If you’ve read the previous post about the prologue, you already know that the backstory in Keepers of the Stone is partially inspired by the characters of Stas and Nell as well as their adventures in Henryk Sienkiewicz’s In Desert and in Wilderness, a rather iconic work of Polish literature.
In chapter two of Keepers, we meet Stas Tarkowski — one of these two characters, for the first time. There’s no need to have read Sienkiewicz’s book in order to enjoy Keepers, or his character. Instead, with this post, I seek to provide some optional context for what in Keepers is Stas’s backstory. In what follows I (by no means exhaustively) trace the evolution of the character over the past century-plus. The continued dissonance between his identity conceptions and upbringing influenced what I set out to accomplish with his persona in Keepers of the Stone.
Ever since I first read In Desert and in Wilderness, Stas’s situation always struck me as somewhat ironic. Sienkiewicz presents Stas as the paragon of Polish youth, despite the fact that the entire novel takes place in Africa. Stas often treats colonial subjects and their customs in a dismissive manner even though Poland — ostensibly ‘his’ country — was basically colonized by Germany, Russia and Austro-Hungary at the time the original work was penned. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Stas comes off as more than a bit chauvinistic and racist by modern standards. The novel was a product of its time: written in 1911 about Africa circa 1885.
In more modern times, the original novel has been adapted as a film twice. In 1973 and again in 2001. In both instances, this aspect of Stas’s behavior was walked back considerably. And, understandably so. However, it’s also where most of his almost comic-heroicness comes from. Without it he seems like just another boy. Albeit one who keeps getting incredibly lucky. This guts the character.
So, when reading Stas, Nell and the lost Jewel of India, I was interested to see how the issues of colonialism and post-colonialism would be addressed, by someone writing a new story about Stas and Nell in the modern day. Rather ironically, here Stas does take issue with his un-equal treatment by colonial Britons. However, the novel deals with the tension between global south colonialism and Stas’s own identity-based worldview by almost studiously avoiding it.
Still, there was one scene, which I mention in chapter two of Keepers: Stas and Malka are discussing their own national origins during a moonlit night on a Madras beachfront. Stas mentions that he’s never been to Europe. This surprised me. Especially given his often nationalistic portrayal, it got me thinking: Has he? And if he hasn’t, how Polish — or even European — does that make Stas, really?
Going back to Sienkiewicz’s original book we discover an answer after only the first few pages:
Stas, the exemplar of Polishness, is a refugee child. He’s only half Polish by blood. Born and raised in Egypt, he has, indeed, never even been to Europe. Though Sienkiewicz does note these facts with a subtle sort of irony, Stas remains staunchly proud of his Polish national background throughout the entire novel . Living in a place that has very few European residents, Stas has never needed to confront the dissonance between his own conceptions and the likely reality of his place in the world. It is likely, he would be very reluctant to do so without a compelling reason, because of the cognitive dissonance that would possibly result.
However, the dissonance remains. In the modern era it’s much harder to ignore. The puzzle that I set out to address in Keepers of the Stone is as follows: What if Stas was brought to confront this disconnect head on? How would he reconcile his own righteously moral worldview with the realities of colonialism, Poland’s partitionings and things beyond his ability to explain? In which ways might he be able to confront who his upbringing has made him, while still remaining a compelling exemplar of Polish nationhood?
In the process of asking these questions, I set out the task of attempting wrestle this beloved character of Polish literature into ‘making sense,’ as a paragon of Polishness for the 21st century. As we first meet him in chapter two of Keepers, he begins a new soul-searching and real world journey. One in which he is finally forced to confront the fundamental truth about who he is and where that journey will take him.
On a less theoretical note, the Southern India Railways as well as the 1863 Polish rebellion against the Russia mentioned in the chapter are historical. Also, there’s a reason why I don’t mention the headmaster of Stas’s school by name. It’s given in Stas, Nell and the Lost Jewel of India. The double entendre doesn’t hold up in the original Polish, so I’m not sure if this was intentional. But, its Bates.