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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Paweł Huelle

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To purchase Mercedes-Benz

Title: Mercedes-Benz
Author: Paweł Huelle
Genre: Novel
Written: 2002 (Eng. 2005)
Length: 154 pages
Original in: Polish
Availability: Mercedes-Benz - US
Mercedes-Benz - UK
Mercedes-Benz - Canada
Mercedes-Benz - France
Mercedes-Benz - Deutschland
  • from Letters to Hrabal
  • Polish title: Mercedes-Benz
  • Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones

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Our Assessment:

B+ : nicely done unsentimental journey

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ . 22/2/2003 Richard Kämmerling
The Guardian . 24/9/2005 Josh Lacey
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 1/3/2003 Andreas Breitenstein
The NY Times Book Rev. . 4/6/2006 Alison McCulloch
New Statesman . 3/10/2005 Marek Kohn
The Times . 27/8/2005 Kate Saunders

  Review Consensus:


  From the Reviews:
  • "Die pikareske Form, in der satirische Skizzen der postsozialistischen Realität mit der Familiengeschichte Huelles verschränkt werden, könnte dazu verführen, diesen Roman zu unterschätzen. Dabei konzentriert er im Rückspiegel seiner Karossen nicht weniger als das Schicksal Polens im zwanzigsten Jahrhundert -- von der kulturellen Blüte der Zwischenkriegszeit über Krieg und Besatzung bis zur sozialistischen Stagnation und den Wirbeln der frühen neunziger Jahre. Zugleich ist der Roman durch und durch aus literarischen Anspielungen gefertigt" - Richard Kämmerling, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Huelle writes in such an engaging, chatty style that you hardly notice the fraught circumstances underlying every tale." - Josh Lacey, The Guardian

  • "Antonia Lloyd-Jones's translation sustains the mischief and verve of the original, though it does introduce a few red lights to a text punctuated by give-ways rather than stops. (...) Huelle's wit and his subtle gift for measuring absurdity stand comparison with Hrabal or any of the other great central European ironists. Even so, it fell to commerce rather than art to add the finishing touch. By the time the book appeared, capitalism and culture had developed in Poland to a point where Mercedes-Benz felt able to take the hint from the Citroen anecdote and sponsor the publication." - Marek Kohn, New Statesman

  • "The glue holding the pieces together (...) is weak, but in Antonia Lloyd-Jones's translation the stories themselves are charming -- funny and sad, yet without the bitterness one might expect from survivors of such capricious times." - Alison McCulloch, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Quirky, thoughtful and often poetic, it opens a subjective and fascinating window on to the recent past." - Kate Saunders, The Times

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       What is it about Bohumil Hrabal that leads authors to write so obviously in response to him (most notably in Péter Esterházy's The Book of Hrabal) ? Paweł Huelle's Mercedes-Benz actually looks for a response from the master: it is framed (very loosely) as a letter to Hrabal, though Huelle acknowledges that a reply is an impossibility: it's only after the master's death that he pens this account. But it's Hrabal that moves him to write, and it is Hrabal who is the (impossible) measure.
       Near the end of this memoir-fiction, Huelle expresses his great admiration for the author, because:

from the most meagre shreds, scraps of sentences, leftover bits of images, wallpaper, photos, sounds and odours Bohumil Hrabal made unique phrases, amazing constructions, fairytale worlds and stories; those vibrant words of his always echoed with the elegance of Mozart, the force of Beethoven and the melancholy of Chopin.
       It's something that Huelle tries to emulate in this book. Hrabal is also part of a lost world, his works describing 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. (Actual love doesn't stand much of a chance in this world.) Among the most changed places is the city of Gdansk, the former German (and Free City of) Danzig, and it is here that Huelle sets his story. The narrator is taking driving lessons from Miss Ciwle in Gdansk in the early 1990s. (The metaphors are pretty obvious -- finally free from the Soviet yoke, Poland enters uncharted territiories in this time, a leap much as getting a driving license is for an individual, a sign of new (but officially sanctioned) liberty (governed by specific rules), etc. There's also Miss Ciwle's tiny car -- a holdover from the old system, and obtained at considerable personal cost -- and tellingly the narrator has his doubts about actually ever using his license. Hang-gliding sounds preferable to him.)
       Driving isn't a particularly pleasant experience in Gdansk, and in their isolated Fiat-bubble he regales his driving instructor with stories of his grandfather and then his father, and specifically their relationships with their cars.
       The grandfather started with a Citroën, but after that it was all Mercedes-Benzs (traded in annually). In a few stories and anecdotes, he neatly covers the Polish century, from his grandfather driving the Mercedes in balloon competitions to how he finally lost the car ('requisitioned' by the Soviets at the start of World War II) to his father's own Mercedes that finally appeared in 1972 ("a joyful choir of screaming children running after a slowly approaching Mercedes170 DS chanting: 'It's the Gestapo ! It's the Gestapo !'"). These stories, a few black and white photographs nicely illustrating some of them, as well as some of the present-day events (Miss Ciwle's living conditions and her disabled brother, another driving instructor he calls Uglymug), make for a brief but rich picture of a typical Polish family-fate in the 20th century.
       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.)
       Mercedes-Benz is a book of only a few episodes, coloured nicely by the present-incidental -- the annoyances of driving in contemporary Gdansk, tanking up, a shared meal at Miss Ciwle's. It doesn't try too much -- there's no grand love affair, no one dramatic event the book builds towards -- but does the small things very well. Hrabal would be pleased.

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Mercedes-Benz: Reviews: Paweł Huelle: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Polish author Paweł Huelle was born in 1957.

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