Pawel Huelle, Moving House and other stories (Polish 1991, English 1996, French; Rue Polanki et autres nouvelles, 2000)

Confession: I started typing this blog post on my (3 year old) phone and the WordPress app got all weird on me. Also, I have come to the conclusion that a post draft I started in April disappeared into the ether, so I’m trying to catch up on book reviews for those I have finished ages ago, before they disappear too!

So let’s stick to the facts (mmh, who am I kidding): this short-story collection was very interesting and I’m so glad : a- that this Polish writer got translated into French and English; b- that my parents gave me this book several years ago; c- that my 2017 “read-from-my-own-shelves challenge” finally made me pick it up; d- all of the above.

Anyway, I bet that you’ll want something a bit juicier than that. And the book is largely worth it. It is set in Gdansk, the Polish town that used to be German up to 1945 (under the name of Danzig). No, strike that, it’s much more complicated! Gdansk has forever alternated between German and Polish rulers and even became a “free harbor” with some autonomy. At the end of the WW2 it suffered a massive population exode (Germans from Danzig, but also from Eastern Prussia and beyond, making for hundreds of thousands of civilians desperately making their way west, under heavy air raids and the threat of Soviet army). Gdansk is also the place where, in the 1980s, the Solidarnosc movement was born, a rebellious force against the Communist ruling party, so strong that it led to its demise.

This bit of history is fascinating to me, but imagine what it means for someone to be born in this place! In many stories by Huelle, Polish characters have to live with the past and linger in a weird nostalgia. The stories are all set in the postwar, Communist era and several are in fact coming-of-age stories.

The title story made me sigh: a little boy is soon moving away from a house shared by several households. This house used to belong entirely to an old German woman, Madame Greta, who has been dispossessed by the Communist regime and only has one room now, filled with her piano and memories. The boy’s parents forbid him to go there, because they hate and distrust everything German, but as the parents are preparing to move the boy is attracted by the music and he gets to meet with Madame Greta.

There’s a story about a table, a household object that the narrator parents got from a displaced German who left Gdansk at the end of the war. The narrator of another story, “Snails, Puddles, Rain” goes with his father to chase snails. We get to learn that his father has only found this odd job after being kicked from several more qualified jobs, because he doesn’t toe the Communist party’s line.

I have a feeling that the French collection does not have the exact same stories as the English collection, but if you have a chance to read it, don’t be intimidated by Polish names and by the obscure history of this small part of Eastern Europe! This is probably the first Polish writer I’m reviewing in this blog (in 10 years, can you believe it?), but I hope not the last.

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The One with the tender music of old Europe

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