Pawel Huelle's novels often have what he has called a "dialogue" with other books and writers.

His novel Mercedes-Benz is addressed to the great Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal, and his first novel Who Was David Weiser? similarly references Gunter Grass. Both are in the nature of homages, using the vision of the other writers as a lens through which to view Polish history and culture. Similarly in these stories, we find deferential echoes of Chekhov and Borges.

If this makes the work sound parasitic, it is not. Mercedes-Benz is utterly enjoyable whether we know Hrabal's work or not, a triumph of humour and storytelling on an epic scale. Huelle's "dialogues" can be seen as one aspect of his long-standing love of and fascination for books, ever since he was confined to bed with illness as a child and read his way into other worlds.

In the Afterword interview with the book's translator Antonia Lloyd Jones, Huelle speaks reverentially of "the significance of great books as an authority in human life". Books, secret languages and the written word are recurring symbols in these stories. In Memesis, there is the ancient bible belonging to the Menonites, a religious minority akin to the Amish who were forced to flee the Netherlands in the 16th century to escape persecution by the Spanish Catholics. They settled in Russia, then moved to Poland after 1917 when their farms were expropriated by the communists.

There are mystical, ideal books such as the Book of Light brought by a mysterious stranger to change the life of a shepherd in Oland. And there is the toy shop catalogue treasured by a boy in Franz Carl Webber, its images of electric trains sowing the seed of yearning for a distant journey that will change his life. A prisoner in a Berber dungeon recounts his life story in the Borgesian allegory Abulafia by writing it in the sand on his cell floor; and in The Bicycle Express a student cycles between striking factories to deliver bundles of bulletins in the early days of Solidarity. The power of the book and the written word is central to these stories.

All are set in Gdansk or the surrounding coastal area except Oland, which takes place on a Swedish island but still in the Baltic Sea.

"I am a man of the Baltic," says Huelle, "I belong to the culture of the north, which is sad, melancholy, nostalgic, bleak ... and this is the place that has shaped me, like it or not."

A bleakness of place and culture certainly permeates many of these stories, but Huelle's style is conversationally light and engaging, which makes it all the more arresting when his characters are shown to be at the mercy of historical forces and changes.

The refugee is a recurring figure, like the Chechen woman carrying her newborn child across the Polish border whose photograph appears in all the newspapers and touches the heart of the artist narrator in The Flight Into Egypt. When she and her husband are housed in a gardener's brick hut in his street, he befriends them, but the couple again become persecuted: their hut is fire-bombed by locals and they are forced to flee again. As he observes the remains of their hut being bulldozed, he finds a scrap of canvas in the rubble from a portrait he did of the woman, and a workman shouts to him: "You won't find any gold here like the Yids left behind!"

In The Bicycle Express, the narrator's friend shows up on his doorstep, some 20 years after being arrested during the Soviet occupation and long presumed dead in the Gulag: "thin and haggard, in an old raincoat and a railwayman's cap, he looked like an arrival from the spirit world." And in a sense he is just that, a spectral visitation through which the past bleeds into the present.

These are complex stories, blending mythology and ancient history with the tide of political change, moving easily between autobiography and invention, reality and fantasy, but they are also immensely readable. They captivate the imagination because of Huelle's gift for storytelling and his powers of observation and description, which never fail to bring characters and situations vibrantly to life.

Cold Sea Stories

Pawel Huelle, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones

Comma Press, £7.99