman comes to see him. He has been slaking lime. Dreadful screams are heard, first a man's and then a woman's. Quicklime covers the mason's face and head. Although his life is spared, he loses his sight almost completely, and his hearing as well, turning into a figure of terror and abject pity, half mad, deprived of memory, wandering the island barefoot in all seasons like some southern Lear.
A few months after the event, the young woman delivers a stillborn child. Was the blinding an accident? So it is claimed, but more likely she threw the lime, perhaps alarmed by her fiance's fury. The denouement is too intricate to summarize, and it would be unfair to the reader to reveal much more. Suffice it to say that the unfolding plot involves the village priest, and is deeply moral. The suffering of the characters ends only with death; their sole relief is in the humble acceptance of the smallest offerings of human solidarity.
"The Second Coming" is at once the story of the agonized last years of Pope Urban IV -- covered with sores, horribly swollen, racked by thirst, he curses life, unable to die and yet clinging to life -- and of the miracle of Corpus Domini in Bolsena. There, at the close of Urban's reign, an unknown priest, a foreigner never seen before, raises the wafer of the Host during Mass, whereupon it is transformed into a corporeal body of Christ, dripping blood. But here comes the counterplot: Some days earlier, at nearby Orvieto, in the sight of Urban, a parish priest from Bolsena was exposed to the July sun and starved to death in a cage set on a 150-foot-high column. He had been condemned for an act of heresy, having confessed doubts as to Christ's physical presence in the Eucharist. All the while, the plague rages, the faithful await the Second Coming, and Jews and heretics accused of profaning the Holy Host are burned, hanged or beheaded. The story ends with the words of one of Urban's predecessors, Innocent III: "Woe unto you, woe, woe, mournful mothers who brought into the world such unfortunate sons!"
"The Tower" is my favorite of the three tales. It is told in the first person by a Polish officer who borrows a friend's house near Aosta to rest after the end of the Italian campaign, in the summer of 1945. The house belonged to the friend's deceased uncle, a retired teacher from Turin. On a table by a window, the officer finds an old, much-read volume of Xavier de Maistre's "Lepreux de la Cite d'Aoste." An engraving of the rectangular tower in Aosta, where the leper in de Maistre's book was confined, hangs on the wall. The story furnished by de Maistre concerns the encounter of the French author with the leper, the leper's horrid solitude and the almost unbroken humility with which he accepts his condition. The story that frames it tells of the Polish officer's own attempts to investigate the leper's story and his accidental discovery of the circumstances surrounding the death of the teacher from Turin.
It appears that the old man lived in the house for some six years in almost total seclusion; it was also rumored that at some point in the past he had attempted suicide. The roots of his sorrow were deep, his wife and children having perished in the Messina earthquake of 1908. One day, the young parish priest asked him how he could justify such an existence. His answer: "Because I cannot die."
Soon thereafter, the remnants of a retreating SS division swept through the village searching for men to force into slave labor. But they were not to be found. Warned of the danger, all the grown men except a young priest had hidden in the countryside. Enraged, the Germans threatened to shoot the priest unless one male inhabitant was surrendered within the next two hours. At this point, the old man's presence was made known, and a motorcycle was dispatched to bring him to the village square. Would he accept death now that it was offered? No, he would not. Instead, he pleaded for his life and the priest was killed in his place. Thus, when the old man died some days later, in his bed, his solitude was total and shameful, like a leper's.
Near the town where the Polish officer was born, at the bottom of a mountain, there is a kneeling stone statue of the "Pilgrim of the Holy Cross," so corroded by time and weather that its face could be that of a leper. It is said that each year the statue advances the length of a poppy seed toward the Holy Cross set on the mountain's peak; when the pilgrim finally reaches the top, the world will end.
Gustaw Herling's humanistic, compassionate vision, which informs all three of the tales in "The Island," is revealed in the Polish officer's explanation of the legend: "Evidently the contemplation of ultimate things was not foreign to the creators of this legend. Nor -- far more surprising -- were they strangers to the subtler relationships between hope and hopelessness, faith and despair. Because it is equally legitimate to conclude that -- in his endless suffering, cutting his knees on the stones at every step -- the Pilgrim of the Holy Cross will one day reach and yet never reach the end of his journey. If he reaches the summit, the only reward for his perseverance will be a momentary vision of the light of salvation before the last fire consumes him along with the whole world."
- Louis Begley, The New York Times