Stu­dent saga in­spired by Mann’s man

The young pro­tag­o­nist of a Thomas Mann clas­sic be­came a very per­sonal ob­ses­sion for nov­el­ist Pawel Huelle, writes Daniel Stacey

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

THERE is a brief ref­er­ence to the Pol­ish city of Gdansk, or Danzig as it’s known in Ger­man, in Thomas Mann’s sem­i­nal novel on Euro­pean de­cline, The Magic Moun­tain . Men­tioned in pass­ing, it refers to the young pro­tag­o­nist Hans Cas­torp: ‘‘ He had spent four semesters at the Danzig Polytech­nic.’’

Per­haps not the most in­spir­ing line, but it struck a chord with one of Poland’s great­est con­tem­po­rary writ­ers when he read the book at the age of 16. Pawel Huelle was sick in bed when his mother gave him Mann’s 700- page doorstop, and within five days he had fin­ished the book and formed a life­long love af­fair with Hans Cas­torp. ‘‘ It in­trigued me, I knew he was only a lit­er­ary char­ac­ter, but the fact that Cas­torp must have lived in my dis­trict in Gdansk and stud­ied at the same polytech­nic my fa­ther stud­ied in fas­ci­nated me. I couldn’t help but imag­ine this char­ac­ter walk­ing down my street. Per­haps he bought his bread in that shop over there, per­haps he saw a beau­ti­ful Pol­ish girl over there. ‘‘ Once I even de­lib­er­ately got out at the tram stop Cas­torp would have alighted from for the polytech­nic, and I counted ex­actly how many steps it takes to walk up the road to his class.’’

Now a mis­chievous man of 50, Huelle japes about in a con­ti­nen­tal linen suit, swing­ing an an­tique ten­nis rac­quet in the lobby of Chan­nings Ho­tel in Ed­in­burgh where we meet. He’s in the city to pro­mote his new novel Cas­torp , the prod­uct of decades spent fan­ta­sis­ing about Hans Cas­torp’s stu­dent years in Poland. It cap­tures Mann’s char­ac­ter in his vi­brant youth, where he’s rapt by the tremu­lous sen­sa­tions of first love, man­hood, and his ini­tial en­coun­ters with the puz­zles of me­mory and mor­tal­ity. Leav­ing the fam­ily nest in Ham­burg for the first time, Cas­torp is hy­per­sen­si­tive and racked by in­tro­spec­tion, even trou­bled by liv­ing with strangers, ‘‘ right in the mid­dle of some­one else’s life, mea­sured out by the whole gamut of other peo­ple’s noises and odours’’.

Huelle has been writ­ing nov­els since the mid1980s, when he was forced into hid­ing af­ter work­ing as a press of­fi­cer for Sol­i­dar­ity, the trade union that protested against Poland’s com­mu­nist gov­ern­ment, and helped pre­cip­i­tate the fall of the Soviet Union. While in hid­ing, full of revo­lu­tion­ary fer­vour but stuck with noth­ing to do, he de­cided to write ‘‘ a po­lit­i­cal thriller with a crim­i­nal twist’’.

‘‘ It had two pro­tag­o­nists: one was my al­terego and a war­rior of Sol­i­dar­ity, the other was a soviet KGB gen­eral who came to Poland incog­nito to over­see mar­tial law.

‘‘ It was a very naive book, for­tu­nately never pub­lished, but I did re­alise that I could write in terms of struc­tur­ing a book. To bor­row a metaphor from ar­chi­tec­ture: the house was very ugly but it stood up well.’’

Friends of Huelle’s from that pe­riod in­clude the present Prime Min­is­ter of Poland, Don­ald Tusk, with whom he or­gan­ised ral­lies and pub­lished leaflets as part of an un­der­ground, in­for­mal stu­dent op­po­si­tion move­ment.

‘‘ It was a strange time be­cause I wasn’t sure what I would do — whether I would carry on be­ing in­volved in pol­i­tics — and in­de­pen­dence was ap­proach­ing grad­u­ally. A lot of my friends did be­come politi­cians or union ac­tivists, but for­tu­nately I wasn’t re­ally drawn to pol­i­tics, I was much more strongly drawn to lit­er­a­ture. When I see my politi­cian friends now they all have to tell lies, and that seems very stress­ful.’’

Cas­torp is not the po­lit­i­cal thriller you might ex­pect from a for­mer ag­i­ta­tor, but a gen­tle, mys­te­ri­ous tale of early 20th- cen­tury stu­dent life, as well as the story of Huelle’s love af­fair with Gdansk, and with the dis­tant mem­o­ries of good peo­ple and good places that have dis­ap­peared.

Gdansk is a city that makes peo­ple think like that: hav­ing passed through the con­trol of Nazis and Rus­sians, hav­ing seen the worst of World War II, hav­ing had streets re­named in dif­fer­ent lan­guages mul­ti­ple times and his­tory erased over and over again, and in­spir­ing nu­mer­ous lit­er­ary tributes, from Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum to the more re­cent Death in Danzig by Ste­fan Ch­win. Huelle’s novel looks to a pe­riod be­fore all this tur­moil, though: the Belle Epoque, a mo­ment of rapid cul­tural change at the end of the 19th and be­gin­ning of the 20th cen­turies.

‘‘ The Belle Epoque, or beau­ti­ful pe­riod as it was known, was per­haps the most op­ti­mistic time in re­cent Euro­pean his­tory,’’ Huelle says.

‘‘ Ev­ery­one in Europe thought that within half- a- dozen years all of our prob­lems would be sorted out by science, and there would no longer be any wars. There would be great ad­vance­ments in tech­nol­ogy and medicine, and

Europe would flour­ish. Of course wish­ful think­ing.’’

It was dur­ing the most re­cent change of cen­tury that Huelle felt com­pelled to write this book, re­leased in Poland in 2004.

‘‘ The turn of the 20th- 21st cen­tury was sim­i­lar to the Belle Epoque: there was a sim­i­lar op­ti­mism. Francis Fukuyama wrote his book The End of His­tory and the Last Man, where he said that democ­racy would de­velop and spread and the free mar­ket would func­tion well ev­ery­where. But not long af­ter his book came out we had war in the Balkans, war in Chech­nya, Septem­ber 11, Iraq and Afghanistan. So that op­ti­mism has not proved to be valid.

‘‘ But the be­gin­ning of a cen­tury is al­ways an op­ti­mistic time. Maybe it’s like in our life: when we’re young we see the world in brighter colours. But I’m 50 now and I don’t look at it like that any more.’’

As he takes an­other swing with his an­tique rac­quet, and moves on to play­ing with a

it was

all wooden lacrosse stick, you have the feel­ing that he is not re­ally that em­bit­tered. Huelle is a bril­liant sto­ry­teller and a ro­man­tic writer in many re­spects: in love with his char­ac­ters and their lives and lack­ing in cyn­i­cism.

His re­cent novel Mercedes- Benz is a tri­umphant cel­e­bra­tion of the joys of Pol­ish life across a cen­tury in which his grand­fa­ther was ex­e­cuted dur­ing World War II and his fa­ther tor­tured by the cod­dling, clois­tered at­mos­phere of Soviet Poland.

Cas­torp is a novel ex­press­ing en­ergy for life amid the brood­ing vi­o­lence of Europe. Among the ec­stasy and angst of Hans Cas­torp’s young jour­ney, there are oc­ca­sional glimpses of the ter­rors to come, and those that vis­ited the Kashu­bians and Poles of Gdansk be­fore, ‘‘ whom he could not tell apart by lan­guage, ( and) were like a grey layer of earth: long since buried un­der the cob­ble­stones.’’ Daniel Stacey is a writer, critic and mag­a­zine ed­i­tor based in Lon­don.

Il­lus­tra­tion of Pawel Huelle: Jock Alexan­der

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