A photo-shot preparation for the modern painting of the Last Supper is to take place on the stage of a theatre in Gdansk. "The Last Supper" tells the stories of four of the participants and the narrator is the fifth one, although we don't learn anything of his personal tale apart form one trip to Jerusalem and one convoluted dream that actually - and startlingly - opens the novel.
The narration juxtaposes the events of the day of the photo shot - a day in either a very recent alternative history or a very near but unspecified future, where the city is shaken by a series of terrorist explosions in alcohol shops while the participants make their way to the session - and the day some twenty years before, when the same five men were discussing Christianity and art in the slightly decadent and definitely drunken haze of a night in a bohemian club in Sopot.
There is Labuda, an idealistic doctor whose non-conformism had him banished to a single-man practice in a God-forsaken corner of the countryside (the cultural equivalent of the inner-city sink estate); there is Wybranski, a physicist, businessman and sex addict who made a fortune on shoddy ventures including new-agey Pilgrimages of Truth and Andean herbal anti-cancer snake oil. There is Bredo, a gay guru of Wybranski's Pilgrimages; an erudite historian, philosopher and an atheist just about to convert to Islam; and there is Siemaszko, a cannabis-chewing collage-artist and (aren't they all) a bit of philosopher himself. A certain Engineer, an avant-garde artist, a career opportunist and a political and social busybody turns up like a bad penny every so often to ruffle and influence the proceedings, and to provide some grounds for endless discussions and arguments about the meaning and value of art in its traditional and 'modern' versions.
As if that wasn't enough for a mere 256 pages, there is a lot more. More dreams by various characters; more digressions, little sub-plots including an insane prophet (a figure familiar from Huelle's earlier work); and a substantial and apocryphal account of a Holy Land trip and resulting drawings by a Scottish draughtsman David Roberts. Oh, and rather a lot about specifically Polish religiosity, not always very explicitly, but as a powerfully recurring theme, from old fights with the Ottomans to current inroads made by New Age and Islam in the country that historically considered itself the battlement of Christianity and the Messiah of the Nations.
All those strands interweave in a very post-modern form. Paradoxically, or ironically perhaps (Slowacki, a foremost master of Polish Romanticism and Romantic irony, figures in one of the apocryphe scenes), "The Last Supper" is an e-mail chronicle: chattily conversational, leisurely but sparkling. It reads more like a mixture of a fireside yarn and a very Romantic indeed digressionary novel, with long and descriptive chapter titles and the unreliable narrator constantly revealing himself in the text.
The humour is subtle in all the philosophical and personal sections, but it flashes up to a level of a vicious grotesque in portraits of politicians and other figures of local Polish establishment. The names are, of course, invented (without particular effort to conceal the originals), but anybody with any familiarity with the Polish realities will recognise at least a few, including of course a rather important (and, I hasten to say, very, very realistic and NOT farcical at all) figure of Mercedes-driving, crocodile-shoes wearing, pictured-on-own-brand-wine-labels, Father Monsignore.
Alternating between a portrait-of-a-generation, a state-of-the-nation attempt at realism (or as close to realism as Huelle is possibly capable of or willing to get to), and a dreamily philosophical exploration of religion, art and the relationship between the two, The Last Supper is beautifully written, with a light touch, poetry, masses of post-modern flair and erudition that occasionally borders on the pretentious but is saved by subtle humour infusing even the most lofty passages.
Antonia Lloyd-Jones' outstanding translation goes a long way towards reproducing the rhythm and style of Huelle's prose while providing some touches that may make the local realities more accessible to the foreign reader.
Apart from an occasional feeling that there was just too much there in too little space, and that many splendid ideas and motifs and kernels of tales were rather sadly only touched upon instead of being further explored, I only have once criticism of "The Last Supper".
I thought that the modernist versus traditionalists in art controversy didn't really benefit from being presented as a caricature farce. It could be because I am not entirely dismissive of what the narrator places in the 'avant-garde' camp, or it could be because the figure of the Engineer was just too easy a target to pick in what is a genuine debate rather than a no-contest one.
Or maybe because I rather like those graphic-novel style frescos on bridge columns and industrial fences (and the people who did them).
Still, and despite those quibbles, I really enjoyed "The Last Supper".
But then, I like what many would consider intellectually pretentious and/or convoluted, I like literary and I like Middle European. I am not particularly bothered by my reading material lacking plot and being abundant in digressions - I am very prone to digressions myself - and I was also reading "The Last Supper" from the position of extreme prejudice to which I think I need to own up now.
Not only am I a Pole, not only am I just a few years older than the generation of which the characters are representative , not only did I grow up and live the formative years of my life in the city on the bay, where Huelle's novel is set; I also spent many a happy truant hour in my late teens in the Golden Beehive café featured in the first chapter, and I have drunk away (served by the same legendary barman Wojtek) a substantial part of my twenties in the SPATiF Actors' Club which features in recurring flashbacks throughout; and later I came back to live, for a while at least, a stone's throw from the gorge with a bridge described so evocatively in the first few pages.
Reading a story set in and dealing with times and places one is intimately acquainted with facilitates engagement regardless of any other aspect of a work in question. For me, the 'time and place' aspect of "The Last Supper" was thus supremely important and Huelle's depiction so evocative that it sent shivers of nostalgic recognition down my spine, despite the complete absence of significant female characters from the story.
I am finding it extremely difficult to separate all the thickly interwoven layers of "The Last Supper" and in the final analysis one shouldn't probably try to as a large part of its whole attraction is they way it mixes political satire, 'portrait of the generation' snapshot, philosophical musings and the Big Questions in art, religion and history.
But separate I must, I am afraid, as I have a very strong feeling that the political and the local layer contribute immensely to the enjoyment of the whole. I wouldn't say that to be able to appreciate and enjoy "The Last Supper" the reader necessarily HAS be a Pole (ideally from Gdansk), but it would certainly help, and certainly influence the reading.
Some degree of orientation in Polish history, culture and politics is definitely required, as I don't think there is enough in the philosophical layer of "The Last Supper" to carry the novel successfully on its own. Not because the ideas are not there (they very much are, enough for several novels) but because of the balance between the contemporary satire/generational tale and the universals.
Paperback 256 pages
Publisher: Serpent's Tail November 2008