Cold Sea Stories

Paweł Huelle
Cold Sea Stories
  • Znak
    Kraków 2008
    208 pp
    ISBN 978-83-240-1031-8

Paweł Huelle is undoubtedly one of Poland’s best contemporary novelists, as his latest collection of short stories confirms. In some of them we find a continuation of topics that have featured before in his work, such as the history of the Mennonite congregation that settled in Żuławy, and whose traditions and culture were brought to an end by the Second World War. However, most of the stories take up new themes. They are not, as in Huelle’s previous work, almost exclusively related to the city of Gdańsk. This time his protagonists set off into various parts of the world: to the island of Öland, to Zurich, New York, the Sahara and so on. Thus their reality becomes much larger, though even so most of the plots take the reader to the neighbourhood of Huelle’s native city, which,  like a wind-rose, focuses various human fortunes. At the centre of these stories is human fate regarded like a hieroglyph, because the author looks for meaning in it, some structural crowning point, but what he usually finds is a mystery, an unexpected or quite absurd coincidence. Joachim von Kotwitz, the descendant of a Pomeranian Junker family, is tired and disgusted by nationalist conflicts in his own home land and devotes his life and property to the search for a mythical “primordial language”, common to all people. But having reached the Sahara he falls into the hands of Berber robbers (Abulafia). The hero of Franz Carl Weber unexpectedly inherits a large sum of money from his father, but on a journey to Zurich to collect his golden fleece, instead of behaving like a millionaire, he tries to make the dreams of his childhood and youth come true, involving an electric railway and a romantic adventure with a woman he met by chance and who is mad with disappointed love.
Thus in Huelle’s work the hieroglyph of life has no unambiguous solution – the hero stares at its declensions like the recommendations of the Chinese Book of Changes, which gives foggy answers requiring further interpretation, though perhaps it is not so much about understanding the meaning of events as merely – in the words of the mysterious Doctor Cheng – “liberating oneself from thought and accepting reality”.

- Jerzy Jarzębski



The trams and buses weren’t running any more, so there was a terrible crush in the local train. There was no other way to reach the centre of Gdańsk, and of course that was where everyone wanted to go, to the main station, from where it only took seven minutes to get to the shipyard gates. And either in a whisper or in a lowered tone everyone really was talking about the same thing: so far they’re not shooting yet! But they’re sure to start, there can be no doubt, the only question is when? I too could remember that December, exactly ten years ago: my father and I had gone up to the loft to listen for noises from the city centre through the open mansard window. The frosty air carried the boom of single shots, ambulance sirens and the rumble of tanks. The glow of fire shone red over the city. Now and then a helicopter appeared in the gloomy expanse behind it, firing flares, and then, in the brief flash of light, we could clearly hear two or three bursts of heavy machine-gun fire. There were moments when all these noises stopped, and we thought we could hear the shouts of the crowd repeatedly rising and falling.
“Just remember,” my father had said as we made our way down two floors to our flat, “this is the beginning of their end.” Naturally when he said “their” he wasn’t thinking of the workers. A few days later I saw the burned-down Party headquarters from the tram window, once the curfew had been lifted. At the Hucisko crossroads, right by the tram stop, I found a shipyard helmet flattened like a matchbox. The stench of burning and teargas was everywhere. The food price hikes had been withdrawn and people were hurriedly doing their Christmas shopping. Just as hurriedly the portraits of the leaders who had been ejected from their posts were being removed from all the classrooms at my school. Our art teacher turned a blind eye as we burned them on a big pyre next to the school dump. Cyrankiewicz took far longer to burn than Gomułka, maybe because his pictures were on worse paper. At home in the evenings it was the only thing people talked about: how the workers had sung the Internationale before the Gdansk committee, how they had been shot at in Gdynia, how those arrested had been tortured, how those killed had been buried on the quiet with the help of secret agents, how the Soviet warships were anchored off our city, and how on television the new Party secretary was promising the whole nation peace, prosperity and justice.
It was all running through my memory like a long forgotten black-and-white film from childhood. Now, as the crowd of sweaty people poured from the train onto the platform and headed in the hot August sun towards the shipyard gates, it was hard to imagine anyone wanting to shoot at this colourful motley of locals, tourists and holidaymakers, and certainly not in daylight in full view of the foreign journalists’ cameras. Apart from the obvious advantage of summer over winter there was another, much more profound difference. This time the workers had shut themselves inside the shipyard rather than coming out onto the streets, and it was the street that was coming to them, bringing food, money and information all the time. At the shipyard gates, alongside bouquets of flowers and a Polish flag someone had hung a portrait of the Pope. The communiqués read over a loudspeaker sounded like a litany: factories all over Poland were joining the strike literally by the hour. The plaster Lenin in the shipyard conference hall was having to watch patiently as the demand was formulated: yes, we want a pay rise, but more than that we want to have our own, completely independent trade unions.
 “So far it’s like a picnic,” I heard Fredek’s voice behind me, “but I wonder how it’ll end?”
 “If they’re going to crush them,” I said, turning to face him, and saw he had come on his bike, “they’ll only do it at night, when there’s no one here.”
 “Maybe so,” said Fredek, who didn’t look worried, “but first they’ll have to force the gates with a tank. Then fetch them out from every corner of the shipyard. With a bit of passive resistance that’ll take hours. But what if the lads set off a few acetylene cylinders? Or get on board a ship and cut the hawsers?” At last we had reached the fence right next to the gates and Fredek had parked his bike, leaning it against the wire netting. “Besides, there’s one more thing too,” he said, pointing at the portrait of the Pope. “We’ve got him, and that’s better than the troops!”
 “I’d rather rely on a few dozen striking factories. And the ones that are ready to join in.”
 “Well, it’s actually happening,” said Fredek; he took out a packet of Sport cigarettes and we lit up. “It’s a real revolution, can’t you see?”
 Like this we passed the quarter hours, smoking and chatting, that was all. More and more delegations were being let through the gates, greeted with applause. Communiqués, committee resolutions, poems and prayers came pouring from the loudspeaker non-stop. And the mood of the endless rally intensified when a worker wearing an armband appeared from inside the gates: hands black with printer’s ink, he threw leaflets into the rippling crowd. Not a single scrap of paper was left on the ground. Everyone wanted his own copy of the bulletin that the censor hadn’t vandalised in advance, if only as a souvenir.
 “Not a bad duplicator,” reckoned Fredek, “but they’re using too much ink, they haven’t got the experience yet.”
 “If only they’d read it out on the radio too,” I joked, “to the whole country, don’t you think?”
 “We haven’t got the radio yet,” said Fredek, having a serious thought. “But have you got a bike?”
 “No,” I replied, “but you must have heard what they said,” – I pointed at the loudspeaker. “At the committee’s request the railway workers aren’t going to stop the trains. So the city won’t be paralysed.”
 “That’s not what I meant,” said Fredek dismissively. “What do I care about the railway? I’m thinking of the bicycle express!”
 And that was how, from Fredek’s simple idea, my own August revolution began. Next day I called at the shop on Holy Ghost Street.
 “They’re selling like hot cakes,” said the salesman, smiling. “Or rather we’re sold out already – there’s just that one left.” He pointed to a dark corner of the shop. “Rather a clunky import from Big Brother, and I haven’t got any spare inner tubes for it.”
 Minutes later I was riding from Holy Ghost Street into Tkacka Street on a heavy but sturdy Ukraina bike, resistant to frost, cobblestones, rain, sun, sand and puddles. It had a very solid basket, a set of keys in a small box under the saddle, a dynamo and lights. Only the bell didn’t work, as if something inside its simple mechanism was welded together, but it didn’t matter. I rode slowly past the Arsenal building, the theatre, the market hall and the Academy of Sciences library, aware that the seat was a bit hard and would give me trouble unless I covered it with an old beret or a towel in the traditional way.
 “Good heavens!” groaned Fredek when we met that evening on the corner of Łagiewniki Street. “It’s an armoured train instead of the cavalry! A propos, did you listen to Radio Free Europe yesterday? The Russkies are making noises about manoeuvres, saying they’re hurrying them up and things like that. Do you think they’ll invade?”

Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones