I have been following Pawel Huelle’s writings for some time now. A few of his books have now been translated by the excellent Antonia Llloyd-Jones and they rate highly as examples of modern European literature.
For my 300th article on this website I am pleased to write about Huelle’s new book, Cold Sea Stories. This is a collection of stories based on and around Pawel’s home on the Baltic sea, which in Huelle’s stories tends to be a cold and forbidding place. The cities of Gdeansk and Warsaw also feature as a backdrop to a few of the stories providing some relief from the flat, wind-swept landscape of the coast.
Huelle’s Poland is a land of memories and there is little sign of the modern European nation which Poland is now becoming. Generally the atmosphere is of the 1980s when the trade union Solidarity (for whom Huelle worked) is gaining in influence, while memories of the great tragedies of the Second World War are not far below the surface.
The stories in this book were written 15-20 years after Huelle’s earlier book of stories, Moving House, and show a more mature talent, not quite as easy to read, but with more depth, although sometimes less easy to penetrate as the earlier collection.
Fortunately the book ends with an interview with the translator and this gives the background to each story, adding greatly to my enjoyment of them. In this interview Huelle says,
I belong to the culture of the north, which is sad, melancholy, nostalgic, bleak – there is not much light . . . This is the culture of herrings, potatoes and vodka, not wine, and this is the place that has shaped me, like it or not.
The opening story, Mimesis, perhaps the most striking of the collection, is based in a Mennonite village on the coast, soon after the invading German army have evacuated the village, taking its inhabitants away on the backs of lorries to who knows where. The Mennonites were a reclusive sect who having travelled across Europe to escape persecution felt themselves to be at home in tolerant Poland. Alas, as for so many settled peoples, the war was to change their lives irrevocably, none more so than the un-named young woman who was out on the dunes when the lorries came and was left behind to live alone in the abandoned village.
One day, a stranger turns up, evidently a Jewish refugee (we read later of tattooed numbers on his wrist) arrives and the woman offers him hospitality. Because of the rules of her religion he cannot sleep under the roof of a single woman and has to occupy one of the abandoned cottages, only returning for meals of wild rabbit and fish.
The woman’s back-story slowly emerges. Her sister was expelled from the community because of her love for a Catholic man and went to live a happy and fulfilled life in the city. In the village, the young woman eventually realises that nobody is going to return from her old community, and in any case, the Russian are heading rapidly west bringing a form of liberation which will change this small world forever.
Some of the stories are autobiographical. In 1980, Pawel Huelle was working for Solidarity delivering leaflets on an old Ukraina bicycle. He describes the excitement of bringing news from one striking ship-yard to another, while rumours spread that Soviet forces were massing on the border ready to nvade. On one of his dawn rides, Huelle reminisces about the 600 kilometre journey his father made – paddling an ordinary canoe up the river Vistula to Gdansk in order to start a new life, “because the old one had ceased to exist in any way, shape or form”.
Some of the stories in the book are short, episodic, capturing a moment in time, but one of the longer stories, Franz Carl Weber has a touch of magical-realism about it. An un-named man is travelling from Poland to Zurich where he has a meeting with his deceased father’s bankers. As he is leaving the station he encounters a beautiful woman who asks him directions to her hotel – which happens to be the same one he is staying in.
As he walks through the city the man walks past a toy shop, Franz Carl Weber, and is swept back in memory to the 1940s when one Christmas his father gave him a wonderful Märklin model railway, a magnificent affair replicating the Geneva-Ostend express. The label on the model railway box showed that it was purchased at the very shop he is walking past now. He remembers the catalogue that came with the railway and recaptures the feelings of wonder he experienced in looking through the hundreds of pages of toys.
When he arrives at the hotel, he is greeted by two gentlemen looking like twins and claiming to be detectives. They question him about the woman he met at the station but the man refuses to co-operate with them and strides off to his room. He discovers that the mysterious woman occupies the room next to him, and that there is a connecting door between their room – locked of course. It is at this point the reality and fantasy take their leave and we find ourselves absorbed in a tale of toy-shops, the inheritance of fortunes and unexpected romance.
It is very difficult to classify these stories because of their wide variety in them. Some seem to be relatively straightforward accounts of episodes in Huelle’s life, while others are fictional. Their commonality seems to be found in the after-word in which Huelle says,
The collection of stories is a sort of synthesis of my life here and they feature some of my obsessions, such as the cyclical nature of time, and where life starts and ends. And the significance of great books as an authority in a human life, from religious books . . . (to) the toy catalogue that was so immensely significant for the hero of Franz Carl Weber.
For me, the stories gave a series of snapshots of Poland and the life of someone who had lived through periods of greater change than I will ever experience. We in Britain have seen change over the last 40 years or so but nothing like as wide-ranging as the transition from Nazi occupation, to communism and on to its fall. It takes someone who has lived through this to capture the atmosphere of the times and Huelle does this well, evidently with the insight gained from much reflection on the times he has lived through.
The book is elegantly produced by Comma Press, a new publisher to me: “a not-for-profit publishing initiative dedicated to promoting new fiction and poetry, with an emphasis on the short story”.