Juliusz Słowacki, tr. Gerald T. Kapolka. Kordian. Chicago, IL. 2012. 144 pages. $20.00 ISBN 978-1-4507-4208-5
Juliusz Słowacki’s drama Kordian tells the tale of a disgruntled fifteen year old who, after an unsuccessful suicide attempt, travels across Europe in a romantic attempt to find both love and purpose. Kordian, our hero, finds this purpose when he becomes a larger player and leader of the Polish November Insurrection of 1831. Słowacki’s play is commonly credited as being the most influential in Polish theatre history—despite the fact that during Słowacki’s life, he spent most of his time writing poetry—and, until the wonderful translator Gerard T. Kapolka and Green Lantern Press came along, had never before been translated into English. After seeing the press release, I was enraptured, being a bit of a theatre nerd myself, as well as a fan of all things Eastern European (despite knowing next to nothing about its literary history), and while reading it, I was not disappointed in the slightest.
The book itself comes with a screen-printed cover and illustrations by Aay Preston-Myint, whose powerfully monochromatic characters, such as ones displaying Kordian’s terror and imagination, manage to summon from the reader both a comfortable curiosity and a repelling sense of mystery. The language itself is colorfully romantic, with Kapolka’s translation of Słowacki’s verse calling forth with ease both senses of hilarity and revulsion. When our darling, and pitifully cute adolescent Kordian makes an attempt to woo an Italian enchantress, Violetta (who eventually leaves Kordian after he accidentally tosses her off of his horse), he offers delightfully embellished lyrics such as “So when you cast/A languishing glance, I wilt, fall, and faint;/Just so the golden butterfly will die/After feasting on the oversweet rose;/But one glance from your sparkling eyes drives me mad!/So I’ll come to life for the length of a kiss.” The comical nature of his starry-eyed promulgations is executed with both scholarly and artistic precision in Kapolka’s translation.
Kapolka again proves his salt, this time with darker lyrics, when, in a discourse with Czar Nicholas, Grand Duke Constantine summons a cartridge of poisonous words after he is accused of betraying Russia in favor of the Poles:
“You call me a murderer, My Czar?/I’ll shove those words right down your throat!/Can you stomach the secret you have swallowed?/You think I used a sword to pierce her heart?/Perhaps I will rip out your heart as well!/ Perhaps I shot her in the head? Well then/I might decorate the walls with your brains!”
Below the dynamic and pithy lyric that Kapolka has dutifully translated, he has also provided a fantastic collection of notes, concisely instructing the reader on Polish history and society, Greek mythology, and biblical references.
This pleasantly scholarly and artistically translated book serves not only as an effective lesson in history and literary culture, but also as a fascinating, and truly enjoyable read.