Originally published by the now-defunct WiK English Edition, part of Poland’s reputed Wprost publishing house, in April 2007
Writing in the Fast Lane - ‘Mercedes-Benz’ by Pawel Huelle
The car is a much-maligned machine these days for all the trouble it causes. Congestion, pollution and road-rage are just a few of the vices it has demanded the world get used to, and many of its advocates have been noted for their self-centred boorishness.
But in Pawel Huelle’s universe the automobile is a largely benign creature, providing people with a vital hook to their family histories, acting as a source of intimate conversation and facilitating the freedom to roam.
Openly autobiographical, ‘Mercedes-Benz’ is a neatly-woven tale which takes in three generations of Huelles and their various relationships with their vehicles. The author as narrator is in the process of learning to drive in the capable and affable hands of a Miss Ciwle - whose charms Huelle is clearly smitten by – in the early 1990s just after the fall of Communism. And it is at the wheel that he distracts her with the sometimes absurd, often funny and always moving tales of his grandparents, then his parents’ trials and tribulations with their cars.
‘Mercedes-Benz’ could easily have been entitled ‘The History of Poland in the 20th Century, As Seen Through a Windscreen’, for each generation of his family is shown trundling around different parts of the country at pivotal moments in its turbulent past.
Huelle’s grandparents are at first comfortable, then downwardly-mobile, then – because they live in the pre-war, then-Polish town of Lwow – they find themselves trapped in a nightmare at the outbreak of the Second World War, where they have to contend with the Soviet army invading from the East and the Nazis coming in from the West. Jumping to the 1970s, Huelle takes us into his childhood home, where his father – an engineer like the grandfather – struggles to make ends meet on his poor salary during Communism but for a period delights his family by reviving a clapped-out Mercedes so that they can go on excursions together. The family unit and with it the preciousness of the car as a means to liberty then wither away as we enter Huelle’s adult world, where his individualistic existence as a writer, coupled with the gridlock throttling the city (Gdansk), rob driving of much of its appeal. It is significant in these passages that Huelle and Miss Ciwle speak as if sealed within the vehicle and are less preoccupied than his forbears with the places it is taking them to.
But the book is a very pleasant ride nonetheless and it is to Huelle’s eternal credit that he has gone some way to rescuing the car – that scourge of the environment and kids crossing the road – from a reputation careering toward a tragic end to one where it wins much of its humanity back.