It is Romania in the time of the Ottoman occupation. A band of insurgents--the haiduks--has taken up arms against the Turk. Led by the lovely Floarea Codrilor, the haiduks do battle not only with the armies of mercenaries sent by the Sublime Porte, the bashi-bazouks, but also with debased Romanian aristocrats, the boyars and gospodars who would betray their native land to the foreign occupier.
Each of the leading haiduks of Floarea's band recounts the events that prompted his (or her) decision to drop out of civilization and become an outlaw. Here is Movila the Vataf recalling the panicked flight of his countrymen (and women) before hordes of Turks set on pillage, rape, and destruction:
After six hours of travel, at our first long stop, we found ourselves on the heights of Calugareni, overlooking the Danube. The night, dark, like our destiny, was falling heavily. Each cart had lit its lantern. . . . Each creature was seeking support. . . . Even the dogs sought less angry looks. A woman kicked hers away. The wretched animal backed off a ways into the night, stopped, looked around humbly, not understanding anything. The priest saw this scene and, like me, was saddened:
"Why drive it away, my daughter?"
"Because I don't have anything for it, anything at all, not even an ear of corn."
"But it’s not asking you for food. . . . It wants to follow you. . . . Do you have a hard enough heart to refuse it this comfort?"
At this reproach, the woman started crying. I took the priest aside and told him of my plans to become a haiduk:
"I am going to avenge my father, my brothers, my sisters. . . . And still other victims."
"Who will be punished?"
"All of them. Regardless of who they are: Romanians, Greeks, or Turks, all of those who are unjust, cruel, and greedy."
The old man said nothing to me. He held himself tall and erect in the dark night: his eyes were on the Danube, on his church, his village, and his long beard was streaming in the wind. He turned his head slowly toward the lanterns attached to the carts and went lost in thought. Just then, flames, barely visible at first, then more and more widespread, appeared on the horizon. I touched his shoulder:
"Look, Father: Putineiu and Stanesti are burning."
"The marvelous storytelling talent," notes José Carlos Mariátegui, "that Panait Istrati revealed as of his earliest
books is confirmed in The Haiduks. The figures of the haiduks,
especially those of Floarea Codrilor, Élie the Sage, and Spilca the Monk,
are drawn with surreal vigor on the rustic backdrop of the mountains of
Romania and their primitive villages."