Death in Danzig (2005)

Polish title: Hanemann (1995)
By: Stefan Chwin
Translated by: Philip Boehm
Published by: Secker & Warburg
Originally published by: Wydawnictwo Marabut

A moving portrait of people in transition – between old and new, life and death.

Germans flee the besieged city of Danzig in 1945. Poles driven out of eastern regions by the Russians move into the homes hastily abandoned by their previous inhabitants. In an area of the city graced with beech trees and a stately cathedral, the stories of old and new residents intertwine: Hanemann, a German and a former professor of anatomy, who chooses to stay in Danzig after the mysterious death of his lover; the Polish family of the narrator, driven out of Warsaw; and a young Carpathian woman who no longer has a country, her cheerful nature concealing deep wounds.

Through his brilliantly defined characters, stunning evocation of place, and memorable description of remnants of a world that was German but survives in Polish households, Chwin has created a reality that is beyond destruction.

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One comment on “Death in Danzig”

  1. I found it hard to work out its tone initially, and thought it would become a thriller, investigating Louisa Berger’s death, and Hanemann’s relationship with her; I tried to differentiate all the other characters (Mr Kohl, Mrs Stein, etc) though few are later developed. When I got to ‘Things’ (the fourth chapter) I realised this wasn’t a plot-driven novel. And it’s a long time till the narrator reveals himself… ‘The Word’, almost a third of the way in. At some point I thought, this is the kind of novel I’d like to write, a series of lyrical juxtapositions, rather than something more plot- or character-driven.

    It’s striking how the city – place – remains dominant, and how little Nazism and Communism intrude – the latter more so, especially at the end, when Hanemann, Hanka and Adam depart. (Danzig wasn’t part of Nazi Germany, until the 1939 invasion.) The novel plays with continuity and change – beneath the startling transformations there is a certain stability – though the fabric of the buildings begins to deteriorate.

    What is the ‘Island of Holm’ Piotr and his family make for at the end? There doesn’t seem to be one in Sweden; most Holms are in Orkney and Shetland, though all are something Holm. On its own it means ‘small and rounded island’. Is it short for Stockholm, where Piotr appears later? At the meeting I found out that ‘Holm’ is just that in the Polish text, and no-one else was exercised by their destination; emigration didn’t seem to be an option.

    As for the suicides, they become less successful; Kleist and Henriette both die, then only Witkacy, and Hanka survives. Why such a focus on Kleist who, other than H’s book, has no connection to Danzig? His and Henriette’s deaths are chosen, premeditated, deliberate; Witkacy’s is desperate, almost botched, and his companion’s survival causes her only resentment. Are the two stories somehow metaphors for the death of Danzig in 1944 / 45 / 46?

    The first chapter (’14 August’) takes place in 1939, just before the invasion. Would Hanemann and Louisa’s elopement to Königsberg have been doomed in any case – perhaps taking on elements of Witkacy’s flight?

    Adam’s muteness an echo [sic!] of Oskar in The Tin Drum? – That boat trip bringing the novel full circle – but now the ropes are stronger. – What does Piotr become as an adult – other than the narrator of this book? – The Polish edition includes small line-drawings of buildings and other structures at the start of each chapter.

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