Pawel Huelle’s novel takes the reader on a switchback journey which is, by turns, dizzying, exhausting and exhilarating. Set in the near future in and around Gdansk, the bare bones of the storyline are deceptively easy to describe. On a single day, from various points of the compass and with varying degrees of difficulty, 12 men make their way to an assignment with a mutual friend, Mateusz, an artist. Once the cast is assembled, Mateusz plans to create a version of The Last Supper, re-imagining the painting for a contemporary audience.
For Huelle, the thoughts and feelings, dreams and fears of the men on their journeys are the jumping-off point for nothing less than a panoramic consideration of European culture. It is remarkable how many seemingly disparate plot strands this dazzlingly fecund novel manages to pull together into a coherent whole. These include (but are not limited to) a scathing satire on the antisemitic and reactionary nature of the Polish Catholic church, a wave of seemingly motiveless terrorist bombs and the brutal police reaction to them, and the travels of David Roberts, a 19th-century Scottish painter of biblical scenes.
Huelle does not make it easy for himself or the reader, bouncing his narrative around in time and space, moving effortlessly from the last stand of Emperor Constantine XI to Al- Jazeera television showing the beheading of hostages. However, the occasional bewildering moment aside, The Last Supper is an erudite and entertaining novel of boundless ambition in its concept and consummate skill in its delivery.