Cold Sea Stories
Comma Press, Paperback
218 pages, £7.99, 978-1905583393
In an interview with Antonia Lloyd-Jones, who has translated Cold Sea Stories into English, author Pawel Huelle explains that many of the short stories in this collection are semi-autobiographical. This becomes immediately apparent upon reading them, with several stories containing intricate details that could only have been constructed from the author’s own memories. From Romantic descriptions of the Baltic Sea, to humorous observations about the difficulty of buying fish in post-war Poland (despite a newly acquired coastline), Cold Sea Stories mesmerises the reader throughout with its precise construction of the particulars of memory.
Memory plays a key part in Cold Sea Stories. The stories seamlessly shift between the past and the present, with the disorientating effects of reminiscence becoming a shared experience between the reader and the various protagonists. For example, in ‘Franz Carl Weber’ the narrative shifts from the past tense – ‘he waited’ – to the present tense – ‘his father is very pleased’ – despite the fact that the father figure whom Huelle writes about has been dead for years. The shift is so subtle that it is hardly noticeable, yet the underlying temporal change unsettles the reader. Huelle’s blurring of time-frames even affords some of the tales in Cold Sea Stories a hallucinatory air. There is the mystical tent in ‘Dr Cheng’, whose inner flaps lift to reveal a perfectly constructed and tangible past, while the enigmatic Wise Man in ‘Öland’, who predates Christian times, appears in his youthful form by day and his ancient, haggard form by night.
Memory goes far beyond the realm of mere daydreams in Cold Sea Stories. In ‘Ukiel’, it is the only means for ensuring the continuation of one’s existence: the protagonist argues that, if nobody remembers you, then you can no longer be said to exist – ‘with no one left to remember her, she would finally sink into a black hole, non-existence, the abyss, like whirling specks of cosmic dust.’ In ‘Abulafia’ the protagonist’s Kashubian mother passes away without conferring ‘her greatest secret… her language’ onto her son. Neither is she written about in the family chronicles, with Huelle seemingly suggesting that if language is not passed down, the past that it is tied to is forgotten. Perhaps this is why the blind Lucjan in ‘The Bicycle Express’ is obsessed with collecting a host of texts in their original language, and why it is so vital in ‘Öland’ for the enslaved Bjorn (née Francesco) to connect with the language of his past, before he can free himself from his present.
Because of his native Poland’s diverse history of occupation, Huelle is also very concerned with origins. Take ‘Mimesis’, in which one of the main characters explores a shipwreck containing ‘an hour-glass with Greek lettering, a Swedish sextant, a Russian jeweller’s scale’. Each inanimate object carries its own history, its own national identity, giving it a distinct personality. However, Huelle’s preoccupation with identity is not limited to nationhood: there is a tension between the rural and the urban in several of his stories, the former standing for tradition and often mysticism, the latter representing modernisation and the scientific. Yet these differences are not always portrayed in highly politicised terms: in ‘Depka and Rzepka’, for example, this disparity is addressed from a comedic stance. The protagonist asks a pair of coastal fishermen whether a mysterious ball of light on the horizon is ‘some strange atmospheric phenomenon’. Depka and Rzepka respond with a look of pity: ‘Could a townie ever understand anything?’
While cultural pride is a source of amusement in this piece (‘this particular demon couldn’t possibly have come from a decent Kashubian family of devils – home-grown and controllable’), Cold Sea Stories also depicts its perils. ‘Mimesis’ tells the tale of a group of Mennonites who are rounded up and taken away by the authorities, who object to their alternative way of life. One of the sole remaining Mennonites is haunted by her memories of the past. Indeed, the imagery of the untouched Mennonite village years after the authorities have taken away its residents carries a troubling air of menace: ‘If only a single shattered windowpane, a toppled fence or an open and partly pillaged chest of drawers could verify the facts’.
This juxtaposition between political fact and personal tragedy is explored by Huelle throughout Cold Sea Stories. In ‘The Flight into Egypt’, Huelle compares Chechen refugees to the Jews in Exodus, even as he conveys an understanding of the perils of making such generic comparisons. He describes how ‘all the newspapers printed a portrait of the [refugee] woman in the headscarf on their front pages’, and examines what happens when an individual’s sorrows are distributed to the masses, by contrasting the protagonist’s assumptions about the refugee woman after reading the paper with his impressions upon actually meeting her. Similarly, Huelle makes a point of describing ‘the foreign journalists’ cameras’ in ‘The Bicycle Express’, and goes on to draw a distinction between what the papers say and what it is to actually experience socio-political change first-hand.
Ultimately, it is Huelle’s ability to compassionately transform historical events into deeply personal literary accounts that makes Cold Sea Stories such a pleasurable read. The fluidity of memory in these tales is mirrored by fluidity in time, with Huelle’s frequent oscillations between the past and the present making for a hallucinatory and disorientating experience. Huelle’s experimentation with time becomes more confident as the book progresses, with the collection’s final tale linking back to the first, mimicking history’s inevitable repetitions.