Cold Sea Stories, Paweł Huelle, trans. Antonia Lloyd-Jones

These short stories are dizzying, beautiful – and occasionally verge on the ridiculous

Marek Kohn
Thursday 18 October 2012 16:19
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The sea lapping the Baltic coast may be cold, but the stories gathered here along the shore are not bleak, dull or grey. They glow with the warmth of the past that they conjure into life, and with the yearning for an intensity of feeling and experience that does not wane as life passes by. In an afterword, the Polish writer Paweł Huelle remarks that there is not much light where he comes from, which is why several of his characters search for it, and disappear into it. The light, not its lack, is what remains with the reader.

Light wasn't the only thing in short supply when Huelle was growing up in Gdansk. Despite the proximity of the sea, the terminally obtuse economic regime imposed from Moscow resulted in a dearth of fish. The shortest of these stories finds the narrator as a youngster on a mission to buy some for the Christmas Eve meal, equipped with the most futile document he could possibly carry – a shopping list. The fishermen tell him of a mysterious fireball that appears in the area and destroys ships, dispatching a Soviet submarine as briskly as it consumes a fishing boat.

These few pages epitomise the limpid story-telling and inspired leaps of association that distinguish the collection. Playing local Kashubian legend against the politics of the recent past, a vignette about buying fish lofts itself into vast mythical and historical dimensions. On his home territory, Huelle's range is boundless.

The way to achieve indefinite range in a finite space is to travel in a loop. These stories speak most powerfully of the desire to turn the lines of time into circles. People's life-lines are cut by the deaths of their partners; then they encounter their loved ones again, full of after-life. This is a ambiguous, even treacherous process: the protagonist's vision of his life made whole again is also how he experiences his death. But even when this looks most like a delusion – as in the case of the 19th-century Pomeranian gentleman who hopes to find the language of Adam and Eve in the Sahara – the sense remains that there might be more to it than that.

Enchantment is normally confined to childhood and to love at the beginning of adulthood. After that, it is outshone by the cold light of experience. Huelle occupies both worlds. At one moment he curtly breaks the spell with a flick of a narrative switch; at another, he lets dreams come true. In the story "Franz Carl Weber", he spins worlds like plates, generating force-fields between a man's rendezvous in Zurich with an inheritance, a boy's nocturnal escapes from communist Poland on a fantastical train, and a mysterious beauty with a high-camp backstory. The result is dizzying, beautiful, occasionally verging on the ridiculous, and altogether wonderful. It's one of the world's great train stories, too.

Marek Kohn's latest book is 'Turned Out Nice' (Faber & Faber)

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