Analysis of Mihail Sadoveanu’s The Hatchet

Romanian novelist Mihail Sadoveanu’s The Hatchet is the most widely translated Romanian novel, except perhaps for Mircea Eliade’s works, though the latter’s audience was tremendously increased by the author spending most of his life in the Western world and by his outstanding career as a historian of religion. Sadoveanu (1880–1961), however, never left Romania but for short periods of time. The Hatchet’s international fame started as early as 1936 in France and Germany, continuing with the Czech version two years later, followed by the Finnish translation in 1944 and by the Italian edition in 1945. The Communist regime, which came to power in Romania after World War II, strongly promoted the writer and his books, especially those works that contributed to the reenactment of an heroic and idealized national past. Thus, The Hatchet was published in translation even in such far-reaching places as Shanghai (1957), Tehran (1958), and Damascus (1964), which ensured the author a widespread world audience.

The plot, inspired by the everyday life of rural Moldavia (the eastern region of current Romania, where Sadoveanu was born and lived), is quite simple and reworks old folklore legends and ballads. However, the covert cultural code of the novel goes further back in time and space, reiterating an archaic Egyptian fertility rite. Sadoveanu was already a high-ranking Freemason (grade 33) when he wrote this novel; accordingly, The Hatchet’s literary composition combines two complementary levels of cultural codes and symbols. The manifest, so-called exoteric cultural code evokes the world of some well-known Romanian myths and legends, especially that of the ballad Miorita (The Little Sheep), which tells the hypothetical story of a crime committed among the shepherds. One of the herdsmen is informed by a prescient sheep that he is going to be murdered by his two companions, and the ballad goes on with the imaginative cosmic projection of the shepherd’s death, constructed by himself. The wouldbe victim does nothing to prevent the murder; on the contrary, he makes all the imaginative arrangements for the time he will be killed and projects into cosmic myths and rituals all the symbols of his funeral, asking the sheep to carry out the details of his burial.

The ballad Miorita is the central legend of Romanian ontology: Hundreds of writers, philosophers, and artists have tried to capture its inner wisdom concerning the nature of human being and existence. It has been interpreted as the textual description of an archaic rite of passage and as the ultimate luminous stage in an ontological tragedy in which a man is facing the call of death and giving vent to his happiness at leaving his transitional earthly incarnation in order to regain the pure wholeness of the cosmos. Another famous interpretation turns the ballad into the main key to understanding the psychological drama of the Romanian people: Its persistence throughout centuries is attributed to an archaic capacity to avoid the traps of history by pessimistically “leaping out of time” into imagination or myth whenever the people face a challenge or catastrophe.

Mihail Sadoveanu’s personal artistic ideology, based on luminous reenactments of the heroic past (especially that of the Moldavian Renaissance of the 15th century), made him the best candidate for the fictional rewriting of Miorita. At its overt level, the plot of The Hatchet is indeed in analogical synchronicity with that of the ballad: Vitoria Lipan, a simple wife of a proud and distinguished shepherd, is disturbed by the long and unexpected absence of her husband and suspects that he has been murdered. Long journeys are not uncommon among the shepherds, so it seems there is no need to worry, but Vitoria “reads” the secret signs of nature and of her soul and concludes that her husband lies dead and unburied somewhere along his pasture trails. Determined to find her husband, she sets out together with her son on a long journey and finally comes across his body, his bones scattered all over the place. The most intense psychological fragment of the text reenacts the tragedy of the mourning mater dolorosa who carefully gathers the bones and prepares them for the burial; she then identifies the murderer who knocked down her husband with a hatchet in order to rob him of his sheep.

Like many other novels written by Sadoveanu, The Hatchet is also an initiation rite whose plot revolves around the story of a master and his disciple. Through her painful descent into death, the mother teaches her son to “read” the archaic “signs” of eternity, encrypted in myths, rituals, and symbols, and to distrust the empiric evidence of everyday life. The subtle counterpoint of the two levels of justice presented in the novel serves the same aim of contrasting eternity with fleeting time.

Vitoria Lipan “feels” that her husband is dead, and she is almost certain about it, but the human authorities that represent earthly justice are reluctant to accept her allegations, since it not uncommon among the shepherds to stay away from home for unpredictable periods of time. The suspecting wife chooses the cosmic justice of immemorial customs and rituals. Although she does not know exactly where her husband pastures his herds, she sets out on the trails of her ancestors, the only paths leading to the truth. Strolling from village to village, on archaic pathways whose knowledge she has inherited from her ancestors, Vitoria Lipan disregards the authorities and completes the detective work by herself. She is guided only by the secret “signs,” symbols, and rituals of an organic wisdom shared exclusively by the peasantry.

The deepest, must esoteric level of the work combines two complementary sets of symbols: one is taken from the mater dolorosa complex of Christianity, while the other, even more basic, comes from the classic Egyptian Isis-Osiris fertility myth. The secret “key” lies both in The Hatchet’s overall narrative structure and in the aforementioned mourning scene, as the Romanian essay writer Alexandru Paleologu shows in a brilliant study of Sadoveanu’s multilevel narrative, published in 1978.

Another clue is the protagonist’s name: Vitoria is, of course, the Moldavian rural equivalent for “Victoria”; while Lipan designates a fish, the grayling, which lives in the same waters as the trout. Leaving all the biological details aside, the complete name suggests the “victor over the waters,” which leads both to the central fishing symbols of Christianity and to the tragic destiny of the mourning Egyptian goddess Isis, who sets out to search for the body of her husband and brother Osiris. She finds the body in the Nile delta and resurrects it by carefully gathering the bones together. These symbols are intertwined with a plot evidently taken from Miorita and with a profusion of words and gestures inspired by the archaic Moldavian countryside. By mixing analogical cultural elements taken from mythical complexes, which do not usually communicate, Sadoveanu suggests the existence of a universal, unique, synthesizing wisdom, whose access is reserved only for the initiates.

Sadoveanu, Mihail. The Hatchet. Translated by Eugenia Farca. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991

Categories: Literature, Novel Analysis

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