Aleksander Majkowski: Żëcé i przigodë Remusa. Zvjercadło kaszubskji (Life and Adventures of Remus)
This novel has been described as the Great Kashubian Novel. It was actually published for the first time shortly after the author’s death and has been translated into French, German, Polish and English, though the English version was published in Gdansk and is therefore quite hard to obtain (see below for more details). It follows the adventures of a character called Remus, as the title tells us. When we first meet him, he is a poor (very poor) pedlar, selling books. His clothes are in rags but he never asks for charity and lives off what scraps he can obtain, sleeping in barns and eating whatever he can get. Moreover, unlike other pedlars, he never bargains. The result is that sometimes people takes his books without paying but he never chases them or even curses them, saying that the Lord will recompense him for his loss. Everyone assumed that he had some money hidden away but when he was asked why he did not spend it on clothes, food or lodging, his reply was always I am saving up for my funeral. However, he was something of a scary figure. Mothers told their misbehaving children that, if they did not behave, Remus would take them away. What attracted the young narrator to him, was that he was always talking about a cursed and submerged castle and a princess trapped by a magic spell and shouting out Ormuzd will triumph!. Indeed, the narrator is the only one who will talk to Remus about this.
However, the narrator goes away to school and, when he returns, he learns that Remus has died. He learns that Remus lodged with the teacher and, when he went to see him, the teacher tells him that there was some money, half left to the church for his funeral and half to fund an education for a poor child in the village. However, he had left an old clock and manuscript for the narrator. The rest of the novel is the text of the manuscript.
Remus was a young farm boy in rural Kashubia, tending the flocks. One day, while out wandering, he suddenly comes across a castle, of which he had known nothing. Two swans suddenly land on the lake and stare at him. Then he hears a voice urging him to cross the river and take her to her castle. It is the princess, whom he has already seem back at the farm, but who he thought was a dream. He is about to do as she wishes, when, suddenly, three monsters emerge out of the river. The princess urges him on, saying that he is big and strong and should not fear the monsters. He plucks up courage and starts to take her but then sees himself as he really is – a small, weak farm boy – and loses courage and puts the princess down. The castle disappears into the lake and he can no longer see the princess. At this point, one of the farmhands comes and accuses him of slacking on the job.
He is determined that he has seen the castle and the princess but the other farmhands accuse him of slacking and he is warned to keep away from that area, which has a bad reputation. One of the women on the farm tells him that others have been there have been trapped in a magic spell and condemned to wander the earth in poverty. She also tells him about the various ghosts, particularly the domestic ghost in each house, which hides in a darkened corner. Remus, however, is determined to find the princess again and keeps looking. One day, he finds a black cooking pot with some ashes in it and a golden sword. He is sure that they belong the princess so he buries them, to hide them from others but, once again, he is punished for slacking on the job. But he also decides to go after the domestic ghost and any other supernatural creature. He challenges a mysterious monsieur he calls Goliath to a fight and, though Goliath slightly wounds him, he vanquishes the monster, though it turns out that Goliath is not dead nor is he a monster.
One day, while out in the wood with his friend Martha, he comes across what he initially thinks is a monster but turns out to be a poor man, wandering in the wood. In fact, it is Gaba the Jew, a small-time pedlar. Among the others items he has for sale, Gaba has a book, which Remus buys and which has a profound influence on him and, as we know, his future livelihood. Again he meets the princess in his wanderings in the wood. She tells him to give the sword and bury the pot, which contains the ashes of her ancestors. This time he is even more affected. The marriage of the princess, the strange wounded man in the house, the fate of Kashubia, invaded before by Teutonic knights, Swedes, the French and the Russians and now expecting further invasions are all part of Remus’ story and, of course, we learn how and why he left the farm to become a poor pedlar of books and who Ormuzd is. To a certain degree, there is something of the Don Quixote in Remus.
It is an amusing tale – perhaps fable might, at least in part, be the right word – though the imagination and naivety of Remus, coupled with the troubled history of Kashubia which, as we know, will continue, are all very much part of Majkowski’s tale. We learn a lot about rural Kashubia and Majkowski even fills us in on the other ethnic groups in the area who interrelate with the Kashubians, ethnic groups which have either long since disappeared or which are generally unknown outside their immediate area. As the only Kashubian novel any of us are likely to read, it is certainly well worth reading, even if it is not a great novel.
First published 1938 by Staraniem”Stanicy”, Toruń
First published in English by Instytut Kaszubski in 2008
Note that this book is very difficult to obtain in English. It has also been published in French as Le colporteur aux étoiles by RTL, Luxembourg in 1984 and in German as Das abenteuerliche Leben des Remus by Böhlau in 1988.