The idea for Paweł Huelle’s new novel came from a sentence in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain which mentions that when his young hero, Hans Castorp, was preparing to enter the engineering profession as a shipwright, “he already had four semesters of studies at the Danzig polytechnic behind him”. So Huelle wrote a novel about the Danzig episode in the life of the future Berghof resident.
Huelle shapes events into a pre-history of what Castorp will have to deal with at Mann’s Berghof. His novel is The Magic Mountain in embryo, or in miniature. Huelle isn’t just writing to gratify the ghost of Thomas Mann though, but also to persuade us that the Danzig episode in his hero’s life was not without significance, and that the city might, must have been the scene of an extremely significant encounter. To Consul Tienappel, the uncle who hands out advice and warnings to Hans, ‘the East’ is a black hole, the temptation of disaster. For the citizens of Danzig with whom Castorp becomes acquainted, the Poles are a faceless neighbour, regarded as hostile and dangerous. For Castorp, the embodiment of Polishness is a fascinating, beautiful stranger, Wanda Pilecka, a landowner from the east of Poland who is in Sopot for discreet encounters with her Russian lover. Huelle seems to think that just as the marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, or Blake’s marriage of Heaven and Hell were fruitful and happy, the union of these two people, the German ‘naïve idealist’ and the mysterious Polish temptress could be just as fortunate. But all that remains is an unfulfilled opportunity, the knowledge that what matters most to us is always just outside our reach.
- Marek Zaleski
In the swiftly succeeding days of September, when ripe chestnuts had already appeared on the Esplanade and there were some truly autumnal cumulus clouds over the Stock Exchange and the Hanza House, busy with preparations for the journey Hans Castorp had no time to think back on this conversation, though he fully understood what an unusual departure it was from the domestic habits of Consul Tienappel. Corresponding with Frau Wybe, from whom he planned to rent lodgings, completing his supply of underlinen at the very best shops, supplementing his wardrobe, which sometimes involved two visits to his tailor in the course of a single day, and finally making a deposit at the Grain Bank in Danzig, chosen with consideration and care, as well as drawing up a list of essential toilet articles that he should not run short of in the distant city Hans Castorp was completely absorbed by all these tasks.
He also had a dilemma, of which we can indulgently say that it was youthful, and largely connected with sober, though not entirely unsentimental emotionality. To wit, by what route should he undertake this journey? As a future shipwright, he was in no doubt that in the circumstances it would be most appropriate to go by ship, best of all a commercial vessel with a few cabins set aside for passengers. On the other hand, however, when he thought about the train connections and carefully studied the timetable, he could not help yielding to a particular memory that suddenly came back to him as he was leaning over the map, less than an hour before bedtime: his father and mother were standing on the station platform in Berlin, a place amply illuminated by gas lamps, where the train to the Baltic resort was already waiting. The day they had spent in the capital had been full of sunlight, the sound of a military band, lemonade bubbles, the grating of the hotel lift and the buzz of the conversations his father had held with several solemn merchants on the café terrace. Hans Castorp had never been able to find out if they had travelled via Berlin on that occasion on business for his father’s Hamburg firm, or to consult a world-famous doctor called Professor Landau, who had prescribed his mother some exotic drops. However, the trivial uncertainties were always overshadowed by the strong memory of that journey. Bathed in the feeble light of an electric lamp, the sleeping compartment moved through the night like a mysterious travelling chest. It was the source of all the images he would never forget: the windows of mid-town tenements, where the silhouettes of people looked as if they’d been cut out of black paper, the empty platforms of provincial stations, the linesmen’s isolated houses, or finally the veil of early morning mist that melted every time in his memory into the blinding whiteness of the sand dunes among which the little Castorp had spent some of the happiest days of summer.
So the choice was not easy: an ill-defined sense of professional obligation spoke in favour of travelling by ship, while the railway on the other hand offered the future shipwright the pre-set pleasure of diving into the past. Finally he chose the former option, and having equipped himself with a ticket issued by Lloyds North German Sailing Association, on 28 September he crossed the gangway of the Mercury, which, powered by a modern steam engine, set course for Danzig, ploughing the hoary waves of the sea at a speed of eleven knots. When the last cranes of Hamburg port had disappeared behind the cargo stern, as he leaned against the railing passenger Hans Castorp felt a sort of thrill he had never known before. For the first time in his life he was leaving his hometown not just for a summer or winter holiday, but to change the course of his life. He thought about it as he watched the mighty force of the screw-propeller relentlessly tossing up a dark, frothing mass of water. The seething wake trailed a good hundred metres behind the Mercury, finally vanishing somewhere far in the distance, consumed by the element.
There was a sort of unsettling constancy in all this motion, a kind of immobility brought about by the most extreme effort at change; half a mile behind the ship the water looked as if it hadn’t just been ploughed in two by hundreds of tons of man-made steel. However obvious, this observation worried Castorp. Aren’t human lives in a similar state? Perpetual motion suddenly dies away without trace at a vague point on the horizon, and that’s the end of it. At such moments the clergy rightly speak of eternity, the philosophers of memory, families erect tombstones and commemorate the dead, but all this is merely of pragmatic service to the living and does not change the shape of things; we disappear without trace, never to return. As he pondered these thoughts, the young traveller leaning on the railing of the steam liner was somewhat dismayed to discover that this dark, pessimistic tone, which had never taken up permanent residence in his soul, was now manifesting an established presence there. It reminded him of a musical motif in a minor key by an unfamiliar composer, echoing back to him from God knows where, and constantly recurring like a wave. And then he made another discovery too: namely that he derived a sort of pleasure from preventing this motif from slipping away from him; on the contrary, he started listening in to it with relish.
“Please put on a cape, Sir!” a booming voice came thundering down on him, louder than the crashing of the waves. “You can’t see or feel the tiny droplets, but they’ll soon soak you through to your underclothes and you’ll be all set for pneumonia. And we don’t provide any healthcare on board.”
The amazement evident on Castorp’s face must have been truly profound, as a fleeting smile lit up the bosun’s pockmarked face and he matter-of-factly added:
“Capes for the passengers are issued at the officer’s mess. Weren’t you told about it? Well yes, we haven’t got a special officer to take care of you.”
Having said this the sailor turned on his heel, and without giving the traveller the slightest chance to give even a casual reply, set off down the port side, nimbly jumping the ropes that lay coiled under the capstan.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones