BOOK REVIEW / Tell us another, Uncle Henryk: Moving House and other stories - Pawel Huelle Tr. Antonia Lloyd-Jones: Bloomsbury, pounds 13.99

Marek Kohn
Friday 27 May 1994 23:02

WHERE the sandy Northern European plain hands over to the Baltic around Gdansk, the drama is supplied by history rather than geography, as if in an attempt to impose variety on what nature declined to differentiate. There are streets near the waterfront that look like a Holland of the East; in the hinterland, traces persist of the Kashubian people. These nuances, however, have been mostly subsumed into the conflict between Pole and German, of which Gdansk became the epicentre in 1939.

Gdansk was not 'always German', as the aggressor claimed, nor all Polish on the other hand. It was a Baltic Interzone, and Gunter Grass became its Burroughs. Grass was born in 1927, Pawel Huelle in 1957; the former in Danzig and the latter in Gdansk, which is to say the same place. Coming from a city with such a shifting identity, no wonder both writers are marked with a strong sense of the paradoxical and the improbable.

As a writer, Grass perhaps had little option but to turn the conflicts, the vehemence, the ironies of his historical situation into literature. For Huelle, these are largely a matter of archaeology. In his first novel, Who Was David Weiser? (which was shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Award in 1991), a group of children play with an old German helmet and a machine pistol: for them such relics might as well be a century as a decade old.

Throughout most of this collection, Moving House and Other Stories, Huelle remains close to the perspective of childhood. The two tales which depart from type are less successful. But the core stories are finely realised - more so than the full-length novel - and full of beguiling subtlety. They are also essentially joyful, despite the grim historical background.

This, perhaps, shows how much things have changed. In the old days Polish writers assiduously loaded up their work with political allusions, conscious of their patriotic duty. Today, the sense of obligation has evaporated: history and politics can occupy an organic place in writing. But the elliptical technique remains powerful, as Huelle demonstrates in the opening passage of the opening story, 'The Table'. The boy narrator tells how his father obtained the table for a pair of army boots anda portion of UN Relief butter, from a Mr Poleske, who then caught the last train to Germany.

What remains powerfully unsaid here is that Mr Poleske was one of five million Germans who were deported in line with the new post-war borders, as part of Europe's biggest act of what we now call 'ethnic cleansing'. A few lines further on, the narrator compares an old picture of a bustling harbour with the harbour in its present condition, 'the main features of which were a wasteland of administrative offices of no use to anyone, with red banners hanging on the walls, and the green thread of the Motlawa, where a militia boat sailed up and down, and once a day the Border Guard's ship went by.' Certainly, it was like that all over: authentic society replaced by hollow regimentation. At this remove, though, there is no need for Huelle to sullyhis elegant prose with invective. It's the very quaintness of the tone that expresses the contempt.

As for the table, it is doomed by the detestation the narrator's mother feels for all things German. But obtaining a replacement is an epic undertaking, between the Scylla of showrooms offering nothing but 'experimental' triangular designs, and the Charybdis of inebriated black-market artisans. The quest leads into the backwater beyond the last tram stop, where, quite convincingly, happenings take place beyond the natural order of reality.

A Germanophobic mother also features in the title story; a quixotic father (sacked from his job as a marine engineer, searching for edible snails to bring in the cash) in another. The central relationship is always that between the boy and the father, uncle, or grandfather. In each narrative, the recognition that loss - of people, youth, memories - is inevitable is tempered with an experience that, while never quite explicable, is somehow ameliorative.

The outstanding tale is that of Uncle Henryk, the war hero who takes it upon himself to impart the virtues of discipline and an upright bearing to his nephew, who inevitably proves a disappointment. One day they go on a cross- country skiing expedition, when a blizzard descends and the compass starts to spin like a top. They find their way to a backwoods village, where they are forced to witness a cockfight. Uncle Henryk admits that he could never stand the sight of blood.

Afterwards, the village turns out to have been a Polish Brigadoon. This revelation is no more remarkable than that in the war, Uncle Henryk fought with his eyes shut.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments