Translator’s Note: Polish author Paweł Huelle was inspired to write his novel Castorp when he found a line in Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain mentioning that the hero, Hans Castorp, had spent four semesters at the Danzig Polytechnic. This fact does not feature again in Mann’s great novel, but as a native of what was once Danzig, now Gdańsk, and as a writer who has set almost all his fiction in that city, Huelle decided to fill in the gaps. The result is a prequel to The Magic Mountain, with many subtle as well as obvious references to Mann’s novel, and is clearly a tribute to the German author, echoing his writing style and ironic tone. The Magic Mountain has special significance for Polish readers, to whom for historical reasons the competing ideologies discussed by characters such as the secular humanist Settembrini and the Jesuit radicalist Naphtha have direct relevance. In Castorp Huelle introduces forerunners to several of these characters, as well as a mysterious Slavic woman whose influence on the young Castorp pre-empts his infatuation for the Russian, Madame Chauchat. Huelle also echoes many of Mann’s leitmotifs, such as a debate on the philosophy of time, and the role of illness and death as, in Mann’s words, “a necessary passage to knowledge, health, and life.”
When I first heard that Huelle was writing a novel in Mann’s style, I was not alone in wondering if an attempt to reproduce the tone and ideas of such a famous author was an overambitious or even risky thing for any writer to do. But I should not have had any doubts, as I was already familiar with Huelle’s previous novel, Mercedes-Benz, written in the style of Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal. It takes the form of a long letter addressed directly to Hrabal, and adopts his characteristically breathless narrative flow, achieved through unbroken sentences that run for pages at a time. It is a very successful compliment to Hrabal, gracefully employing his narrative technique without any sense of artificiality, while at the same time being a unique, individual work that only Huelle could have written.
Castorp is equally successful as a work of homage to Thomas Mann and as a superb, inimitable novel by Huelle. In both cases, Huelle’s books can be read perfectly well with no prior knowledge of either Mann’s or Hrabal’s work; they stand alone despite their strong connections with the author’s mentors. I would like to think Mann and Hrabal would have enjoyed these genuine and masterful tributes that could be said to express a contemporary writer’s gratitude for their inspiring influence. Huelle’s latest novel, The Last Supper, soon to be published for the first time in Poland, is purely his own.
The story is set in Danzig in 1905, where Hans Castorp, the future hero of Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain, is a student of shipbuilding. Disturbed by insomnia and a loss of concentration, Castorp visits Doctor Ankewitz, a psychiatrist, and over brandy and cigars tells him about his experiences since first meeting a mysterious girl with whom he has become obsessed, including this one, from his Christmas holiday, spent in Danzig.
On the second of January Hans Castorp had gone for a walk along Grosse Allee, which looked like a set for the “Snow Queen,” then dropped in at the Café Hochschule, where in the almost empty room a sleepy atmosphere prevailed. A fresh copy of the Anzeiger carried a front-page report about a shipwreck in Putzig Bay. During a gale a boat had sunk with eighteen fishermen on board; fifteen of them had lost their lives. If not for the darkness and the dreadful cold, which had changed the water into lumps of ice without warning-literally from one minute to the next-perhaps, in spite of the large waves, more people might have been saved. So at least reckoned the author of the article, specifying that of the fifteen who had drowned seven were bachelors and eight were married; in all, twenty-two children had been orphaned.
Just as he was pondering the senseless rationale of the newspaper statistics, thanks to which the reader could work out that each of the married men who had the misfortune to drown had an average of two and three-quarters children, someone gave him a mighty slap on the back and roared overhead: “My dear boy, how capital to find you here!”
None other than Nicholas von Kotwitz had now sat down at his table, ordered two schnapps and sodas, and was talking fast and loud, occasionally bursting into laughter. What an awful time he had with his father during the holidays! How he had longed for more normal company than the old aunts, the district forester and the servants at the Schloss! How surprised and pleased he was to see Castorp, because to tell the truth, he hadn’t expected to meet any of the student fraternity here-it was too early, and they would only start coming back at the end of the week, he pontificated.
“So what is new with you, brother? Back from Hamburg so soon? Perhaps you are on bad terms with your old man too?” roared the Baron at the top of his voice, clapping Castorp on the shoulder.
He carefully let this question go unanswered. But in fact he was pleased to have this meeting, like someone who has spent the past fortnight crossing the desert, meets the first traveler to come his way, and is relieved to have someone to talk to. For the same reason, although he hated schnapps, he swallowed it without wincing and went on listening to von Kotwitz, who was bogged down in yet another quarrel with his father, “an old fool who will never learn reason.” Then they talked about the weather for a while, and finally von Kotwitz remembered that he had an important message for Castorp, to be precise, an invitation.
“You will see some things that are not meant for ordinary Lutherans or Catholics,” he sniggered. “And we shall have great fun.”
The “Omphalos” Society for Lovers of Ancient Culture, whose existence Hans Castorp barely registered, was holding its New Year session that evening. A few hours later they met outside the Central Station, from where they took a droshky. Indeed, a sleigh would have been more suited to the wintry atmosphere, but fortunately the main streets had already been cleared of snow and, though not without some difficulty, the vehicle drove toward Neugarten, where at Number Eighteen the headquarters of the “Crowned Lion” Masonic lodge was located. Out of it came the two Herr Haackes, Leopold and Ludwig, twins who were so alike that, once Nicholas had introduced them to him, Castorp could not help staring at one, then at the other, in the hope of finding some differences in their appearance. However, it was impossible, and so was gaining an answer to his innocently imprudent question-where exactly where they going? Luckily von Kotwitz headed off a misunderstanding.
“My friend is not trying to pry,” he explained to the Herr Haackes. “I simply haven’t had a chance to tell him that discretion is an essential condition for all our meetings.”
On Long Marketplace, at the stand beside Neptune’s Well, they changed droshky. Only then did Hans Castorp realize that Nicholas did not know the address they were going to either. Leaning out of the hooded cover now and then, one of the Haacke brothers gave the driver directions. They sped across the Green Bridge, hurried past the fortifications known as the Milk Churns, and after a short ride down Langgarten, before the former Mniszchów Palace, they turned left into the old harbor district. It was already dark. In deep snow the droshky went more and more slowly, passing silent granaries, bolted warehouses and timber yards, all but deserted at this time of year. After dismissing the cab they walked the last five hundred meters. Soon, when the carriage’s feeble lantern disappeared, there was nothing but the stars to light their way.
“You cannot begin to imagine what a surprise it was, Herr Doctor,” Hans Castorp continued, “to see a brightly lit house full of guests all of a sudden in that wasteland, as we emerged from an alley between some closed-down warehouses. How did all those people get there? Our own route was not at all well-trodden, and I could not see any vehicles outside the enormous door, which was guarded by two hefty footmen. Herr Haacke and Herr Haacke gave a password-I can remember it perfectly, it was *ŠñTauromachia’ and we went inside. I was highly amused-it looked like a theatre, a carnival masquerade, fortunately with no obligation to dress up, I mean, anyone who wanted to could change their clothes in a very well-stocked cloakroom.”
As Doctor Ankewitz, without actually uttering a word, did however ask a question by raising his eyebrows and staring hard at him, Castorp explained that one could dress up as a Roman legionary, a faun, a Gallic slave, a wood nymph, a philosopher, a Corinthian prostitute of either sex, a Greek merchant, an Adonis, a Syrian fisherman, a cithara player, or a specific hero, such as Hercules, Jason or Theseus. A young woman in the scanty attire of a serving boy placed a garland on his head, and that was where his transformation ended, though the same could not be said for Doctor Ankewitz’s curiosity. In fact, Castorp’s dry account, lacking in emotion, made his listener forget all about his notepad, congnac, and cigar as he occasionally squinted in astonishment and nervously drew a hand across his left, and then his right, cheek.
With a cold, almost analytical eye, Hans Castorp passed from room to room, observing scenes of foreplay, lovemaking, and unbridled debauchery, the general principle of which was to indulge quite openly, without the slightest shame or concealment. For this purpose sofas, couches, and chaises longes had been set out in all the rooms on both floors. The smell of burning herbs, the light of Chinese lanterns and music performed by several groups of male and female flautists created a completely different atmosphere from the one he remembered at the brothel he had once visited in Hamburg with his friends after leaving school. There the areas for titillation and for giving vent to one’s lust were kept strictly separate: in the common room, where one chose a prostitute for oneself, everything served to increase the excitement, as if it were an experience with the induction force of mutual evaluation, whereas the discharge of one’s accumulated juices, that short, spasmodic act, took place as it were shamefully and furtively in a cramped, eerily lit room that smelled of powder, cheap perfume and the sweat of one’s predecessors. Here on the other hand the arousal and the gratification played a far more dialectic role, because they were united for all to see, and Castorp, whose prudishness was at risk of substantial harm, only began to tremble when he became aware of this principle. For the real exhilaration came from spying on others, in the knowledge that at any moment one could cross the barrier to be observed oneself.
He saw Bacchants, ephebes, goats, nymphs, masters and slaves, gods and men-all mixed together as if heaven really had merged with the underworld; but nowhere did he encounter Nicholas von Kotwitz, who had vanished from sight at the very start as they were going through the cloakroom. Only when he went back down to the ground floor and stopped by a roaring fireplace, where a half-naked philosopher in a torn toga and a stuck-on beard was sprinkling white powder from a little golden box into the wine of all willing takers, and mixed it with a sprig of what looked like honeysuckle, did he realize that it was his friend. Castorp found this discovery so amusing that he could not stop himself from laughing out loud.
“What’s this?” he asked, taking a drink. “Are you only amusing yourself here in this innocent way? Am I really to believe it?”
Nicholas the Cynic, though one might just as well have taken him for Socrates, sprinkled another dose of opium into Castorp’s drink, took a hearty swig from his own goblet and then replied: “Everyone has his own pleasures -what about you? It’s capital, don’t you think?”
Castorp shrugged. As Nicholas was busy distributing the flesh of his powdered god, too many people kept coming up to him for Castorp to tell him any confidences, especially concerning the desires that were welling up beneath his mask of dispassionate observation. So Castorp went on circulating, watching from a distance as some legionaries played dice, then keeping an eye on a Roman matron who had a fellow dressed as a vestal virgin on her tail, until finally our exhausted onlooker sank onto a sofa, which two Grecian ephebes had just vacated.
“Am I to understand,” said Doctor Ankewitz in a rather hoarse voice, “that throughout the entire evening you did not take advantage of this libertine atmosphere? Did you take any more opium?”
“I do not know how to talk about it,” said Castorp, looking intently at the doctor. “However, you must adopt the hypothesis that I did not see a ghost or her doppelganger. It was her, the Russian girl from the Hotel Werminghoff. She passed so close by me that I caught the scent of her perfume-I have no doubt-a blend of musk and violets*Š”
He watched her slowly ascending the stairs; only then did he rise from the sofa and go after her. He might well have made a mistake if she had been wearing an ancient costume, but the mystery girl clearly did not care for that sort of masquerade, as she was in an ordinary, light blue day dress. He looked for her everywhere, wandering from one group to the next, and going close to the half-naked bodies, whether lying dormant or right in the middle of enjoying themselves. Meanwhile new crowds of guests were still arriving; it was getting hot and very noisy, but he could not find her anywhere-she had simply vanished into thin air. He was sure he could not have been mistaken-it was most definitely her. So he roamed anxiously from the upper to the lower floor and back again, peeped into the cloakroom and questioned von Kotwitz, but he just clapped him on the back and sprinkled more powder into his glass. Twice during his search Castorp had yielded to the general atmosphere of licentiousness: once, almost forcibly clasped in the athletic grip of a Hera, he had exchanged a long, deep kiss with her. Under a thick layer of powder on the goddess’s cheek he could feel stubble. The second time, squeezed in a crowd of passing guests, he stood hugging a lovely young person more and more tightly-a small, lithe girl dressed as a herald. But he did not encounter the stranger again.
As he left at dawn, in a hat that was not his and without his lost gloves, his mind was a dreadful blank. Not knowing the way, he wandered about the warehouses in deep snow, blissfully inhaling the sharp, frosty air. Suddenly he noticed that he was no longer on solid ground. He was marching along the frozen port canal, which led him to the Mottlau. And there, right in the middle of the ice-bound river, with the brick city walls on one side and the granaries and warehouses on the other, he saw the rising sphere of the sun. Narrowing his eyes, he watched in deathly silence as the sphere split into three, and not just one, but three identical suns were lighting the great white plain he was walking on. It barely lasted a moment before some gray clouds closed in, heavy as lead, and thick snow began to fall. Never before, not even at his mother’s, or his father’s funeral, had he felt so unhappy. With the frozen hulls of barges and tugboats rising from them, the gloomy wharfs looked like hills in the desert now; beyond them stretched a total void. Nowhere, not even between the crowded pinnacles of the church towers, could he see the thinnest strand of the light he had anticipated. The only thing he really wanted to do was to lie down in the middle of the frozen river and fall asleep forever. Without knowing how, he managed to reach a wharf near the Green Gate, from where, with almost superhuman effort, he found his way to the tram.
From Castorp, published 2006 by Znak. Translation copyright 2007 by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. By arrangement with Serpents Tail, who will publish Antonia Lloyd-Jones’s translation in 2007. All rights reserved.