One of the great things about being a book blogger is the chance to learn something new; to widen your experience. I had just such an experience recently. As a student of the Cold War I am often intrigued by fiction that uses this period as a backdrop (see Olen Steinhauer for example). So when I received Pawel Huelle’s short autobiographical novella Mercedez-Benz in the mail I decided to move it to the top of the pile.
I am glad I did. It turned out to be a unique and captivating work. For such a short and simple work it has a lot of resonance and depth. It is both a tribute and a memoir; both a look back and a look ahead. If you enjoy elegant and humane writing you will enjoy Mercedes-Benz.
The basic story line is simple as Pawel narrates his experiences taking driving lessons in the Polish city of Gdansk in the post-Soviet 1990’s. The seeming simplicity of the style and story, however, obscure the underlying depth and emotion. As Pawel learns to drive with the help of his instructor Miss Ciwle, he tells her stories of his parents and grandparents. These stories center around his families ownership of a series of Mercedes-Benz automobiles – hence the title. Through these stories Pawel gives the reader an insightful glimpse into the last century of Polish life. In a way that straightforward history can not, these stories – based on actual events and illustrated with real photographs – take you inside the personal emotions and activities of the people on the ground as the world changing events take place around them; from pre-war independence to the long communist years to the new world of the post-communist era. The cars, and the driving lessons, serve as a useful hook to hang these vignettes on. Pawel nicely moves between the past and the present comparing and contrasting the periods and the people’s lives.
But the work also involves more than historical vignettes. It is also a tribute that pays homage to another Eastern European writer, the Czech novelist Bohumil Hrabal. I am not really familiar with Hrabal’s work – although I was inspired by Huelle to pick up and read Closely Watched Trains – but he is an inspirational figure for many European writers. Mercedes-Benz is actually written in the form of a letter to Hrabal. But the tactic of the letter just makes explicit what is already under the surface. The Complete Review captures this in their review. They note that both writer’s work involve a connection to a place that seems to be fading into the past:
Hrabal is also part of a lost world, his works describe [sic] a Mitteleuropa of which remnants still linger but that has undergone drastic changes, and in part Mercedes-Benz is a love-letter to what has been lost.
That review also notes the strengths that tie the two writers together:
Many details are left out, especially about the truly tragic (readers can, however, fill some of these in), so that it’s melancholy-tinged but not artificially sad or sentimental, resonating subtly but also for long after one has put the book down. (It’s Hrabalesque, in other words.)
Very well put.
If you have any interest in Eastern European literature, or if you just enjoy fine writing, I recommend you pick up Mercedes-Benz. You won’t regret it.