Castorp, by Pawel Huelle, trans Antonia Lloyd-Jones

On the nursery slopes of a classic
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The Independent Culture

Castorp is a prequel to one of the landmarks of German literature: The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann's epic philosophical novel set in an Alpine tuberculosis sanatorium. Taking a hint that its protagonist, Hans Castorp, had spent four semesters at the polytechnic in Danzig, the Polish writer Pawel Huelle has set out to recreate the young man's early adventures in that eastern outpost of the German empire, now the Polish port of Gdansk.

Huelle is fascinated by his city's dual heritage, which he has explored in earlier novels such as Mercedes-Benz. What gives Castorp its drive and resonance is his investigation of German attitudes to their Slav neighbours, towards whom they harboured an orientalising outlook that saw them, in contrast to German orderliness and rationality, as a force of disorder – and dangerous sexual attraction. Mann was not immune to this prejudice: Tadzio, the alluring boy with whom the writer Aschenbach falls in love in Death in Venice, is Polish.

Castorp's uncle, the consul, warns him that the east is a place where a good German boy can go astray. Sure enough, in Danzig, Castorp falls under the spell of an enigmatic Polish woman, whose "Slavonic type of beauty competed in her with a faraway, subtle, yet palpable breath of the East". Obsessed, he neglects his studies and drinks heavily until his German rationality is shaken to the core.

The Hamburg household of Mann's novel are all here, and Castorp's taste for porter and cigars is already well-established. There are hints, too, of his life to come: a slight chill to the chest; a feverish dream of mountains; and a pair of spa bathers whose political spats comically foreshadow those of the Jesuit Naphta and the radical Settembrini in Davos.

Aside from Mann, Huelle weaves a skilful web of cultural references. He is drawn to his compatriot Joseph Conrad: a shipboard argument between a Belgian commercial traveller and a German missionary plunges us into the world of Heart of Darkness, while Castorp's ensnarement in Russian émigré society, with its revolutionaries and spies, recalls Under Western Eyes. Castorp is no meretricious attempt to cash in on a classic, but an intelligent, intriguing and atmospheric novel worthy of its inspiration. It is admirably served by Antonia Lloyd-Jones's nuanced and readable translation.

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