July 22, 2010

Quo Vadis

1895 novel
written by Henryk Sienkiewicz

(my review of the 1948 screenplay)
(my review of the 1951 film)

There's an old belief that just because something came first, it's automatically better. While there are many instances where such a thing is true, I very much argue against it being an absolute. Take, for instance, FABIOLA. Written in 1854 by Cardinal Wiseman, it's a historical novel about the persecution of Christians written for the repressed Catholic minority in England. While it was a very popular book in its day and translated volumes were published all over the world, the book is, to put it simply, a piece of shit. I won't go into details as to why, because that review already exists.

QUO VADIS, from Polish author Sienkiewicz - already noted for his deep, sprawling historical novels - is not exactly a remake or a rewrite, but it does cover much of the same material. A wealthy Roman patron, the decorated soldier Marcus Vinitius, falls for a beautiful Christian girl, Ligia, the "hostage" daughter of a foreign king. Though his initial pursuits are purely the lust of his loins, Vinitius is gradually drawn to the thoughtful compassion of Ligia and her people, and his gradual conversion to the faith parallels a rising movement in Rome to wipe the Christians out. Which, of course, climaxes in the bloody arena. So, while not a direct remake, it is very much the same story. Albeit told in a very non-shitty way.

Though I'm not a believer myself, I don't have a problem with stories of conversion as long as they're a) consistent, b) honest, and c) totally character driven. This one scores on all counts. It's not so much the power of Christ that compels Vinitius as it is witnessing how much better things work when you ask for help rather than order a demand, something he comes to slowly as he gradually befriends the very slaves he used to flog and beat and occasionally kill. It's a story about redemption, about rediscovery, about a growing distaste with the increasingly depraved society that he once found comfort and distraction in. And even in the end, when he is praising the power of the Lord, the book doesn't hesitate to imply that the extreme events of climactic bloodshed are responsible for the extremity of his new found emotions.

Because what is faith if not an extreme, a conviction in the face of either lacking evidence or proof to the contrary. In the book, Christianity begins with the "lower classes", the slaves and the impoverished, then spreads up to the tailors and the dealers and the soldiers, until it eventually breaks through to those who were once the oppressors. But it begins as a gentle belief mostly anchored with compassion and sacrifice, only reaching the high ecstasy of visions and hallelujahs as innocents are rounded up, starved in disease-filled prisons, then set upon by beasts before a cheering populace that is itself going through an extreme emotional experience: the demand of blood in return for the buildings burnt and the lives lost.

Which brings us to Caesar Nero, the man known to history for playing a lute as Rome burned around him. He so easily could have been a sneering snob of a baddie but, while definitely rotten, there are many more layers to this man than I expected. Sienkiewicz paints him as a spoiled manchild who only ever wanted to write poetry and sing, but he found himself with responsibilities he loathes and power he just can't bring himself to give up. Parades and parties of every sort of perverse delight ride in his wake, growing more bizarre each month as his boredom sets in. But then there's the fire. In a brilliant move, this interpretation of Nero never ordered the city to be burnt, merely joked about it as a means to find inspiration for a poem, yet one of his followers jumped to a wrong conclusion and many lives were lost as a result. And then Sienkiewicz takes it a step further as the classic image is spun into Nero playing before the flames because the people had always clapped at his work, so why shouldn't it cheer up their spirits? As you might expect, it all backfires and the Christians becomes easy scapegoats for a populace on the verge of revolution.

What I'm trying to point out in this ramble is that Sienkiewicz refuses to paint Nero as an easy monster. He starts as a repugnant fool, yes, but it's only through his choices and the increasing blood on his hands that he starts down a very destructive path of no return. And that's what makes this book great: the choices. The fire and the arena are two very real things, yet Sienkiewicz masterfully reverse engineers his tale so that it all comes out of the very natural and understandable choices and conflicts forged by characters both historical and fictional.

Which brings us to Petronius, probably the most fascinatingly real character in the book. The uncle of Vinitius, he's an upper-class posh who wants nothing more in life than some good poetry, a thrilling party, and some lovin' from his dedicated slave-girl. This is a man who, while turned off when wealth leads to wild excess and deviance, still clings to money and beauty, and after a conversation with no less than the Apostle Peter about the teachings of the religion, casually declares "It's not for me." In most stories, he'd be the slime, the weasel, the one still so far stuck in the old way that he ultimately turns against the new. Not so with Petronius. He's a hero, a defender, a person who genuinely cares and fights for his beloved nephew, and even when he does slink into the ways of luxury, the book never judges him. Hell, when Vinitius writes a letter in the last few chapters that expresses feeling of extreme passion and faith, it's immediately followed by a casually smirking response from Petronius that reins a lot of that in. In a sense, being a man who finds things to appreciate in both worlds, he's given the final word on the broader philosophical points by Sienkiewicz.

It's not about conversion, it's about open compassion. It's not about crushing the pagans, it's about reining in excess before it gets out of hand. It's not about your god versus my god, it's about petty politics or disagreements that stem from deeper issues. It's not about making oneself a martyr, it's about having no option left, so you go out with dignity.

This is a very real, very human, very honest book that isn't so much about politics or religion as it is the deeper emotions that drive them as separate lives weave or crash. Which is all the more heartbreaking in the final third as the gruesome arena comes into play, and the people being raped and butchered and eaten and humiliated hit the reader deep down because, instead of empty bodies tossed around for some shocks and giggles, these are real people we have come to know, real individuals being destroyed simply because they were easy targets. I could understand the emotions at play and the actions they led to because I had no choice but to share them. Sienkiewicz pulled me in that deep. Which is about the best compliment I can think of to give.