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Józef Wittlin: Sól ziemi (The Salt of the Earth)

This novel was intended as the first novel in a trilogy called The Saga of the Patient Foot Soldier. Sadly, the drafts for the second and third volumes were lost, with only the first section of the second book surviving. This section is included in this edition. It was originally published in English in 1939, in a translation by Pauline De Chary. This is a new English translation by Patrick Corness.

The novel is a part-mocking, part-serious anti-war novel set in world War I. It can be compared to those other Eastern European novels that mock war: Jaroslav Hašek‘s The Good Soldier Schweik and Vladimir Voinovich‘s The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin, though Piotr Niewiadomsk, our hero, is not like either Schweik or Chonkin, being neither cunning nor lazy like they are and Wittlin becomes, at least in the latter part of the novel, more serious than they do..

Wittlin plunges straight into his satire, as the opening scene is when Emperor Franz Josef signs the order to start World War I. Not only is Franz Josef mocked, as old and gaga, but so are his staff. Franz Josef feels he has to sign the order but he is not too disappointed at the death of his nephew Franz Ferdinand, the heir apparent, whom he did not like. He does, however, point out If I am not mistaken, blood will be spilt

However, our focus is on Piotr Niewiadomsk. Piotr is a Hutsul. His father was Polish but Piotr had never known him. His mother was a Hutsul. She had had many children but most had died, leaving only Piotr and his sister, Paraszka, who had, according to the local priest, decayed. Piotr speaks Polish and Ukrainian, though he is illiterate. He has a girlfriend, Magda, much younger than him (he is around forty) but has declined to marry her, not least because he does not love her. Indeed, he loves his dog, Bass, much more.

Piotr works at the local railway station, Topory-Czernielica, as a porter and general dogsbody. Piotr’s entire life involved carrying things. He is not entirely happy with this for two reasons. Firstly, he wants a job that will entitle him to wear the imperial cap. Secondly, he feels he is entitled to a promotion. He would have liked most of all to be a railway crossing guard or an assistant guard on a goods train.

One morning he is summoned to the stationmaster’s office very early. He is told that war has been declared. The immediate implication is that passenger trains have been cancelled and priority is now given to military trains. Banasik, the signalman, has been called up and Piotr has to take his place. This should make Piotr happy but it does not, as it is not a genuine promotion. However, he does get to wear the imperial cap. The job initially keeps him very busy, as military trains come through very frequently.

Piotr is eventually called up. The first stage is a medical inspection and Wittlin has great fun with this, with large numbers of naked men sitting waiting for their test and men who have deliberately made themselves ill or, at least, look ill to avoid conscription. The doctor, who is also mocked, is having none of it, unless, of course, a suitable bribe is paid. Those who passed, i.e. all those who did not pay a bribe and are obviously not dying, are then assembled and have to swear an oath of loyalty. (It should be pointed out that Wittlin joined the volunteer military formation of the Polish Legion but the Poles refused to take the oath to the Austrian Empire so the unit was disbanded.)

The men were sent home to await orders but many of them feel that they will not be called up, not least because the war will be over by Christmas. However, while they are waiting, rumours start to fly. The Muscovites, as they call the Russians, are on the way and if you do not assist them, they will kill you. There are spies and traitors everywhere. The troop trains that set out with fresh troops are now returning with wounded troops. The army returning from the front line looked like an army of extinguished lanterns.

Evacuations are also taking place and soon the men of Piotr’s district are moved out of the area (the women, children and old men are left behind) and sent to Hungary to fight. For some, the end of the world is nigh. There is a solar eclipse and the Pope dies, that confirms this prognosis. However, Piotr and his comrades are taken to a garrison in Hungary. The two nearest neighbours of the garrison are the abattoir and cemetery.

At this point, Wittlin goes into full anti-war mode. There are more and more dead. Few families could congratulate themselves that their names were not among those endless litanies of people killed, people wounded, missing and captured. Flags in a town are put out to celebrate a victory but no-one knows why the flags are flying.

The mocking humour of the early part now takes a back seat as Wittlin gets serious. The rest of the book is about life in the garrison and the men being trained to become soldiers. Wittlin clearly feels for the way they are treated, in this case under the tough regimental sergeant-major, Bachmatiuk. He essentially has two catch-phrases: I will make a man of you and I’ll let out your soul. He has a very deep knowledge of army regulations, yet his favourite reading remains reading these regulations. They can be quite complex, even covering the various ways soldiers are allowed to die. The officers and NCOs, from the commanding officer to the lowliest cadets, are shown to be cruel and ruthless.

The first section of the second book is essentially about one soldier, Łeś Nedochodiuk, who was was tall and slim, but the gracefulness of his movements was in harmony with his strength. He is mistreated by Bachmatiuk and, as we know from the beginning of the section, will die from this ill-treatment.

It would certainly have been nice to read the rest of this book which, presumably, would have covered their active service and we can only speculate as to whether Piotr would have survived, been killed or wounded or been taken prisoner by the Russians.

This is a fine anti-war novel but, because it is essentially incomplete and stops before the key characters engage in any fighting, it cannot, in all fairness, be compared to the classics of anti-war literature. Nevertheless, it is well worth reading, not least because Wittlin clearly feels very strongly about the futility of war and how it affects the ordinary person, and approaches the issue both with humour and deadly seriousness.

Publishing history

First published 1935 by Towarzystwo wydawnicze Roj
First English translation 1939 by Methuen
Translated by Patrick John Corness