In less accomplished hands, Death in Danzig would be in danger of collapsing under the weight of its accumulated symbolism. Opening in war-torn 1945, with the Russian artillery moving into striking range, the first of Stefan Chwin's novels to be translated into English looks down on a tide of vagrant humanity. Displaced Poles are driven west by the Soviet advance; German inhabitants of the "Free City" queue for the ferry; refugees are caught up in a landscape of rickety handcarts and strafing planes. It is a mark of Chwin's expertise that, while the novel's figurative superstructures never quite recede into the Baltic fog, its real interest lies in the teeming human traffic below.
Of the various mysteries on display in a world of deserted houses and fleeing citizenry, most have something to do with the Delphic figure of Dr Hanemann. A former professor of anatomy (in which guise he confronted the body of his drowned lover Louisa, freshly laid out on the slab), his prewar political connections judged suspect, Hanemann makes it to the landing stage only for a bomb to explode as he attempts to board the departing Bernhoff.
Other opportunities to leave are declined. To these puzzles can be added an odd, personal obliquity ("I don't think you have a heart," he remembers his mother informing him.) A rare German survival in the city, Hanemann avoids the anatomy class and establishes himself as a language teacher. Meanwhile, the bourgeois apartment blocks are changing hands, the Kohls, Bierensteins and Schulzes giving way to opportunistic Polish incomers.
These include the parents of the as-yet-unborn narrator, Piotr, gamely setting up home in the abandoned rooms beneath Hanemann with their bundles of UN handouts and a sweater "worn during the uprising in Warsaw". The household swiftly expands to take in Hanka, a displaced Ukrainian, cheerful despite the horrors inflicted on her, and Adam, a speechless boy found in the old Prussian fortifications beyond the city.
Regime change, inevitably, brings a new set of anxieties. The owners of the factory where Piotr's father works are imprisoned for "being capitalists". Hanemann himself is under investigation ("All the clues point to the West"). The novel ends with him quietly absconding in the company of Hanka and Adam, in whom officialdom is now taking an interest.
Much of Death in Danzig's intriguing, Kleist-haunted eeriness derives from its fascination with objects, often promoted to the role of surrogate characters. "And the things?" Piotr muses: "They went about their usual business... indifferent to our concerns."
In one notable scene, Hanemann considers his mother's collection of porcelain. Previously its charms have escaped him. Now, "he saw in those petite, delicate forms, a childlike courage... A benign, insolent defiance." Here, for once, Chwin's symbolism declares itself. The accuracy of Philip Boehm's translation must be left to Polish speakers; all this monoglot Englishman can say is that it reads very well.
D J Taylor's 'Orwell: the Life' is published by Vintage
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