In Castorp we revisit the life of Hans Castorp, of Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain. 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.
I will not go into further detail of the plot for fear of spoiling the book, but needless to say, it involves Castorp's intense romantic feelings for a remote Polish woman, who he pursues at a distance, unable to carry the relationship further (at least intitally) because of his intense shyness. There is a denouement, and it is satisfactory as far as this book is concerned, while also leaving themes to be picked up in The Magic Mountain for those who care to read it.
I enjoyed this book greatly and have been asking myself whether it would be readable by someone who had not read the Mann novel. I have come to the conclusion that it stands very well on its own, and in some ways, I think it would be good to read this prequel first. For those who come to this book after reading the Mann novel, I think that they would enjoy this harmless speculation on what went before, and it will be an amusing (and brief) read bringing much of The Magic Mountain back to mind, and reinforcing the view that in Castorp, Mann created a strong and memorable character.
Pawel Huelle has captured Mann's style perfectly, while also adding more humour and direct interest to his story. Frankly, more happens in these 230 small format pages that in the whole of The Magic Mountain's 854 and I don't think this book is impoverished by omitting the lengthy philosophical dialogues to which Mann was so given.