BOOK REVIEW / The haunting history of home: Moving house and Other Stories - Pawel Huelle: Bloomsbury, pounds 13.99

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The Independent Culture
THIS DAZZLING, memory-haunted sequence of seven stories is as intricately woven as an autobiographical novel. In one story we are told that 'as if by the touch of an invisible hand, in the air of the wooden hut the threads of time began to interweave'. In all of them we are confronted by warpings and doublings of time as the narrator, excavating his own memories of childhood in post-war Communist Poland, borrows those of an older generation - his parents, uncle, neighbours and chance aquaintances - who remember the German occupation, the persecution of the Jews, the Warsaw uprising and all the cultural fissures of mid-century Poland.

The stories are intensely local, quests mainly set on terribly divided home territory. One speaks of a 'snail's geography' and although another is set in Dublin and several involve dreams of ships and travel, they all revolve around early memories of family life in and around Gdansk. Circumscribed they may be, but they use the lens of the anecdotal to focus almost mythopoeic historical forces.

The first, about a table the narrator's parents bought from a German after the war, is typical: 'An invisible borderline now ran across Mr Polanske's table, just like in 1939, when the land of their childhood, scented with apples, halva, and a wooden pencil case with crayons rattling in it, was ripped in half like a piece of canvas, with the silver thread of the river Bug glittering down the middle.'

In 'Rain', a small boy wades among puddles 'like God stooping over the earth', mapping the mysterious transformations of their 'promontories, headlands and secret isthmuses', with whole countries disintegrating in the twinkling of an eye. Accompanying his father on snail-collecting expeditions, he discovers in a graveyard 'a veritable kingdom of snails' - 'envoys of the underworld' - and the story ends with a vision of a mass of them futilely climbing a monolith 'shaped like a tear'. The anecdote comes to seem like an epic encounter with the dead.

The title story describes the narrator, on the night before moving house, staring into a big room at the Miss Havisham-like former owner of the house in which they rent an apartment. Invited in, he finds himself spellbound by Miss Greta's past world of Wagnerian operas and German high Kultur, but forced to confront the contradiction between their romantic appeal and the grim realities of the Nazi period remembered by his mother. For years he had loved her piano music without knowing what it was. At the end he faces the music, as his mother, after another row with his father, calls out the names of loved ones killed by the Germans.

These elaborate family anecdotes are also poetic fables of initiation into history. A story set in Dublin finds the narrator remembering his grandfather, who ends up building himself a fantasy submarine; another one describes him being lost in a snowstorm with his uncle, a survivor of the Warsaw uprising and devotee of classical skiing, and the two facing death in a blizzard, when all the familiar landmarks disappear and the heroic uncle and wimpish boy share the same geographical disorientation and historical nightmares.

Reading this book, you might be reminded of the childhood grotesqueries of Dickens, the sensuous domestic elaborations of Proust or the charged epiphanies of Joyce, but most of all you are caught up in a mesmerising portrait of a Polish childhood overshadowed by the mystery of other people's pasts.

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