(Reviewed by Guy Savage DEC 19, 2008)
“But have you ever wondered where all the present-day wealth of nations comes from? Britain! Holland! France! How grand it all sounds. And that enormous country of yours! Have you ever thought how many of those countless goods come from the honest hard labour of a farmer, a craftsman, a worker, or a tradesman? Do you have nothing to say? Well then, my dear fellow. When you finish at your school, take up employment in a colonial company. Then go there, and see hell. But it is not we who sit in the cauldrons, oh no–we play the role of the devils. We rule over millions of slaves with the whip, the rifle, with hunger, opium and liquor, and then with fear or the rosary.”
Author and journalist Barbara Grizzuti Harrison once said, “There are no original ideas. There are only original people.” And perhaps this explains the plethora of knock-off books we see today in today’s publishing market. By the term “knock-off,” I mean books that spring from someone else’s ideas. Take Jane Austen for example. Her novels and characters seem to create a feeding frenzy for knock-off books. These days it’s easy to find novels written by other authors who explore such themes as what Mr. Darcy did before he appeared in Pride and Prejudice , and what the servants in the typical fictional Austen household are up to below stairs. I tend to look at these novels with suspicion. After all can it be coincidence that most knock-off authors take their inspiration from authors much better known than them and with a loyal, usually huge fan following? But there again I have been accused or being a Jane Austen snob. I prefer the term purist.
That rant aside, are there times when a book can legitimately take another great work of fiction as its inspiration? Well, the answer is yes. The Jean Rhys novel Wide Sargasso Sea is a prequel that fuses an early history on to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, and it works phenomenally well, adding information about the past of the loony Mrs. Rochester, who, in Jane Eyre is conveniently locked up in the attic while Mr. Rochester works on the moral obstacles Jane has created in refusing to become his mistress. Literary critics have historically assigned significant, symbolic meaning to the imprisonment of Rochester’s wife, and questions are raised concerning Mrs. Rochester’s mental state. Was she really mad or did Rochester create her madness by locking her up because he couldn’t stand her? You can’t read Jane Eyre without coming away with questions about that loony woman in the attic. Wide Sargasso Sea answers those questions.
And this brings me to Castorp, by Polish author Pawel Huelle. In this novel, the author creates a prequel to Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain . Huelle introduces his protagonist Hans Castorp in the years before The Magic Mountain. In Mann’s elusive, symbolic novel, its protagonist Castorp is about to begin a shipbuilding career in Hamburg when he’s sidetracked by a visit to a sanatorium in the Swiss Alps. Castorp, as a prequel focuses on the years of Castorp’s studies in Gdansk.
This Bildungsroman introduces the protagonist, Castorp, as a young man eager to begin his studies in “the East” at Gdansk—much against the advice of his uncle—a man who tends to think that nothing good can come of Castorp leaving Hamburg. As it turns out, unpleasant experiences do await the young Castorp. On the journey by ship, Castorp has three traveling companions: the sanctimonious Pastor Gropius, the snobby, pretentious, bourgeois Madame de Venancourt on a quest for a "stolen" inheritance, and Kierkiernix. Kierkiernix, a Dutchman, is the representative for a Belgian timber company, and he spends almost the entire voyage drunk. His drunkenness is pierced only with moments of lucidity during which he embarks on tirades against colonialism. While Pastor Gropius and Madame de Venancourt significantly and symbolically form a binding relationship, Castorp ultimately forms a quasi-comradeship with Kierkiernix.
Similar to Mann’s The Magic Mountain, the theme of time and space appears prominently in Castorp. Castorp, rather romantically decides to travel to Gdansk via ship and within a short time after embarking on his journey, he notes “there was a sort of unsettling constancy in all this motion, a kind of immobility brought about by the extreme effort at change.” Although the ship seems to divide the sea in its path, in the distance, it is as if the ship never passed, for the sea has returned to its former state. Castorp thoughtfully concludes that humans’ lives are similar as “we disappear without trace, never to return.” These philosophical moments are experienced by Castorp throughout the novel and seem to envelope him most particularly when he is still. These moments also give birth to intense memories, and so this theme—the connection of time and space—found in The Magic Mountain is also found in Castorp.
Just as Castorp comes under the influence of psychology in Mann’s novel, similarly, the young protagonist is drawn to the advice of a doctor when he is troubled. He has great occasion to be troubled, for he develops an intense infatuation for a young woman he sees in Zoppot. While Castorp is unaware of the larger political systems at work in the novel, the text makes it quite clear that surface events are merely the precursors for the imminent destruction facing Europe.
Castorp meshes excellently with Mann’s novel, exploring similar themes and yet also showing a world fermenting great political troubles but not quite yet spiraling out of control as it rushes headlong into the twentieth century. The novel’s last page foretells the imminent disasters: World War I, the rise of the Nazis, the invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany, and the seizure of the city by the Red Army. The author implies that while Castorp, an “eternal, naïve idealist” was spared seeing the fate of the destruction of the city of Gdansk and the mass slaughters that took place there, somehow the idea of Castorp remains in the memories of how the city used to be before death and destruction descended upon the world. Author Pawel Huelle captures the spirit of both the Mann novel and its young protagonist in this beautiful homage to The Magic Mountain, and fans of Mann should be delighted to read of Castorp once more. (Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones.)
- Amazon readers rating: from 1 reviews
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Who Was David Weiser? (1987; 1991 in US)
- Moving House: Stories (1994)
- Mercedes-Benz (2001; 2005 in US)
- Castorp (2002; September 2008 in US)
- The Last Supper (2007; November 2008 in US)
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- Wikipedia page for Pawel Huelle
- Culture on Pawel Huelle
- Polish Writing page on Pawel Huelle
- Independent interview with Pawel Huelle
- Excerpt from Mercedes-Benz
- Complete Review on Mercedes-Benz
- Independent review for Castorp
- Guardian review of Castorp
- Listener review of Castorp
- Guardian review of The Last Supper
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About the Author:
Pawel Huelle was born in 1957 in Gdansk, Poland.
He is a novelist, playwright and journalist. He studied philogy at Gdansk University and became a journalist. He has also taught literature, philosophy, and history. He was director of the Polish Television in his home town from 1994 to 1999. His literary debut came in 1987.
His novel Castorp has been longlisted for the 2008 IMPAC award and shortlisted for the independent foreign fiction prize 2008.
Huelle has lived most of his life in Gdansk.