by Pawel Huelle
Long before his adventures in Davos, described in Thomas Mann’s THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN, Hans Castorp “had spent four semesters at the Danzig Polytechnic...”. Intrigued by this throwaway line, Pawel Huelle was inspired to tell the story of Hans Castorp’s student years in Gdansk, studying to be a ship builder. In creating this amusing but bittersweet scenario for the influential period in Castorp’s development, when the rational German student was exposed to the Slavonic eastern edge of the Prussian empire, Huelle pays tribute to Thomas Mann, and a poetic, humorous and affectionate tribute to Gdansk.
CASTORP is not in any way derivative: it is pure and elegant fiction, and a delightful novel, recreating as it progresses the heady atmosphere of central Europe before the two world wars. There is a faint echo of DEATH IN VENICE with romantic obsession as its theme.
Hans Castorp falls in love with a beautiful Polish girl, Wanda Pilecka. She is sole heiress to landed properties to the east of former Poland, and rich enough to spend her time between her house in Warsaw and Switzerland, Italy and the Riviera. She has her secret life of meetings with her lover, Sergai Davidoff, a Russian army officer. But their affair is avidly and covertly observed by young Castorp, who is spellbound by her beauty and sophistication.
Hans Castorp’s meticulous, prosperous and carefully planned little German world is typified in the way he buys a bicycle. He has to have a bright blue Wanderer with a pump made of chrome and a basket in which is a cardboard box with spare inner tubes, valves, glue and trouser clips; he wears a Loden cape, a Finnish knapsack with a smart wicker frame, goggles, chamois gloves, a leather flying helmet, and plus fours with matching socks. As his cycling becomes a passion, we become familiar with Huelle’s beloved and charming Poland in a way that would be impossible by car. And as Hans takes to lolling “casually” in a deck chair near the pumproom, or strolling along the promenade, all in the hope of seeing Wanda Pilecka, he adopts a way of life that actually benefits his ability to study. Roderer’s Electro-technical Equipment of Modern Shipping comes far more easily to him than in the days when he had observed every exercise and lecture with truly Prussian discipline. He passes his examinations with a fluent and accurate reasoning on the Balsano-Weierstrass theorem of a curve that has no tangents, and thus exists ideally, despite which it is constant. In fact, Huelle uses this curve and Ariadne’s thread as metaphors for life.
The earth beneath the cobblestones in the streets of Gdansk is the ancient native Polish and Kashubian population, dispossessed by the Prussians. But Huelle invites the reader, on his splendid bicycle, to the street where, nowadays, hundreds of cars rush from Gdansk to Wrszeszcz and from Wrszeszcz to Gdansk, and where you will hear no other language than Wanda Pilecka’s sibilant speech. He would like to see the reader, a virtual reader, like Weiestrass’s magic curve.
Born in 1957, Pawel Huelle, novelist, playwright and newspaper columnist, has lived most of his life in Gdansk. He graduated in Polish studies from Gdansk University in the early 1980s, and worked as a press officer for Solidarity. He was also a university lecturer in philosophy and was later head of Gdansk’s television channel before becoming a full time writer. He is the author of WHO WAS DAVID WEISER? which was translated into 17 languages, and MERCEDES-BENZ, which was short listed for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2006.
Review by Paula McMaster