Mercedes-Benz

Paweł Huelle
Mercedes-Benz
  • Społeczny Instytut Wydawniczy ZNAK Cracow 2001 © ZNAK
    152 x 213 140 pages hardcover
    ISBN 83-240-0114-X
    sold to Germany, Netherlands, Israel, France, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Croatia rights available

A most entertaining short novel, which begins in truly dramatic circumstances: the main character (who is called Pawel, just like the author, to whom he bears a surprising resemblance) starts having driving lessons and almost dies of shame and humiliation. Attempting to divert an absolute calamity, he resorts to a truly Hrabalesque trick by creating a story about his grandparents' cars. So we read of a brand-new Citroen being smashed by a train or of a mythic Mercedes-Benz in which his grandparents, together with some friends, chase a balloon, thus inventing a new type of automobile "fox hunt"As the story gradually moves to the present, Pawel, magnetised by his instructor's beauty and sensitivity, becomes acquainted with some dramatic but fascinating facts from her life. This part of the story is mostly concerned with varying human fates in Poland at the time of economic and political changes. But at some point Pawel finishes his classes and parts with his infatuating instructor. The story ends with the news of Bohumil Hrabal's death and a most impressive literary tribute to his writing and life. Being an extremely skilled narrator, Huelle uses Hrabal's idea well and alludes frequently to his writing, but does this in a non-obtrusive and well-balanced manner. The narration is multi-levelled and multidimensional, and motives from Hrabal's work are interwoven with contemporary ones as well as with a nostalgic, humorous and warm expedition into a family's past.

My dear Mr Hrabal, once again life has turned an extraordinary circle, for when I recall that evening in May, when for the first time I sat all scared and atremble behind the wheel of Miss Ciwle’s little Fiat - the only lady instructor at the Corrado driving school ("We guarantee a driving licence for the lowest price in town"), the only woman among all those self-important males: ex-rally drivers and racetrack aces; so, once I had fastened my seatbelt and positioned the rear-view mirror according to her instructions, to move off seconds later down a small, narrow street in first gear in order to stop at once, forty metres on, at the crossroads where only a narrow stream of air, like an invisible flight corridor, ran between the trams and the thundering lorries over to the other side of the city-centre inferno; so, as I set off on that very first car journey of mine, feeling as ever that the whole idea of learning to drive made no sense at all, because it was too late in life, and I’d already missed the moment; so, when right in the middle of the crossroads between the No 13 tram, bells clanging as it braked suddenly, and a great big TIR transporter lorry, which by some miracle managed to miss Miss Ciwle’s little Fiat by a hair’s breadth, while sounding its incredibly deep, piercingly loud horn like a battleship siren; so, when I stalled at the very centre of that crossroads, I immediately thought of you and those charming motorcycling lessons of yours, when with the instructor behind and the wet cobblestones ahead, you gave the 250cc bike a good dose of petrol and off you sashayed down those Prague streets and crossroads, first up the hill towards Hradčany, then down towards the Vltava, and the whole time, without ever stopping, as if inspired by the Muse of motorisation, you told the instructor about those wonderful vehicles of bygone days, on which your stepfather had so many fantastic spills and smashes; so when the driver of the TIR brought his ten-ton monster to a screeching halt and, leaving it in the middle of the roadway, jumped down from the cab and ran towards Miss Ciwle’s little Fiat, waving his fist at us in a threatening manner, and indeed, in his rage coming close to self-mutilation by pummelling his own head with it; so, when I saw his face, purple with fury and pain, pressed to the window of Miss Ciwle’s little Fiat, and right beside it another face, also pressed to the window, and belonging to the driver of the No 13 tram, who like the TIR driver had abandoned his vehicle and his passengers, sent flying by the sharp braking; so, when I saw those two faces through the Fiat windows, which with great foresight Miss Ciwle had already wound up, with yet more looming up behind them, because the drivers of other cars blocked by the tram and the TIR had also left their vehicles and run up to us now, to shower us in all their anger about traffic jams, broken bridges, rising petrol prices and everything else affecting them since the recent collapse of communism; so, when these Bosch-like faces had all but crushed us into the seats of the little Fiat, which was adamantly refusing to start, I turned to Miss Ciwle and in a perfectly calm tone of voice I said, "You know, when my grandmother Maria was learning to drive in a Citroen in 1925, she had a similar experience, except that the Citroen stalled on a railway crossing and from the right, that is, where the instructor, Mr Czarzasty, was sitting, the Wilno-Baranowicze-Lwów express was fast approaching from round the corner when Mr Czarszasty made a rapid assessment of the situation and said, ‘Miss Maria, let’s jump out immediately or we’ll be killed,’ so they jumped out," I went on, "and the express, although it braked, showers of sparks flying from under its wheels, completely flattened the beautiful car. So there they stood by the field crossing: my grandmother Maria and Mr Czarzasty, watching the train driver’s eyes grow bigger and bigger as he failed to find any crushed-in heads, chopped-off legs or drivers’ caps, or even a single splash of blood in this pile of tin, nickel, chrome, plush, leather and broken glass; only when he looked a little harder did he notice my grandmother Maria and Mr Czarzasty giving him a friendly wave, and a very fine scene it was," I said, reaching the finale, "because right behind them by that field road at the foot of the Eastern Carpathians stood the chapel of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour."
"Goodness, how beautiful," said Miss Ciwle, neatly sliding herself across into the driver’s seat over my knees, while I deftly performed a similar movement in the opposite direction beneath her. "Goodness, how well you tell a story," she went on, checking the gears and the ignition, "but why doesn’t it work in my dual control either, hmmm, very interesting." She finally got the engine started and, showing our entourage of drivers that most masculine, indecent and disgraceful of signs with her middle finger, she slowly advanced along the human avenue, skilfully weaving her way between the throng of our would-be tormentors, eager to flog us right there at that dreadful crossroads, that first car-driving Golgotha of mine.

Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones