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    Modern Polish Literature Through a Postcolonial Lens

Dariusz Skórczewski

Castorp by Pawel Huelle, Poland’s most accomplished contemporary writer (1), has frequently been interpreted as a counterpart to Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. A reader of Mann’s novel may remember that before his arrival at Davos, Hans Castorp spent four terms as a student at the Danzig Polytechnic. It is around this digression that Huelle builds his plot, inserting into the biography of Mann’s protagonist an extensive Gdansk-based episode. Both Polish and German critics have praised Huelle for his skilful exploitation of literary tradition and for revitalizing the myth of Gdansk with its distinctive atmosphere and surroundings. They have focused on recognizing Mann’s motifs such as time, narrator, and philosophy as vital elements of Huelle’s story. Let me suggest an excursion in a different direction by answering the following question: Why did Pawel Huelle write Castorp? This question can also be reversed as follows: Why would it have been impossible for Thomas Mann to write Castorp? I treat the second question as tautological with regard to the first. However, I am not interested in exploring psychological or biographical aspects of either novel.

The situation of Huelle’s Castorp
reminds one of Jean Rhys and her celebrated Wide Sargasso Sea. In that novel the canonical narrative of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre is challenged through the switching of perspectives. By giving voice to Antoinette Cosway, the actual name of the animal-like and repulsive Bertha Rochester in Bronte’s work, Rhys invites her audience to a contrapuntal rereading of Bertha’s traumatic life story as told from her own non-British perspective. This is how Rhys “writes back” to Bronte and to the colonial discourse encapsulated in Jane Eyre. In Wide Sargasso Sea we see the polemic response by the former British colony to the dominating image of the periphery as solidified in the master narratives of the metropolitan center.

I argue that Pawel Huelle’s novel should be viewed from a similar position. The Gdansk-based episode of Castorp attracts readers’ attention by the unique postcolonial perspective from which the novel personae and events are narrated. When interpreted alongside the standard colonial narrative which Mann’s Magic Mountain represents, Castorp transgresses the colonial paradigm in three major aspects: space arrangement, language, and identity.

Concerning specific qualities of the space usurped by the empire, Frantz Fanon writes the following:

The zone where the natives live is not complementary to the zone inhabited by the settlers. The two zones are opposed, but not in the service of a higher unity. Obedient to the rule of Aristotelian logic, they both follow the principle of reciprocal exclusivity. No conciliation is possible, for of the two terms, one is superfluous. The town belonging to the colonized people, or at least the native town. . . is a place of ill fame, peopled by men of evil repute. . . .The colonized man is an envious man. And this the settler knows very well; when their glances meet he ascertains bitterly, always on the defensive, “They want to take our place.”(2)

Gdansk in Castorp is, in fact, more than just a provincial melting pot bearing some marks of a splendid Hanseatic past. Viewed through the protagonist’s eyes, the town seems to comply perfectly with the criteria of literary representation of colonized space defined by Fanon. Dominated by the Germans, it has Prussian barracks with Prussian soldiers and a newly established German university with German and Prussian students. Every street and building is filled with things German. However, the town constitutes a space that is heterogeneous, with an array of impervious zones. Viewed by Castorp the biker, the indigenous Polish and Kashubian people constitute an enclave driven to the margin of the world and its spatial representation. They occupy limited areas and do not mix with the dominating population of Germans:

Both Kashubians and Poles alike, none of whom he was able to discern by language, were for him as grey dust: covered long ago with pavement, only at times to unveil its existence in assigned areas.(3)

Hans Castorp does not confine himself to the exploration of the town, however. He draws strong aesthetic impulses from his frequent outings to the woods and countryside, where he finds delight in contemplating alien (i.e., Polish) landscapes. In the relevant descriptions specific tropes and figures are drawn from Polish literary discourse that are familiar to Polish audiences, such as the weeping willows, storks in the meadow, and birch groves. However, these specifically Polish elements are configured in a way that breaks with their two standard functions: emotional and identifying. Castorp admires foreign landscapes from a perspective approaching that defined by Edward Said as “Oriental.” The subject’s attitude toward the observed objects reflects his fascination, which can be described as that of a conqueror who through an epistemological act appropriates the exotic and stimulating territory. The space of Gdansk and vicinity penetrated by Castorp and his peers appears to exist only to bring excitement to the young generation of conquerors as they traverse its vast and uncivilized tracts. Franz Schubert’s song “Das Wandern” sung by Castorp during one of his excursions seals this act of appropriation. This piece by a German composer becomes the most appropriate textual instrument to reflect the emotions aroused by his encounter with typically Polish landscapes. The reader receives a clear message that while nature is the domain of periphery, culture belongs to metropolis.

The importance of spatial arrangement for the postcolonial overtones in Huelle’s novel is already demonstrated in the novel’s exposition. The opening interaction between Hans Castorp and his uncle reveals the latter’s views on the East, which are so characteristic of imperial discourse. As a matter of fact, by so doing Huelle revives Mann’s perspective in The Magic Mountain that presented the classically Orientalist image of the East in the enigmatic Claudia Chauchat. In Castorp, the East is a formidable territory where unpredictable events may occur, a realm in which “forms which have been worked out with much difficulty may plunge into chaos” (8). By warning his nephew, Uncle Tiennaple duplicates the standard representations of the East’s lurking temptations and dangers that await an unwitting newcomer. These representations proliferate in a great many imperial literatures: “Please, consider how easy it is to deviate from a once-taken road. An insignificant word, an instant of weakness, a moment of oblivion may all ruin the efforts of many years. In the East these things simply happen more often, although one cannot rationally prove it” (10).

Interestingly enough, the prophecy encapsulated in this warning is fulfilled in the novel. Castorp eventually does succumb to the East in a way that imitates the widely exploited literary representation of the Orient. In his dream the East is embodied in a tempting woman with a sensual scent of musk and “delicately protruding cheekbones that, together with the peculiar, slightly whimsical expression of her mouth, set an exotic allure of her face, an ambiguous and attracting strangeness” (95, my italics).

We are frequently reminded by the novel’s characters that the era of colonization left its mark on the novel’s setting. Pastor Gropius, “having spent twenty years in the midst of the blackest tribes of Bantustan” (14), is offered a parish near Gdansk that is in close proximity to the metropolitan center. Another character, Kiekernix the Dutch merchant who reaps profits from trading with overseas colonies, informs his copassengers about the peripheral status of Gdansk, a “provincial shithole with no theatre up to a certain measure” (15). The dialogue of these two characters is quite revealing. The pastor gives a speech in defence of German imperialism where he equates this imperialism with the “civilising mission,” the universal argument of every spokesperson for the colonial enterprise. The rhetoric of la mission civilisatrice reproduces figures of speech widely employed by British or French writers and politicians of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: “We came late to Asia and Africa, that’s true. But how about Eastern Europe? For centuries we have been carrying the law, order, harmony of art and technique. Without us the Slavs would long ago have fallen into anarchy. It is thanks to our benevolence that they find their place in the family named civilization and culture” (23).

Kiekernix offers an immediate riposte that seems to imitate some arguments by the more aggressive postcolonial critics. I quote it in extenso as it lays out the direction in which Pawel Huelle develops his narrative: “Ladies and gents, please imagine that one day an armada of foreign, Indian, or Chinese vessels calls at Amsterdam. . . . They force us to worship their God, they kill our king, rape our women, and drive our men to coalmines or plantations. Syphilis, smallpox, quinsy, cheap vodka, and opium do the rest. Then their preacher tells us to thank them for their care through which we found ourselves in the family of civilization and culture. . . . That’s exactly how Indians, Asians, and blacks feel today” (23).

And we may add: so do Kashubians and Poles. In this remarkable passage, the postcolonial problematic is powerfully brought into the very core of the novel. Kiekernix’s voice fixes the plot of Castorp in the sociopolitical reality of the early twentieth century according to the established patterns of literary representation in British, French, or German writings of the time. Such patterns were thoroughly examined in Said’s Orientalism. This is where Huelle’s respect for the principles of spatial organization in colonial discourse ends. From this point on in Castorp we encounter examples of the transgression of those Orientalizing clichés. For the title hero the Prussian presence in Gdansk is an unpleasant burden. Castorp’s attempt at crossing the boundary of urban space during his outing ends with only a qualified success because of his accidental and undesired encounter with his German peers. Further, Castorp’s position as an outsider is by no means a satisfying explanation of the mode in which the Germans are introduced in the particularly shaped scenery. Clearly playing the role of an “understanding link” between the two separated zones, the protagonist distances himself from his compatriots, especially those who represent the chauvinist Prussian mentality. This distance is powerfully manifested through the arrangement of the novel’s scenery.

In Huelle’s novel Castorp strolls along the streets of Gdansk and Sopot performing typical acts of perception. Despite his young age and a certain philosophical immaturity (he has not met Naphta, who will inspire him to seek answers to most vital questions), he is richer than his Mann-invented predecessor because he experiences an encounter with the culture of an oppressed nation. From this perspective, the novel can be briefly summarized as a process of Castorp’s maturing through his discovery of his own identity as a member of a nation that exercises authority over the population of Poles and Kashubians, both of whom are viewed as inferior. This thread is very subtly interwoven with Huelle’s plot.

Part of this cognitive process refers to the novel’s space. Although certain areas such as hotels and ships are marked by German names, most places bear Polish names. Instead of “Soppot” or “Danzig” we have Sopot and Gdansk. In a similar vein “ulica Kasztanowa” (Chestnut Street) is not replaced with “Kastanienstrasse.” For a newcomer from a metropolitan center, this space continually demonstrates its inherent strangeness, mysteriousness, and impenetrability. The space extends itself onto other areas of the nonexistent Poland. As Castorp becomes directly involved in the novel’s intrigue, we see his finger traversing a map of Russia, searching for Lublin.

Leaving space, we now move on to the language. The sentence “Only German is spoken here!” (108) graphically points to the symbolic role played by language in the novel. In Castorp, German is an instrument of hegemony incorporating the famous dictum by Fanon that “A man who has a language consequently possesses the world expressed and implied by that language”(4). In the novel German clearly is the language of power. When contaminated, it must be unmercifully rejected not only for the sake of purity but also to maintain power. The university’s clerk, a most unfortunate person ridiculed by those around him because of his Polish accent, is driven to suicide. Dr. Ankewitz, a Polish exile from the Russian partition, can start his psychiatric practice in the German empire only due to his perfect command of German.

The hegemony of the language, however, is powerfully challenged in Huelle. The first instance of transgression occurs when Castorp meets a poor Kashubian boy. At first the boy is depicted in full conformity to the well-established pattern of imperial narrative: his body ragged, and his “bare feet shoed with flimsy sandals” (50). Similar to the Arabs described by Albert Camus, he remains anonymous, with no certain identity. Despite his subalternity, however, the boy bests Castorp by his language competence, the lack of which the latter painfully realizes in their conversation. In an imperial novel the protagonist would most likely dismiss this confrontation with some denigrating comments on the Poles’ undeveloped civilization, or the barbarism of the obscure and rustling Polish speech, or the supremacy of the Prussian educational system that imposes the language of the colonizer over the colonized, thus fulfilling the civilizing mission. Castorp, though, does none of these. Rather, he gives himself up to the strange feeling of “not having access to that which for others is as obvious as the air” (51).

The second instance of the break-up with language domination is manifested in the relationship between Mrs. Wybe and her Kashubian housekeeper. Kaszibke does away with the stereotype that is so commonplace in literatures of all empires, one of subalternity of a servant who is silent and has no right to voice his/her own opinions. Kaszibke reverses the traditional order. Although taught the piano by her mistress (so that the educational mission of the colonial enterprise can be carried out), the Kashubian girl actually takes over through her simple yet forceful language. It is Kaszibke and not Mrs. Wybe who actually holds power in the home where Castorp rents his room. In this way yet again, the metropolitan hegemony over peripheries is questioned. Kaszibke seems to display the ambivalent effect of colonization. She is the colonizer’s mirror image, yet this image is somewhat distorted and caricatural in accordance with what Homi Bhabha described as “mimicry.”(5) The colonized’s behavior is copied by the colonizer, yet this imitation is deeply subversive as it bears traces of mockery and menace. Consequently, the authority of colonial discourse as represented by Mrs. Wybe is threatened and the colonial domination is destabilized.

The third instance of the transgression of colonial narrative in terms of language is related to the mysterious Wanda Pilecka. Although Polish, her position in the novel is one of an outspoken partner rather than a silent representative of a subjugated nation, as seen in her free multilingual conversations at the table. Devastated by Pilecka’s charm, the protagonist seeks to discover her true identity, and it is by the language that he is led astray to consider her as Russian. This is how we come to the third aspect in which the colonial dimension of Castorp is overcome-the problem of identity.

Castorp is astonished by the discovery of Wanda’s true nationality. His bewilderment grows even larger as he finds out that her lover is a Russian officer. This destroys the stereotypical image of Polish-Russian relations based on Castorp’s rudimentary knowledge of Poland’s history. This knowledge only reiterates the clich├ęs of German imperial education of the time: “In gymnasium he had one lesson on the history of Poland: anarchy and alcoholism of the noblemen led to partition as this ulcer in the very midst of Europe had to be quickly cut out for hygienic reasons” (184).

In the novel the knowledge of the subjugated ethnic groups, such as Poles and Kashubians, is an element of the discourse of power. It encompasses historiography, anthropology, and ethnology, and resembles the writings on the conquered peoples as collected and conveyed by British, French, or German scientists, writers, and travelers. As Said pointed out, this knowledge is never a neutral and disinterested description. On the contrary, its purpose is to solidify the power over the object of studies. Huelle’s novel seems to follow this pattern. To paraphrase Said, in Castorp Germans do know Poles and Poles are that which is known by the Germans(6) and exist only insofar as they are narrated. This is how we come to realize the importance of the evolution of the protagonist’s awareness of the postcolonial overtones of the novel. Castorp’s deeper acquaintance with the Poles affords them a more subjective and autonomous status in the novel.

This is how Wanda Pilecka, a representative of the nation whose colonization seemed legitimate and even advantageous in the light of Castorp’s education, is elevated to the position of his partner. To be sure, she appears as a person who is visibly relaxed-an unusual feature for a member of a colonized nation. Although she shares some parts of her biography and even thanks him for providing her an alibi, Wanda never loses her dignity and neither does she fall into any kind of dependence on Castorp. Instead, she gains domination over him, first by destabilizing his burgher lifestyle by becoming a hidden object of his desire, and then by halting their acquaintance with an elegant, yet firm, gesture. The erotic thread between Wanda and the German has an equivocal ending: on the one hand, it breaks the stereotype of mutual perception of the two nations, while on the other it lends support to one of the foundational Polish myths-that of a legendary ninth-century Wanda who refused to marry a German.

It is important for the postcolonial interpretation of the novel to trace the evolution of Castorp’s consciousness. His biography emphasizes his affiliation with the center of the German empire. Theodor Fontane’s Effi Briest, a novel stolen from Wanda by the protagonist, invokes memories, among which the imperial myth is brought to the fore. “His own life, growing in the shade of harbour cranes and oceanic ships, stock market, world business and colonial merchandise, all of a sudden seemed full of light comparing to the rutted sandy road in Pomerania” (113).

Castorp obviously comes from the center where civilization, power, capital, and prosperity coexist in harmony, to the peripheries where those values are challenged by different values that he has only begun to discover, principally through his fascination with the charming stranger. It is interesting to note that before Castorp meets Pilecka, Poles are almost absent from the plot. The hero and his environment consist mostly of Germans, while the exotic peoples of the East appear only to reaffirm the purpose of colonial discourse, which according to Bhabha is “to construe the colonized as a population of degenerate types . . . in order to justify conquest.”(7) The shocking assassination of a German goldsmith by a Polish apprentice and his fiancée that makes the local headlines fits this paradigm perfectly.

When Wanda and her Russian lover enter the scene, a “Polish-Russian knot” (185) is tied together to broaden Castorp’s horizons and shift the narrative onto a postcolonial plane. The protagonist is presented as a newcomer from a metropolis who arrives at peripheries in order to deconstruct the imperial myth and discover the actual identity of the subjugated peoples, which in turn allows him to realize his own identity. Huelle puts him in an entire array of relations to other characters and situations that question his canonical image of Germany and imperial Europe. Castorp comes to the realization that he belongs to a colonizing nation, and this discovery is a matter of disgust rather than pride to him. The process of gaining this awareness constitutes a vital layer of Huelle’s fiction. It finds its apogee in the symbolic gesture of the rejection of both German and Russian imperialism on the final pages of the novel. Having encountered these two imperial discourses, woven into a lecture on Goethe and a Russian textbook respectively, Castorp demystifies them and ostentatiously refuses to participate in the colonial enterprise represented by them.

The elements of Huelle’s novel discussed in this paper demonstrate that, although in many ways indebted to Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, Castorp is a product of a literary consciousness of the postcolonial era. The author dexterously exploits narrative strategies of colonial discourse only in order to enter into polemics with this discourse and offer a novel perspective, one that was unattainable for Mann. As a consequence, Huelle wrote a postcolonial novel. The final nachgeschichte, consisting of some snapshots of Gdansk’s complex history throughout the twentieth century, leads to the following conclusion: the Gdansk-based episode in Castorp’s biography has been narrated from a perspective accessible only to a writer of our time, that is, a perspective brought into existence only after the demise of the German and Soviet empires in that part of the globe. One should only hope that German critics, so enthusiastic about the perfect imitation of Mann’s style by Huelle and the reconstruction of Gdansk’s and Sopot’s ambience at the turn of the century, will spot this dimension of the novel, thereby breaking the silence surrounding the German “white colonialism.


1. Teresa Halikowska-Smith, “The Past as Palimpsest: the Gdansk school of writers in the 1980s and 1990s,” Sarmatian Review, vol. XXIII, no. 1 (January 2003).

2. Franz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, translated by Constance Farrington (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1990), 3rd ed., p. 39.

3. Pawel Huelle, Castorp (Gdansk: Slowo/obraz terytoria, 2004), p. 160. All translations from Polish are my own, references in brackets.

4. F. Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks (London: Pluto, 1986), p. 18.

5. H. K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture (London-New York: Routledge, 1994), p. 86.

6. E. Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage, n.d.), p. 34.

7. H. Bhabha, Location of Culture, p. 70.

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