Interview: Why cult Polish author Pawel Huelle thinks he's a camel

Tom Boncza-Tomaszewski
Sunday 18 September 2011 22:55

Sitting opposite the Polish author Pawel Huelle, I decide he looks every bit like you'd hope a serious writer would: bearded, bespectacled, intense, bohemian in an I-wouldn't-be-seen-dead-in-a-suit kind of a way. What's unusual is that he seems to be describing himself as a camel.

"I have two humps," he tells me, his emphatic words relayed via his amused translator, Antonia Lloyd-Jones. "My first is my name: Huelle. Even the Poles can't pronounce it. My family came from Austria, but that was 300 years ago." Huelle shrugs. "I've heard at least 15 different versions." For the record it's pronounced Hyoola – like the hoop, but with a Y. Pawel's easier: it almost rhymes with gravel.

At last it's clear he's speaking metaphorically about the humps. I shouldn't be surprised; this is a writer whose work is full of depth and allusion. Castorp, his latest work to be published in English, is based on a throwaway line from Thomas Mann's masterpiece The Magic Mountain and pulses with irony that Mann would have been proud of; Mercedes-Benz, his satire on post-Soviet era Poland (and moving tribute to the Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal), cloaks its political references in wonderfully absurd humour.

"My second hump," Huelle continues, "is that I am a writer. I know that literature only occupies a very narrow space in our lives but I love it, I adore it. It's my passion – reading as well as writing. Ever since I was a child I have devoured books. I'm an addict. By my bed there are towers of books that sometimes tumble over and my wife shouts: 'You can have a few books by the bed, Pawel, but ten? Fifteen? Fifty?" When I'm travelling I need to have at least four books with me; and of course a pen. I have a notebook, but I only use it at home."

In case inspiration strikes?

"Precisely. You never know when it will happen. One of my favourite writers, the Argentinian Ernesto Sabato, was coming back from a conference and found he had two hours between flights. Fortunately he had a typewriter with him and he began writing his great novel, On Heroes and Tombs."

I remark that Sabato was incredibly lucky to have a typewriter with him.

Huelle smiles. "It's what I've heard."

It's impossible not to warm to Pawel Huelle. For all his intensity, I get the feeling there's someone very mischievous lurking under that beard. Regarded as one of Poland's most accomplished modern writers, he also seems extremely un-selfconscious. I ask him what he thinks of contemporary English-language writing.

"These days people seem to want to write a book like a screenplay and something gets lost. Beautiful literature offers the pleasure of listening to a story being told. It can't be so rapid – cut into tiny pieces." He mimes furious chopping on the table like a chef really punishing a vegetable. "It needs time."

Huelle, indeed, knows all about screenplays. For two years he worked as a television executive. "But it wasn't interesting," he says. "There was nothing creative." I ask him instead about his work for Solidarity, the Polish independent trade union led by Lech Walesa largely responsible for bringing down the communist regime.

"I was a journalist in the press office during the 1980s," he says with enthusiasm. "In fact you could say it was like a writing school. Every night I had to gather all the reports from the various union branches around Poland, sometimes as many as 30 or 40, and then summarise them into a single page report for Walesa. The result was always interesting ... but concise."

I think about some of the stories in Mercedes-Benz that perch magnificently on the edge of what's plausible: a "fox hunt" involving vintage motor cars and a hot air balloon instead of horses and a fox; a starving, suicidal Pole who wanders into a Minneapolis art gallery and finds himself hailed as a creative genius. Was it easy for him to stick to the facts when he was compiling his digests for Walesa?

Huelle nods gravely, then grins: "I agree with the philosophers who say that there's no such thing as a pure fact. We're always condemned to interpretation." He laughs.

I ask what it was like working with Walesa.

"He was direct, independent, and very resolute. I can tell you, compared to the people currently running Poland ..." Huelle trails off. I get the impression that probing him about the Kaczynski twins, the brothers currently installed as Poland's prime minister and president, might induce some kind of deep depression. Perhaps it's time to turn to his new book.

"Ah!" his face brightens. "When I first read Mann's The Magic Mountain, the story of a young German called Hans Castorp, it had a hypnotic effect on me. I was 16 and extremely ill, and had to lie in bed for several weeks. So my mother brought me books to read; unfortunately, in spite of my illness, I still read so fast she couldn't keep up. No sooner had she found me another novel than I'd finished it. One day, however, she brought in this great, fat book and said triumphantly 'I think this'll last you for at least 10 days.' Secretly I think she hoped I'd find it such heavy going I'd get better before I finished it. But I read it in five days, simultaneously becoming even more feverish and, although I didn't understand everything in it, that book cast a spell on me. One sentence in particular stuck in my mind; it was the start point for my own novel." He picks up his copy of Castorp and reads the quotation at the beginning: "'He had spent four semesters at the Danzig Polytechnic.'"

Huelle tenses with excitement. "I grew up in Gdansk – Danzig, as it used to be called. Just imagine a writer you really, really like creating a literary hero who you discover may have lived in the house next door to you. Your imagination goes crazy: where did he live? Where did he go? Where did he get his hair cut? For years I wondered: what did Castorp do in Gdansk?"

Gdansk has a remarkable history. It's often said that the first shots of the Second World War rang out there. I tell him he seems to have a special feeling for the place. In each of his novels he seems to conjure up a different aspect to it.

"It's an unusual city," he says thoughtfully, "full of all kinds of ghosts. I'm not saying it's beautiful or wonderful in any way – but it's strange. In 1918, when Poland was revived as an independent country, 90 per cent of the city's population was German. Then, after the end of World War II, all the Germans were forced to leave. They went and Poles moved into a bombed-out, smoking ruin.

"As a child in the late Sixties and early Seventies I grew up in a district on the edge of town where there were three German graveyards, all neglected and overgrown. And my friends and I were always finding old German weapons: guns and bullets. Unexploded bombs."

What did he do with the things he found?

"We made rockets using the bombs. First you had to disarm the shells – taking out the detonator so the thing didn't blow up. Then you tipped out all the explosive powder and made a fantastic rocket."

I tell him I think Gdansk's weirdness also manifests itself in his books. Maybe it's subtler in Castorp, which is set during the Belle Epoque before World War I, but it comes across as the kind of place you could get obsessed with.

"The Germans have often harboured obsessive thoughts about the East," he says. "One way they explored their dreams was through literature, as was the case with Thomas Mann. In Death in Venice the main character becomes obsessed with a Polish boy; in my novel, Castorp becomes obsessed with a Polish woman.'

And the other way?

"The other way we know from history: they attacked the place."

I decide it's probably best to concentrate on the novel and suggest that its slightly otherworldly feel also comes from the extraordinary characters he's created. Frau Hildegarde Wybe, for example, Castorp's overbearing landlady; or minor characters like the clerk at the Polytechnic whose obsession with the city's pavements leads him to create an illustrated pamphlet on the subject. Both are wildly eccentric, but extremely believable. Are they, perhaps, based on real people?

Huelle laughs and sits back in his chair. "Frau Hildegarde is the essence of many military widows," he says. "And the clerk, he's also fictional, but I've known several such madmen. You start speaking with them and suddenly they tell you: 'there's a problem with butterflies in the city.' Or puddles. Then they offer you a treatise they've written discussing how to deal with the situation."

We're out of time and Huelle has to leave for his appearance at the Edinburgh festival. One last question: what would he like English readers to take away from Castorp?

"When I finish a book," he says, "I hope that some images will settle in my mind. I hope there are some of those in the book – powerful images for readers to take away."

He needn't worry. Stepping out on to a London street, I find I can't take my eyes off the pavement.

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