Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Cold Sea Stories by Pawet Huelle

I'm not sure where to start on reviewing this book, because I'm still not sure I understood all of the stories.  I chose this book because I will be visiting Poland later in the year and I wanted to read something by a contemporary Polish author.  This short story collection was well reviewed and is by an award winning Polish author who has been translated into many languages.

There were parts of the stories I loved - taking place largely in Gdansk and the surrounding countryside, they provided insight into what it was like to live behind the Iron Curtain, and in Poland during the break from Communism.  In an afterward there is an interview with the author who explains that the story The Bicycle Express was largely autobiographical - it details a few days in the life of a teenager who delivers leaflets by bicycle from the Gdansk shipyard where an uprising is taking place to other factories around the city.  Perhaps my favourite story was Franz Carl Weber - it tells of a grown man's first visit to Zurich after travel restrictions are lifted.  His father, part of the intelligentsia who was tortured during the Communist regime, had traveled to Zurich and brought the narrator and his brother a train set from the Swiss store Franz Carl Weber.  Playing with this train set, and studying the store's catalogue, were some of the narrator's happiest memories.  In Zurich he is delighted to visit the store but because times have changed is disappointed to find few train sets.

The stories Mimesis and First Summer also taught me a bit about the Mennonite Community from around Gdansk which was all but wiped out by the Nazis due to its pacifism - and what remained was destroyed by the Communists.

The problem I had with the stories is that whenever I was finally getting interested in the characters and their stories, the narrative turned to magical realism.  For example, in Franz Carl Weber the author details how as a child at night he went into the fields and rode imaginary trains.  These flights of fancy are just not my style and, while I'm sure they were symbolic in ways that escaped me, I would have preferred the narrative stripped of the fantasy.

Despite this flaw, I enjoyed the stories and am glad to have read a bit about Polish culture past and present.

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