Review: Saturn – Jacek Dehnel

saturnSaturn by Polish author Jacek Dehnel is a historical novel based on the life of Spanish artist Francisco Goya.  The shocking cover illustration shows one of Francisco Goya’s “Black Paintings” depicting Saturn devouring one of his sons.  When Goya was in his seventies, he painted the Black Paintings directly onto the walls of his house and they reflect the pessimistic and bitter outlook which he developed towards the end of his life.

In 2003, art professor Juan José Junquera published a book suggesting that the Black Paintings were not in fact painted by Goya but rather by his son Javier.  The book was received with scepticism if not anger by other Goya experts, but Junquera’s theories are not implausible (a summary of them can be found on Wikipedia here).

Jacek Dehnel has written a fictionalised account of the last years of the lives of Goya, Javier and Javier’s son Mariano, working on the basis that Javier did indeed paint the Black Paintings, and it makes for a fascinating read.  The book interweaves first person diary-style accounts from each of the three men; the embittered Francisco, the other-worldly and confused Javier and the scheming Mariano.  As the book progresses a very credible story builds up which includes Javier beginning to paint the first few of these 14 paintings.

Before I go any further, let me mention that this is another book translated from the Polish by award-winning translator Antonia Lloyd-Jones who was responsible for the translation of the four books by Pawel Huelle which have been reviewed on this website.  I admire the way she has achieved a very different style for this book when compared with the more Polish-sounding voices in Pawel Huelle’s work.  Antonia tells me that the Jacek Dehnel’s text was peppered with 18th-century Spanish words disguised as Polish which gave her quite a challenge.  Fortunately she had access to Jacek’s research books which provided the background she needed to create her translation.

To get back to the book, Jackek Dehnel shows that the relationship between the three men, father, son and grandson, is deeply flawed.  Francisco seems to have taken a dislike to his son from the start.  Javier did not want to paint with his father and he reacted badly to Francisco’s outbursts of anger and his erratic lifestyle.  Francisco writes of his son,

He drew like a woman.  For he grew more and more like a woman altogther . . . he just crept about the house with his nose eternally in a book, pale and unhealthy . . . he always sat on a mule or a horse like a sack, nor would he go to the bullfight – he avoided me, hid in corners.

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Review: Cold Sea Stories – Pawel Huelle

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.

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Review: The Last Supper – Pawel Huelle

I was pleased to hear that Serpent’s Tail have published Pawel Huelle’s new book, The Last Supper.  I have previously enjoyed Huelle’s collection of short stories, his novel Who Was David Weisner? and also his prequel to Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain, Castorp, all of which show Huelle to be a substantial European literary figure.  Whereas Huelle’s other books are immediately accessible to non-Polish readers, it quickly became apparent on reading The Last Supper that some background was required.  Fortunately Google was able to point me to two interviews with the author which helped me understand about the context of this novel.

It is important  to remember when reading the book is that it is set a few years into the future, when some of the trends Pawel sees in contemporary Polish life have come to fruition.  The book will speak primarily to Poles who are intimately involved in the cultural controversies which the book addresses, although it is interesting to anyone who wants to understand the Polish cultural scene, and in any case, many of its concerns are European in scope rather than being wholly confined within one nation.

Huelle’s story is about twelve men who have been invited to a theatre in Gdansk by the artist Mateusz, to pose for a photograph depicting a modern interpretation of The Last Supper which he will use as a reference for a major new painting.  Mateusz is tired of the modern art scene with its avant garde approach, and wants to show that there is still a place for a painting which will move and inspire people through a finely-executed and inspiring theme.  Each chapter concerns one of the men who have been invited to pose for the photograph and the book comprises a selection of word pictures around these men, each one in some way being characteristic of an aspect of contemporary Polish life.

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Review: Moving House – Pawel Huelle

Sometimes you read a book by new author and immediately want to read every other book they wrote.  Reading Pawel Huelle’s Castorp (reviewed here) had this effect on me and now I have been able to buy used versions of Moving House and Other Stories and  Who Was David Weiser?, soon to be followed by a new copy of Mercedes Benz.

I am rediscovering a liking for short stories and it is interesting to read that I may not be alone in this.   As reported in The Times, there is a an upsurge of interest in this genre, and the BBC for example now has an excellent short story website complete with a fascinating search feature.  Pawel Huelle’s short story collection reviewed here is an almost a classic example, reminding me of short stories by Anton Chekhov, Guy de Maupassant,  Gustave Flaubert and others.  It dates from 1991, or for English readers, since 1994 in this flowing and natural translation from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd Jones.

Although apparently dating from about 15 years ago, these stories are rich with the atmosphere of  post-World War II communist Poland.  The characters are still suffering from poverty, their food is simple, they use buses rather than cars, and replacing household items often requires a long search and the assistance of useful contacts.

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Review: Castorp – Pawel Huelle

In Castorp we revisit the life of Hans Castorp, of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. As many readers will know, in The Magic Mountain, Hans Castorp visits his cousin, a patient in a Swiss sanatorium high up in the Alps. He is persuaded to have a medical examination, and drifts into a prolonged course of treatment during which real-life passes him by as he is drawn into the intense, over-heated relationships in the sanatorium, only brought to an end by the start of the First World War.

Pawel Huelle has written a highly effective prequel to The Magic Mountain, in which we see the young Hans Castorp leave his uncle’s home in Hamburg and go to Danzig (Gdansk) to study ship-building.

Castorp’s new life commences on board the ship Mercury as he sails to Danzig, in the company of three other passengers with whom he is obliged to spend an uncomfortable few days, dealing with their eccentricities and awkward conversations.  On arrival at Danzig he is persuaded to delay his onward journey to his lodgings by a Dutch tradesman, Kiekiernix, who despatches his bags on to his new landlady and drags him into an elaborate and time-consuming lunch.  Castorp eventually arrives at his rooms to find no sign of his land-lady or his bags, and determines to avoid all further distractions during his stay in Danzig.

He enrols at the Polytechnic and commences his studies, returning each night to his lodgings where the behaviour of his landlady and her maid cause him some consternation.  He finds comfort in his beloved Maria Mancini cigars and an ample supply of Burgundy wine, and life carries on, amusing and entertainingly for the reader, as the young Hans explores his new surroundings.

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