Estimates seem to vary between 600 and 800,000 but we can all agree that a great many Polish people have come to live in Britain in recent years. Combined with the long-standing and deep-rooted Polish communities already here, maybe up to a million Poles are living in Britain but what do we know about them apart from the fact that they are filling the Catholic churches to bursting and persuading shops in far-flung rural parts of Britain to advertise in their windows that they stock Polish specialities? Where is the Polish equivalent of Brick Lane, a book that will give us an insight into the thoughts and feelings of this substantial migrant community? Perhaps it is being written even now. We may not be sure what we think of them but what do they think of us?
Meanwhile, to try to understand Polish culture, we have the usual very limited supply of translated fiction (poetry in the past has always seemed to do rather better). The most recent example is Pawel Huelle’s Castorp and if it is all as good as this let us have more. This is Huelle’s second novel and his first, Mercedes-Benz was shortlisted for the Independent foreign fiction award last year. Born in 1957 he has been a lecturer in philosophy, head of a TV station, and press officer for Lech Walesa’s Solidarity trade union in Gdansk where he lives and where the novel is set.
The new novel takes as its starting point a glancing reference in Thomas Mann’s 1924 novel Der Zauberberg (The Magic Mountain) to the character Castorp’s having spent a few semesters at Danzig polytechnic learning shipbuilding. Out of this conceit Huelle weaves an amusing, inventive, often very funny tale imagining Castorp’s student days as a rather priggish German from Hamburg here at the edge of the Prussian empire at Danzig/Gdansk. His explorations of the atmospherically conjured up Baltic city and the neighbouring health resort of Zoppot, his odd relationship with his landlady, his oblique attitude to his fellow students, and his pursuit of the beautiful and enigmatic young Polish woman, Wanda Pilecka are intriguingly related by Huelle. Quite apart from its implicit commentary on Mann’s book this is a lightly-serious, witty and amusing read and I would highly recommend it. It is translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones and published by Serpent’s Tail at £8.99.