Until the slave-labor deportations of World War II and the subsequent forced removals from Soviet-annexed territories to those formerly held by Germany, the Poles remained, unlike the Jews and the Gypsies, a more or less fixed people. It was their country that wandered. For centuries, Russia, Prussia and Austria had each defined Poland as the part that wasn't theirs; and the definition of what wasn't theirs was fought out westward and eastward, sometimes leaving a movable Polish bit, sometimes not.
A country that wanders is the theme that variously and beautifully takes shape in this collection of short stories by Pawel Huelle. Note the writer's name: the Slavic Pawel and the German Huelle. Note his birthplace and the scene of the brief fictions that are both a personal and a national biography: Gdansk, once Danzig.
The Baltic port, founded by Slavs, settled by German merchants in the 13th Century and taken by the Teutonic Knights, was then for centuries a free city under the Polish kings, then a Prussian capital, then alternately free and Prussian and free again, then annexed by Hitler, then and since, entirely Polish. Except, of course, in its cemeteries, its ghosts and the stories in Huelle's perfectly entitled "Moving House."
They are poems of displacement: poignant and once or twice verging on the sentimental, but held otherwise from the verge by a corrective irony and the author's finely rigorous pursuit of memory. What was the quality of his childhood, and how was its sense of reality shaped, colored, bent into fantastic patterns and prosaically straightened by his parents' and grandparents' movements through a movable world?
Our elders' gait teaches us what walking is, but when the earth is moving beneath their feet the lessons are strange. As, in one story, the discovery of a one-man bicycle-pedal submarine in the shed of a house where the narrator's physicist grandfather took refuge in his final madness. It is a silvery image of escape for a Danziger of German descent, whose world was first shattered by the Nazis and then obliterated by the Polish Communists.
The stories are bisected by shifting frontiers of time and place, and of nationality, culture and politics. The narrator lives in a post-Communist era, grew up in a loose and cracking Communist era and remembers his parents living under communism at its harshest. His grandparents lived under the oddly free alliance of Austro-Hungarian imperialism and Polish nationalism and, later, the harsh Nazi irredentism that took over Danzig at the end of the 1930s, followed by German troops.
In one story, the frontier runs right through the dining-room table. It is a fine oak piece, traded to the Huelle family in exchange for a pair of used Russian boots when Mr. Polaske, the owner, found himself among the hundreds of thousands of ethnic Germans forcibly deported to Germany after the war to make room for Poles coming from the Russian-seized lands in the east.
"It's a German table," protests the narrator's mother, a daughter of the former Polish gentry. "When I think that a Gestapo man used to sit at it and eat his eels after work, it makes me sick." The father, whose family is of German descent and whose profession as a marine engineer spared him from deportation, points out that Polaske, far from being Gestapo, was a Social Democrat arrested by the Gestapo for refusing to put out a Nazi flag.
Eventually the table disintegrates; thanks to Communist central planning, the only ones available in the stores are triangular. Mr. Huelle finds a private carpenter out in the country. They drink companionably, slaughter a hog and sing Polish patriotic songs. A different kind of wandering frontier is evoked: between regimes, between past and present. And as they drink, still other displacements come into view. The carpenter talks about the Mennonites who once lived in the region; from the nearby river comes the singing of Ukrainians who have moved in from the east.
The title story touches on the same themes in a more lyrical fashion. The Huelle family shares quarters, for a while, with an old German woman who occupies one large room in what used to be her mansion. At night they hear her playing her piano. The mother complains about the German music; the boy sneaks down to listen. The old woman invites him in, gives him cake and plays Wagner for hours, showing him photographs of her husband, a composer, and their musical friends. His mother rejoices when they move to a new apartment; the old German woman and her music are left on the other side of a frontier.
Another kind of frontier--a moral one--is set out in the story of the narrator's father. He refuses to approve the crankshaft design of a Soviet warship being rushed to completion in the Gdansk shipyards. Party officials fire him; he works, with great dignity and pain, as a sweeper at the local railroad station until the party decides he is causing a deliberate provocation. Jobless, he hunts snails for a friend who exports them to the French market.
Huelle tells this story--which ends in the father's ironic reinstatement when the crankshaft fails--through the magical eyes of childhood. It is the snails that count in the boy's imagination, nourished simultaneously by religious instruction from the local priest and his grandmother's tales of classic mythology. He imagines Christ coming to help Sisyphus get his rock to the top of the mountain. When father and son discover great swarms of snails in the cemetery the boy sees them as creatures from the underworld; on the last day of snail season, he has a vision of millions of snails struggling up a boulder, Sisyphus-like, and falling back halfway.
Huelle has sympathy for the different cultures that grew up together and were set to warring when the frontiers moved beneath them. In a partly supernatural allegory, the narrator goes on a skiing trip with his Uncle Henryk, an unbending old officer of the anti-Communist People's Army that led the uprising in Warsaw toward the end of the war and was massacred by the Germans while the Soviet Army stood by.
The two are lost in a blizzard and come to a mysterious village called Fair Field. They are welcomed. Formerly, it is explained, any village dispute ended in bloodshed. Now it is settled by a cockfight for which a stranger is required to be the judge. Henryk turns pale; not because of the bloody clawing and pecking but because for the first time in his life he must be a mediator and not a partisan. When both cocks die, he declares a tie and promptly faints.
The heroes of Huelle's family stories are endearing irreconcilables. Their intransigence is part of their particularity; their particularity makes them memorable. Extremes of intransigence and particularity have for centuries set a country to dislocating itself beneath the feet of those who lived there. Mediation has the blank terror of the unknown and featureless and generic and perhaps--short of an alternative and continuing destruction--the inevitable.