Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Poland: "Castorp" by Paweł Huelle

This book is set in Danzig, the name by which Gdansk was known when it was governed by the German Empire in the late 19th and 20th centuries. Castorp depicts a bygone era with slightly rose-colored lenses and it is the "prequel" to Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain. The author, Paweł
Huelle describes a city in about 1904 that was still dominated by shipping, as it had been centuries before as part of the Hanseatic League.  Here is the protagonist Hans Castorp arriving after a North Sea and Baltic Sea voyage from his home in Hamburg toward the university where he wants to study the family business of shipbuilding:

"As the Aquarius sailed along the middle of the canal, passing the spire of Danzig Fortress he had no trouble recognising the characteristic ring of fortifications...there was a true revelation awaiting him around the bend of the Mottlau [a river], where the left wall of the waterway was lined with granaries very similar to the Hamburg variety, while on the right there were mediaeval [sic] gateways, towers and the fronts of narrow little tenements, with a huge, squat crane pushing in between them, probably built here in the year Christopher Columbus sailed for the New World." (p.31-32).

We follow shy, self-effacing Hans as he enrolls in the then-brand new Polytechnic Institute, deals with his very odd landlady, and eventually, develops an infatuation with an older, "exotic" woman he sees at a seaside resort. If you've read the Magic Mountain, this last theme will seem familiar. Castorp likes his food, and Huelle describes meals so well that one becomes hungry while reading. He likes Maria Mancini cigars and pursuit of this particular brand is a factor in the action, which is very slow-paced. He enjoys a good porter (beer) with a meal. These themes pre-figure the Castorp who appears in Mann's novel, which is set a few years later (and is several hundred pages longer).

Huelle also briefly touches on social class and relations. Danzig at the time had many ethnic German residents, who looked down on the Poles, who in turn looked down on the Kashubians, whose ancestral lands are to the west and north of the city. Russians, especially Jews, were leaving their homeland, and their presence in the city is also noted. The harbor, of course, has sailors from the world over, a fact Castorp enjoys as he listens to them during his trips to a port tavern.

For me, the real pleasure in the book came from descriptions of the city. Castorp tours on foot and by bicycle in all seasons. We read of autumnal leaves and grey skies; perfumed breezes and bird song in spring; and hot beach sand around the time of the Feast of St. John the Baptist. Castorp views the town hall spire, historic gates and markets; he dines or takes coffee in various cafes; he travels by the tram and takes the boat crossing to a seaside spa. Each action is described closely by Huelle, so we hear, see, smell and almost taste and touch what our hero experiences.

The book, nominally about a man, is also about a place. Neither made it to our era. The Danzig of of 1905 did not survive the World Wars and while it has been rebuilt, it seems to me that part of Huelle's point is that the past of a place cannot be recaptured any more than the life of a man can be saved from the fates.*

* Mann's character leaves the Swiss sanatorium for World War I, and we presume, death in the army.

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