Jozef Wittlin: The Salt of the Earth

January 18, 2020

71dXN6lPj0L._AC_UY218_ML3_   Yet another novel about the First World War that I didn’t know about, by a Polish author who wrote it in the mid-1930s. It was the first part of a trilogy the other two books of which were lost during the Second World War; only a fragment of the second book survives and is printed at the end of this novel.

Wittlin is as effective as Joseph Roth at conveying the send of the end of an era; there is a similar feeling to that evoked by Roth’s novels, The Radetzky March and The Emperor’s Tomb. Hindsight tells us the Austro-Hungarian empire and monarchy will not survive the coming years’ mayhem, and the overall atmosphere of the novel is dreamlike, trance-like, almost hypnotic as the immense wheels of war gradually grind into motion and begin to transform everyone’s world. It’s unnerving, because the overwhelming sense is of a world in mass movement, where individuals are completely swamped, overwhelmed by what is happening: it is completely beyond their comprehension.

There is a deliberate, calculated naivete in the narrative style, which reinforces the silliness, the stupidity of the war itself, and also the participants’ incomprehension of it all.

In and among the mass, individuals emerge: the hero is Piotr, an illiterate Hutsul peasant, not very bright. We grow to like this simpleton in just the same way as we grow to love Jaroslav Hašek’s idiot hero Švejk, and yet the two could not be more different in the presentation, with Švejk’s effectiveness coming through the comedy of the chaos which he sows everywhere he goes, and Piotr’s coming from his innocence and genuine love of life, his simplicity and earthiness. Other characters are the Jewish doctor with the inferiority complex at the draft board, and later on the regimental Sergeant Major who lives his life for drilling new recruits. Both of these might also have made very good comic characters in the hands of a Hašek; here instead Wittlin poignantly brings out their humanity, and we feel pity for them.

The unnaturalness of war in the way it uproots people from their lives comes across very effectively in the lengthy train journey from the end of nowhere, the very edge of the empire, to the training camp deep inside Hungary; a babel of different languages adds to the chaotic effect, and there is also the irony that the regiment Piotr is to join is in fact owned by the king of Serbia, who is now, of course, the enemy of the Austro-Hungarian empire…

Out of the mass emerge individuals, then, to help us identify with how war affect people; a good man is uprooted and dragged away from his people and home; another does a job – training men to die for the Emperor – that is consummate in its absurdity and yet everyone recognises how good he is at it. The first novel ends with the formal swearing of the loyalty oath as the new intake is put into uniform and readied for initial training. It is autumn 1914…

The short remnant that is all that survives of the rest of the trilogy is very powerful, focusing on the death of another recruit who emerges as an individual from the mass, as whose death is not caused by warfare, but by cruel regimental punishment…

I had no idea what to expect when I began this novel; it was very different from all the others I’ve read about that period, and in its own way just as powerful as any of them. It’s a great pity we do not have the rest of Wittlin’s work.

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