We have had to wait a good few years for Paweł Huelle’s new novel, but it turns out to have been well worth the wait. Sing Gardens has a good chance of competing for first place on many critical rankings. What are its major weapons? The magic of storytelling, the history of Gdańsk, and the charms of a woman.
“The time of a story is a law unto itself: it turns a circle, goes back to the beginning, jumps months, or even years, only to stop at one particular moment and linger over some event or detail which might not seem all that vital to the whole”, says the novel’s narrator. Huelle’s previous novels have already shown us these features: the art of storytelling that grips you and won’t let you go; a subtly woven narrative that runs through remote times (here it extends over three centuries) and places (because the new Huelle leaves Gdańsk for Budapest and even Brazil); and a masterful structure for the whole novel (with the persistent theme of music – not just involving the score of a lost opera by Wagner about the Ratcatcher of Hamelin, but also in the way each of the voices “singing” the story is written out, with recurrent motifs and variations in tempo). This is already familiar from Huelle’s earlier novels too, but every time he serves up his magic in a different way, every time he manages to cast a new spell and take us into his literary world as if it were pure reality.
Gdańsk as a protagonist in the novel is no surprise either. Huelle is so closely bound up with this city that we cannot imagine him setting his writing anywhere else. But Huelle’s Gdańsk is different every time. In Sing Gardens we see not just its most familiar guise – the interwar Free City of Danzig – but also the face of the city as shaped by the Soviet authorities after the Second World War. Huelle’s Gdańsk is a living city that thrives on its own history and its own truth… also the truth of the novel. The novel is literary fiction, of course, but that does not stop the author from setting its main events in a very real mansion in a park on Polanki Street in the Oliwa district of Gdańsk. It’s possible to go there and to peer into the windows of Greta’s drawing room, knock at the gardener’s cottage door, or go over to the pond, in which the Frenchman drowned the corpses of his murdered victims. The truth of Sing Gardens is the truth of a place – Gdańsk, which on the pages of the book exists with a different reality from the one that is usually defined as genuine, yet all the more genuine for being filtered through the literary imagination.
And there is Greta – a woman as the central figure in the story is definitely a novelty in Huelle’s work. Although he has never played the literary macho man, his work has always featured male central characters, and it has been a man’s point of view that has shaped the plot, language and narrative. This new novel is presided over by a woman – beautiful Gretchen. The men revolve around her, it is she who governs the emotions of the novel and quite often takes up the narration. The male narrator says of her: “Greta carried the main theme, while I did my best to follow with the counterpoint”. She seems to be the catalyst for major historical events; she also subjects them to broader, philosophical reflection; and finally she alone seems truly to understand where it is all heading. And thanks to this female presidence the entire novel is like Greta – beautiful, fine and subtle, but also fascinating and alluring.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
The story-telling had just entered my favourite realm of fiction, which before it became legend, had had its origin in real-life events –events of a kind nobody could possibly have imagined. My father had just abandoned his canoe on the Mottlau River, tossing the paddle behind him and with it his entire past life, then shouldered a small backpack and set off down the first gutted street to look for a new life among the still smoking ruins of houses and churches, hopping across the unburied corpses of people and horses, and skirting around the remains of military hardware that cluttered most of the crossings and junctions; here and there he was stopped by a Soviet patrol, but none of them was capable of clarifying where the mythical PUR – the repatriation office – was located, where he needed to go in order to obtain ration cards for something to eat and a voucher with an officially assigned address on it. It was only at the Polytechnic – which he reached after an hour’s forced march, and where they confirmed that he could sign up for the first term in shipbuilding, but only in a couple of weeks once enrolment began – so only there, at his future college, did they show him the way to the magical PUR, to which he trekked, once again on foot, by returning to the burned-down city centrealong Grosse Allee, its tram lines ploughed up by shells and littered with torched tram cars devoid of window panes or headlights, like a procession of hideous blind cripples. […]
I knew that any second now the critical moment was coming in my favourite story, the tale of the beginning: fifteen minutes before closing time at the repatriation office, where a swarm of desperate people was milling about in a narrow corridor, my father glanced at Mr Bieszk, Mr Bieszk returned his glance, and at once they were firm friends. Bieszk knew how to get to the top official without queuing, but he couldn’t write the necessary application in Polish; nobody would have touched it in Kashubian, and German – in which he had once scrawled three whole pages to his mother from the front – had ceased to be an official language, excluded from use in Gdańsk at its own bidding for years to come. So my father, leaning on his knee, licked a copy pencil and quickly wrote the necessary note for Mr Bieszk: a request for the return of two horses which the day before, along with a cart, had been requisitioned from him by a Soviet patrol for the requirements of the Red Army. And so they entered the presence of the top official at the PUR, with an application for the return of an agricultural vehicle and an oral request for my father to be assigned a place to sleep.
They failed to get anything sorted.
“There’s no accommodation left. Everything’s been taken. They’re still pouring in. From Wilno, from Lida, from ruined Warsaw, Lwów, and Tarnopol. You’ll have to wait,” the official told my father. “Once we expel the Germans in six months’ time, something’s sure to become vacant. We have to relocate everyone in Langfuhr and Zoppot. But for now there aren’t any trains. The Bochehave blown up all the tracks and bridges. We should put them in the concentration camps. Let them try spending the season in Stutthof. In a nice cloud of smoke from the crematorium. In those stinking barracks. Well, unless” – at this point the official took off his horn-rimmed spectacles and wiped the lenses – “you decide to move in with a German family. It does have an advantage – once they leave, you can try to get more space, occupy two rooms, for instance.”
My father wasn’t interested in that sort of solution, so his name was added to the waiting list. Whereas Bieszk was advised to forget it – anything taken by the Red Army was gone for good, lost without trace. Seeing their pitiful expressions, the official added: “You can try going to Soviet command. They sometimes like doing things for the poor. As long as they don’t arrest you on sight.”
Yes, that was scene two of my favourite story: Mr Bieszk and my father standing outside the city’s Soviet command HQ, wondering whether to go inside or not. With two applications – Mr Bieszk’s, stamped by the Polish official, and another, requesting accommodation for my father, which the official had kindly written out for him. Finally they went in, by a side door. First they were thoroughly frisked, then they waited in a box room, under the watchful gaze of a sentry with slanting eyes. And then they entered the mirrored ballroom of a palatial residence, the only one in the city centre that hadn’t burned down. At the head of a table arranged in a semicircle sat the commandant, Lieutenant General SemyonMikulsky. On either side of him sat the officers: colonels, mayors, captains and lieutenants, with their batmen standing behind their chairs. The table was groaning with food and drink, from all the nearby hotels which, though gutted, had deepcellars, well-stocked until recently – the Vanselow, the DeutschesHaus, the Hansa, the Metropol and the Continental. The commandant was extremely courteous. Before Mr Bieszk and my father had said a word, he told them to sit down beside him and join him in a toast to pobyedu – victory – and to Stalin. So they drank. Only then did they notice the barber in a white tunic. A German prisoner, he was standing behind the commandant, holding a crystal carafe of flower water; every time the Russian swallowed a shot of alcohol, using a rubber bulb and hose fixed to the carafe, the barber squirted a tincture of eau de Cologne into the commandant’s open mouth – three short puffs, then he respectfully took one step back from the commandant’s chair, within the sights of two of the adjutants’ pistols. He performed his duty with the greatest dignity and skill, as if in all his years as a barber in Ohra he had solely been preparing for this mission. So Mr Bieszk and my father went on eating and drinking in the company of the Soviet officers, it was well past midnight, toasts had been drunk to every victory from Kursk to Stalingrad, the adjutants had been sent off in all directions, and were finally back with good news, in the shape of two official documents for the city commandant to sign: the first authorized Mr Bieszk, a farmer from the village of Ramkau, to report within the next three days with this very certificate, and he’d be issued two healthy draft horses from the transport division, and as far as possible his cart as well, which an officious patrol had mistakenly retained. Providing for the war-ravaged Polish nation was a vital task, stated the commandant, and then added a flowery signature, before also signing a paper allocating one room on Pelonkerweg to my father, an important shipyard worker – so it said. The commandant stamped them himself, they drank a farewell toast to friendship, and to the workers of the world as well, the German barber once again refreshed the commandant’s open mouth, and Mr Bieszk and my father were on their way out of the mirrored ballroom, supporting each other by the arm, because the floor was covered in broken glass, when one of the lieutenants, having slept through the signing and stamping, suddenly awoke, and catching sight of two civilians walking away from the table, seized his adjutant’s pistol and started firing in their direction. Luckily he missed his target, because another, slightly more conscious lieutenant had pushed the barrel upwards, causing the bullets to chip stucco off the ceiling, razor-slash the crystal chandeliers, shatter the upper sections of the mirrors, rip the picture frames and canvases, and go whistling through the windows to the tune of a mighty Huuurrraaa, which came flying from the officers’ throats, throwing Mr Bieszk and my father to the floor. Luckily they were already in the doorway, close enough to hear the commandant’s mighty roar: “Durak, niestrielaj!!” – “Don’t shoot, you fool!” Then seconds later they found themselves outside, between the gutted churches of St Elizabeth and St Joseph, in a street leading to the station.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones