Death in Danzig
The original Polish title, Hanemann, is also the name of the main character of this complex, literary novel. Although there is a death – that of his lover in a ferry accident – the English title is deceiving. Hanemann is the very heart of the story: a German who remains in Poland after it is reclaimed by the Soviets, a man who represents the transformation of Danzig (Germany) to Gdansk (Poland), a passive spectator of life, domestic and dramatic, through those confused, tortured times around WWII.
Difficult to get into, the story opens up when the reader ceases to struggle to make sense of it and abandons himself to the various settings, voices, time frames that each new chapter brings. Eventually, a pattern emerges and sticks to you long after the reading is done. The numerous listings of things, people, streets, somehow manage to give substance to everyday domestic life as well as the political and violent background it is set in. The writing is very slow, precise and sensual. Fabrics, odors, sights, and textures contribute to make the reader feel the setting, even to the point of transforming them into characters: “White tureens, shaped like swans and pelicans, tender silver sugar bowls fashioned like wild ducks with turquoise eyes, and dainty little boats for pear preserves were frightened by their own fanciful, impractical forms; they envied the ordinary flatness of baking trays, so easily slid under floors or stashed among the rafters of barns and abandoned mills.” The numerous characters, especially the maid with a mysterious past and the abandoned savage boy making a living as a street performer, are all strikingly vivid. The story, which is not told in a linear way, emerges through their eyes and their actions, whether a simple task like a meal or leaving town with one’s meager belongings as a refugee fleeing the Russians. Death is subtly present in Danzig/Gdansk. Chwin is considered one of Poland’s principal writers and has been awarded numerous awards. All are well deserved.