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
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
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.