Zamoyski's sprightly new translation demonstrates that even the passage of a century cannot disguise the wit or lessen the bite of these three novellas by Sienkiewicz, the Polish writer best known for his historical novel Quo Vadis? ``Charcoal Sketches'' uses broad humor to depict the plight of the common folk in the village of Woollyhead who are subject to the rule of the Russian Tsar and, more directly, to the whims of his appointed representative, Mr. Skrofulowski. Meanwhile, they are abandoned by the traditional sources of authority--the local gentry and the Church. ``Bartek the Conqueror'' is a darker tale of a peasant from a Prussian-occupied area of Poland who is sent off to war only to discover that it's easier to fight against the French than to live with the Germans. In ``On the Bright Shore'' Sienkiewicz ridicules Polish expatriates living the high life in Monte Carlo, where, as one prince explains, he could serve his country by exploiting social connections, ``writing out, on a visiting-card, a summary of the economic and political situation,'' certain it would reach the British prime minister. (Apr.)
These three novellas depict with brutal satire Polish life at the close of the 19th century. In ``Bartek the Conqueror,'' the former village laughingstock returns from the Franco-Prussian War a decorated hero. Though now more German than Pole, he still manages to lose everything to the Germans resettling in his village. ``Charcoal Sketches'' has a similarly bleak ending, but here the agent of destruction is a corrupt local government and the poor peasant victim a woman fighting her husband's unjust conscription. Only the expatriate Polish gentry are thriving, and in ``On the Bright Shore'' they appear on the French Riviera wallowing in unrepentant decadence. While lacking the flash and powerful sweep of With Fire and Sword ( LJ 3/15/91), these novellas continue Sienkiewicz's close examination of Polish culture and history, providing a rich perspective for modern readers.-- Paul E. Hutchison, Pequea, Pa.