This is how Polish writer Magdalena Tulli's novel, Flaw (Archipelago Books), begins:
First will come the costumes. The tailor will supply them all wholesale. He'll select the designs off-handedly and, with a few snips of the shears, will summon to life a predictable repertoire of gestures. See--scraps of fabric and thread in a circle of light, while all around is darkness. Out of the turmoil will emerge a fold of cloth, the germ of a tuck fastened with a pin. The tuck will create everything else. If it's sufficiently deep, it will call into existence a glittering watch chain on a protruding belly, labored breathing, and a bald head bedewed with perspiration. One thing leads to another.
One thing leads to another, not just in the tailor's work but in the work of fiction before us, the creation of which is being laid out much as the tailor lays out the cloth to cut. The narrative begins with the tailor, who is needed for that "predictable repertoire of gestures" his actions call forth, the marks of "character" to be found in the costumes worn. Additional items--a maid's dress, a notary's collar, a student's jacket, a general's uniform--are made, all for the "characters" who will later wear them as they play their roles in the story just beginning.
Soon the setting for this story, a city square, is introduced:
The place may look like some quiet neighborhood of a large city, where squares of this sort are encountered at very step amid the dense network of streets. But the vast whole to which this fragment belongs is not accessible. On each of the several streets connecting to the square, the pavement comes to an end just beyond the corner. Anyone who unduly trusts the solid look of the basalt cobbles and wishes to go elsewhere will immediately be mired in sandy excavations, amid the blank walls of apartment buildings, under windows drawn in chalk directly onto the plaster. Distant steeples and indistinct towers rise over the roofs and suggest the dimensions of the entirety of which this square is supposedly a part. Yet the whole itself must remain conjecture, as imponderable as accomplished facts or as forecasts of the future. Maintaining its substance and its walls and rooftops multiplied in real space would be impossible for me, and also unnecessary. In the meantime, the streetcar is already moving on its track. This will be the zero-line streetcar, the only line there is, and more than sufficient for the needs of a single square. Let the shape of the zero, unhurriedly described, accentuate the extraordinary qualities of the circle, a figure perfectly enclosed, whose whole is encompassed by a continuous line without losing a thing.
On the one hand, it is relatively easy to evoke a sense of "realism." All that is needed is a flower bed fillled with "small yellow blooms," some "ornamental railings on the balconies and lace curtains in the windows," the "basalt cobbles." On the other, to extend this realism to the "vast whole" beyond the square and its provisional, self-enclosed existence is not worth the trouble, is impossible to maintain and of little value if the "world" as represented in a city square is as much world as the novelist needs to portray it in fiction. Like the zero-line streetcar, this aesthetic world can be "perfectly enclosed. . .encompassed by a continuous line without losing a thing."
Soon enough, the characters themselves start making their appearances, characters such as the local policeman:
The policeman moves on as the streetcar continues its route around the square. How would that rather faded uniform sit on me? Maybe it would pinch under the arms? If I am the policeman, there was a time when I risked my neck in the trenches for the emblem that appears on my cap.
"I" is the narrative voice whose invocation of place and character we are witnessing as he/she/it brings the novel we are reading to "life." It should not be associated directly with the author but is instead a kind of character the author has created, a "novelist" whose job it is to bring together all of the elements that are needed to set the narrative into motion and keep it functioning. Sometimes this narrative voice conveys the story--or what is ultimately the story of the story--as a third-person narrator, outside all of the other characters and focusing on them one by one, but at times reconsiders the point of view and offers fragments related in the first person: "If I am the policeman. . ."; "If I am the notary's maid, on the second floor of the apartment building at number seven I take the vegetables out the basket. . ."; "If I am the notary, I shave with caution, and my hand never trembles. Before my eyes I can still see the blood I just wiped off the mirror, a reminder that my body is tired and all set to lower its tone." At times it is as if the narrator is leaving it up to us to decide whether we prefer the "inside" or the "outside" perspective, or, perhaps, whether in the end such a distinction is very meaningful.
Flaw relates what happens on this square over the course of a single day. And it is an eventful day. Most dramatically, a large group of "refugees" emerges from the streetcar and crowds into the square, to the extreme consternation of the local residents. Eventually the refugess are confined en masse in a cellar, but at the end of the day it is discovered that they have disappeared An Army general is disconcerted by this turn of events, reflecting that "What he ordered to be locked up should have remained so, period. . .The absence of the crowd is nothing but a special form of presence, and what has changed is in essence of secondary importance. Since the refugees are no longer here, they must be somewhere else, that much is obvious" The refugees seem to be a consequence of a coup that has taken place somewhere amid the "sandy excavations" outside the square but that we know about only through the rumors circulating through the square and that may have been connected to a loud explosion heard earlier in the day.
The novel ends with a reverie about what may have happened to the refugees if they had managed to make it to "America." The narrator concludes:
Happy endings are never happier than is possible. It might seem that, like a springtime thaw, they bring the promise of a new beginning, but the truth is otherwise. They merely lay bare the rotting matter of dashed hopes. Fortunate turns of events bring no relief, consumed as they are by the mold of unintentionally ironic meanings, and shot through with the musty despair of past seasons. And it is from them, these endings which end nothing, that new stories will grow.
One senses that the next day on this (presumably) East European square would unfold much like the day the novel has related, if not in detail then certainly in essence. That the novel has managed to convey this essence is perhaps a mark of its "success," but Flaw also seems to suggest that representing a bare essence of human existence is the best that fiction can do. By dramatizing the seat-of-the-pants process by which fiction is composed, highlighting the conventional signals of "setting" or "character" that guide our reading of fiction, disclosing the extent to which fiction is the active struggle to incorporate reality within an aesthetic scheme, not a completed account of reality, Flaw exposes the "flaw" in thinking that fiction can be a seamless represention of the real. It is artifice all the way down, and it does no justice, either to fiction or to the reality it seeks to encompass, to deny that fact.
Ultimately the true success of Flaw is its dynamic--I would even say entertaining--performance of this internal drama about the act of fiction-making.
ADDENDUM Archipelago Books has without question become an indispensable source of translated fiction, but I wonder whether it would be possible to include with its volumes a preface or critical introduction, presumably by a scholar or critic familiar with the author's work and/or with that author's national literature. Such an introduction might be especially useful for readers curious about a writer like Tulli but who really have no context within which to place her work. In lieu of that, this interview with the translator of Flaw is available.