Pawel Huelle's new book, Cold Sea Stories, 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.
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 as Huelle describes to movingly in his story.
Some of the stories are autobiographical. In 1980, Pawel Huelle was working for Solidarity delivering leaflets on an old Ukraina bicycle. He describes the excitement of bringing news from one striking ship-yard to another, while rumours spread that Soviet forces were massing on the border ready to nvade. On one of his dawn rides, Huelle reminisces about the 600 kilometre journey his father made - paddling an ordinary canoe up the river Vistula to Gdansk in order to start a new life, "because the old one had ceased to exist in any way, shape or form".
Some of the stories in the book are short, episodic, capturing a moment in time, but one of the longer stories, Franz Carl Weber has a touch of magical-realism about it. An un-named man is travelling from Poland to Zurich where he has a meeting with his deceased father's bankers. I found myself soon absorbed in a tale of toy-shops, the inheritance of fortunes and unexpected romance.
It is very difficult to classify these stories because of their wide variety in them. Some seem to be relatively straightforward accounts of episodes in Huelle's life, while others are fictional. Their commonality seems to be found in the after-word in which Huelle says, "the collection of stories is a sort of synthesis of my life here and they feature some of my obsessions, such as the cyclical nature of time, and where life starts and ends".
For me, the stories gave a series of snapshots of Poland and the life of someone who had lived through periods of greater change than I will ever experience. We in Britain have seen change over the last 40 years or so but nothing like as wide-ranging as the transition from Nazi occupation, to communism and on to its fall. It takes someone who has lived through this to capture the atmosphere of the times and Huelle does this well, evidently with the insight gained from much reflection on the times he has lived through.
Antonia Lloyd-Jones has done a magnificent job of translating these stories from what was I assume a fairly idiomatic Polish. The reader gets no impression that the book is a translation but it somehow retains a sense of being Polish.