Cold Sea Stories is the latest fictional work from veteran Polish writer Paweł Huelle, and was translated into English from the original Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. As its title suggests, the book is a collection of thematically linked short stories set in the Baltic region: the “cold sea” of the title. Huelle draws upon historical events and mythology, as well as autobiographical details from his own life, to provide backdrops to stories which are ultimately concerned with the personal experiences of their characters.
Huelle explains that his stories are a “synthesis” of his life spent in the Baltic region and incorporate several of his interests, particularly books and their importance to mankind. Indeed, most of the stories feature intertextual references, including several references to the Bible; such allusions are generally of great significance to both narratives and characters.
The collection begins in the latter part of the Second World War with “Mimesis”, a story set in a near-abandoned village. This tale is the most substantial in the collection in terms of length and provides a strong example of the author’s incorporation of historical events into his narratives. The village was once populated by a group a Dutch Mennonites who settled in Poland to escape persecution. Tragically, their society was devastated first by the occupying Nazis and then later by the Communists when Poland was under the influence of the Soviet Union. Mimesis follows a handful of survivors who struggle to exist among the ghosts of this shattered community.
The next story in the collection, “The Bicycle Express”, jumps forward forty years or so to observe the plight of those who participated in the general strike that took place in Poland in 1980. The autobiographical aspects of the collection are particularly evident in this story. Huelle began his writing career not as an author of fiction but in the press office for the Polish self-governing trade union movement Solidarity (Solidarność). Using a first person account from the perspective of an unnamed lead character, Huelle relates his experiences as a member of the movement, riding around on a Ukrainian bicycle delivering anti-communist leaflets. As with “Mimesis”, Huelle’s intention in “The Bicycle Express” is to convey the everday experiences of those who struggled through the ordeals imposed on them by an authoritarian regime.
Alongside this foray into his own past, Huelle also transports the reader into more mystical territory. Öland follows a shepherd named Bjorn who one day is approached by a mysterious traveller whom, according to a mysterious book written centuries ago, he appears to have been destined to meet. Doctor Cheng features a man’s search for the ghost of his deceased wife, a search that leads to an encounter with a Chinese fortune-telling book. Huelle juxtaposes this personal journey with the events of 11 September 2001; he compares 9/11 to a “caesura”, a moment that divides this particular era of history just as the death of the hero’s wife is a dividing moment in the character’s own life.
Although initially the stories in this volume may feel like stand-alone tales, it becomes apparent that Huelle’s intention was to create a body of work that is collectively epic in scope. The characters and events are all episodes in an overarching story about the trials faced by the people who have inhabited the Baltic region at various points throughout its often-troubled history. Although all of this may sound daunting to readers who are unfamiliar with the region or its history, Huelle’s style of writing is extremely accessible. This is primarily due to his focus on the human experiences of the events that the stories recall. Huelle’s ability to adopt different narrative voices is successful in transporting the reader into the lives and the minds of his characters, and provides a rich and rewarding reading experience.