I might be the only reader of this book who bought Highcastle without having ever read anything by Lem before.
Sure, I heard wonders about Solaris and The Cyberiad, written by the undisputed Polish master of sci-fi, but never had the chance to get them. To be honest then, the chief reason why I bought the (Italian) translation of Highcastle is that I was interested in its setting, the former Polish and now Ukrainian city of Lviv / Lwòw.
As the story goes, a few years ago, my girlfriend and I were supposed to visit Lviv. A friend of mine living there had already confirmed me that she would have been happy to host us and show us around. In fact, we had already booked two return tickets to reach the city from Krakow by bus.
Unfortunately, we were right in the middle of a particularly harsh winter. The temperatures plummeted down to -25° between Poland and Ukraine so that the railway lines leading us to Krakow got frozen, local coaches got stuck in the icy snow and we were eventually forced to cancel our weekend trip. Which was just a pity.
Even though I didn't visit Lviv at that time, my interest for that place never ceased. Lviv is that sort of once multicultural and multilingual place that was badly treaten by history due to wars, destructions, people displacement, dictatorship and, in recent times, inequality.
Suffice is to say that while most of the Jewish population of the town formerly known as Lwòw got deported and killed, thousands of Poles living there were forced to move to Wroclaw (once a German town named Breslau) after WWII when the renamed city of Lviv was annexed to the Soviet Union.
In this respect, Stanisław Lem childhood memoirs are interesting but not fully satisfying. Lem was born and raised in Lwòw and lived there til 1945, when his family had to be relocated to Krakow. He survived the war thanks to false papers and playing a part in the local underground resistance, but you won't find anything about that period in Highcastle.
What Lem does through the pages of this book is narrating episodes of his early and young adult years before the conflict by focusing on objects rather than people. Those who love Proust, might find plenty of exquisite madeleine here, those who find the lack of a plot unbearable, are likely to get bored. I'm somewhat inbetween.
As much as I enjoyed the bits and pieces regarding young Stanisław tyrannizing his parents, destroying carillons and avidly perousing through the illustrations of his father's medical books, I found several pages redundant and repetitive. Lem is not partial to himself, but admits more than once (actually more than necessary) that he was spoiled and lonesome, a dreamy vicious kid without any close friends.
The few lines about life in Lwòw in the late 1930s popping up here and there are excellent and portray a town of great beauty with its hills, its trams, its majestic theatre, its petty bourgeois inhabitants collecting expensive trinkets and sending their sons to study Latin at the Gymnasium.
Now, I like this stuff becuase it reminds me of a lovely bygone age where a Middle European life of that sort could be found as far as contemporary Lithuania (see Miłosz memoirs), Bulgaria (see Canetti's) and Romania (see von Rezzori's).
But Lem is well aware of not being Miłosz, Canetti or von Rezzori thus he doesn't even try to dig deeper into this old world of his ultimately leaving me disappointed. Highcastle is a thin book with some frankly superfluos pages of clumsy introspection and gives you the impression of not having been finished and certainly not developed as much as it deserved.
While the first and the final 'chapters' are very good, I must confess that I resisted to the temptation of skipping a few pages in the central part of the book; doing that would have not been fair to Stanisław Lem who never pretended to fly higher than he could here.
And yet from an author who was that creative and innovative in writing science-fiction making up wonderful stories I would have expected much more in telling us about the day to day reality which influenced him.