The Salt of the Earth by Jozef Wittlin

Genre: historical novel. ⭐️Stars from Goodreads: 3.7. ⭐️Stars from me: 3.5

The Salt of the Earth is an exceptional book but unfortunately I failed to like it as much as I expected to.

About the book

The Salt of the Earth is a pacifist novel about a person who loses the little he had, to be a pawn in something he has no understanding of.

The novel was first published in Polish in 1936 and received great acclaim. As a result Jozef Wittlin, the author, was nominated for the Nobel Prize in 1939. The book was first translated into English in 1940. It was supposed to be the first book in a trilogy but the drafts of the other two volumes were lost when a soldier in a French town threw the case with them into the sea in 1940. Only the first section of the second book survived and is included in this edition.

Good things about the book

Salt of the Earth is an example of beautiful writing. Jozef Wittlin was a poet, and you can feel it in his book. Here are some quotes.
About the news that the war has started:

The news spread by word of mouth. The mouth bit it, chewed it, ground it and crunched it until suddenly a million mouths spat one word out onto the pavement like a bitter almond.

At the recruiting station:

Around midday, Niewiadomski’s name flew out from under sergeant’s black moustache.

And more:

Stars flashed on the clear firmament, one after another, glorious, mature, brilliant. It was nights like these that gave birth to astronomy.

What I didn’t like

Unfortunately, I failed to like the novel, despite the beautiful writing and the greater message. There are only about fifteen instances of direct speech in the whole book, out of which about ten are actual dialogues, which are short and kept to a minimum. Even when communication between characters does happen it’s being recited as a narrative. Overall, the book feels as if somebody had written you a huge letter retelling different events and thoughts. This style of writing takes all possible dynamism out of the book. The book was written 80 years ago and so the rules of the story telling were probably different then, but I do read classics and I have never encountered anything so still, like water in a pond.

Although there’s a protagonist, you never connect to him closely. He’s a mere tool to show you what a state can do to a person. And as it’s an unfinished story you never even get to know what happened to him eventually.

As for the translation of the book, I’m not an expert but I think the name that sounds like “Semyon” or “Semion” would look much better written exactly this way, rather than simply transliterated as “Semen”.

Final thoughts

It’s undoubtedly a very deep book, but the peculiarity of the writing style makes it very hard to read and the incompleteness of the story brings no satisfaction. Thus, I can only give it 3.5 stars. I’m sure somebody with a different attitude to reading will like it more.

Thanks to the publishers for the copy in exchange for my honest review.

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