Monday, 17 September 2012

There's No Place Like Home

While my recent literary travels have mainly taken me to Iceland, today we're visiting another northern European country by the sea.  Poland may not be quite as chilly as Iceland, but as you can tell by the title of today's book, Paweł Huelle's Cold Sea Stories, it has its fair share of less temperate days.  This book is the latest in Comma Press' series of European short story collections, an excellent selection of stories, mostly based in and around the author's home town of Gdańsk - however, when you look beneath the surface, there's a lot more connecting them than that...

Cold Sea Stories (translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones) is full of personal touches from the writer's life.  In The Bicycle Express, we follow a young student and his friend as they ride around Gdańsk delivering newspapers with the latest news from striking workers - among them, a certain Lech Wałęsa...  One of the shorter tales, Depka and Rzepka, is about a young boy charged with a trip to some fishermen to obtain some fish for Christmas, something which was almost impossible to do in the city's shops.  Both of these stories, as the writer admits, are highly autobiographical, memories adapted for this collection.

Many of the stories though are a little more abstract than this.  In fact, several contain elements of that much-used expression 'magical realism', allowing Huelle to soar above the constraints of the cold north to explore his themes.  Two stories with several parallels are Doctor Cheng and Ukiel, both of which deal with men returning to their home town after decades abroad, looking for an answer to the sadness in their lives and failing to find it in the dull, little-changed place they left behind.  Having lost partners, they are searching for something to keep them going - in different ways, the two stories give glimpses of something worth waiting for...

However, the host of returning travellers in Cold Sea Stories seem largely doomed to disappointment.  While the political system may have changed, the pessimistic view pervading many of the stories is that everything else has stayed the same.  On arriving in Poland, many of the characters find that they have little connection to their country of birth, and soon regret their decision to return.  An example from Doctor Cheng:
"Only on the plane did it dawn on him that the decision to make this journey, taken a good fifteen months ago, was a reckless one.  Nothing really drew him to the country where he had spent the first twenty years of his life and which had no positive associations for him." p.93
(Comma Press, 2012)

Despite this, the protagonists are unable to escape a sense of nostalgia which pulls them back to their homeland.  In several of the stories, the central character is stopped dead in their tracks by a sudden association, a memory or (more often) by a smell, a fragrance of flowers.  Most of the stories contain frustrating elements of missing something from the past but being unable to retrieve it.  In Abulafia, a boy laments the loss of a language, one he had never learnt:
"And a month later his mother, [died] from pneumonia.  She took her greatest secret with her; the language she had never passed on to him, which would always bring him the scent of haymaking, clover, a wind from the sea and clouds." p.122

Perhaps the most memorable stories in the collection are the two that bookend it.  The first, Mimesis, at 41 pages the longest of the stories, is set in a deserted village towards the end of the Second World War and explores the relationship between a freed prisoner of war and a young mute woman left behind when the Germans took the rest of the village people.  First Summer, the last of the stories, then returns to the same town in more recent times and looks at what has become of the setting for the first story.  There are other connections between the two stories than the town though - and I'll leave you to find them out for yourself ;)

I read Cold Sea Stories twice, and I got a lot more out of it the second time.  There are connections between the stories which only became apparent on a rereading, and I'm sure that there's still a lot that I haven't managed to tease out.  Luckily, the publisher has come to the reader's aid a little here, as there is a brief Q & A between the translator and writer included at the end of the book, giving brief details as to the creation and meaning of each of the stories.  I was recently discussing this need for supplementary information (introductions, cultural explanations) in works of translated fiction with some other bloggers, and this is a good example of the kind of information which adds value (and interest!) to a book.

In the end though, it's all about the stories, and when you have a collection of good ones, you can't go far wrong.  There's nothing particularly earth-shattering about them - no great surprises or shocking twists - , but then a good story doesn't really need that; we all have stories to tell, no matter how mundane.
"There is always a story to be told... even if a person spends his whole life sitting in one room staring out of the same window all the time." p.158 (Franz Carl Weber)