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.
(This review was originally published in The Quarterly Conversation.)
Because of the praiseworthy efforts of Archipelago Books, with the publication of In Red, we now have available translations of all four novels Polish writer Magdalena Tulli has written to date. Considering the general lack of attention given to translations by major American publishers, such a happy circumstance provides an opportunity to assess the work of this writer to an extent unfortunately not possible for too many translated writers, who are generally represented in English by at best an incomplete selection that may or may not include their most important work, or through which it is difficult to make a fully informed judgment of the important work because of the absence of needed context. Many writers are arguably subject to a distorted perspective due to the vagaries of translation, resulting no doubt in both the over- and the under-estimation of individual books in what is essentially a state of enforced ignorance for critics and reviewers.
Thus if English language readers had only Tulli’s first novel, Dreams and Stones, we might conclude her work is some hybrid of fiction and philosophical reflection, this novel a kind of poetic meditation in prose on the origins and development of a city. The city itself is really the novel’s only character, its various stages of growth the only plot. If we were further able to read Moving Targets, we might assume Tulli is a radical metafictionist, as it takes the motif of creation and makes it into a tale of specifically literary creation, following the efforts of an ineffectual narrator to invoke his characters and get his story started. This novel would seem to mark Tulli as a “postmodern” writer focused on the implications of storytelling itself. Adding to the mix Flaw (chronologically her most recent book), however, it would seem that Tulli’s novels can also be “about” something other than themselves. Flaw does not abandon the self-reflexive depiction of the dynamics of storytelling and the process of creation; rather it incorporates this concern in a portrayal of a fully made city with characters that do come to life, albeit more as a collective than as individual figures, and a story whose drama goes beyond (or is in addition to) the drama of narrative construction.
In Red is Tulli’s most conventional novel—which is not to say it could finally be described as a conventional work of fiction. Still, to the extent it does offer individuated characters, some degree of plot “movement,” and a strongly delineated setting, readers hesitant to commit to one of the novels that seems formidably experimental might find In Red a more comfortable introduction to Tulli’s fiction. But while the novel does provide somewhat more of the familiar elements of conventional fiction, it nevertheless doesn’t allow the reader to retreat altogether to conventional reading pleasures. If there are identifiable characters who are “developed” over the course of the narrative, there is no one character whom we are invited to regard as a protagonist. Indeed, while a succession of characters are introduced, most of them led to the same fate—early death— none of them are characters with whom we are likely to “identify.” Most of the focus is on figures of prominence and authority, primarily businessmen, and these characters in particular tend to blend together, as if each such character is another version of the previous. The procession of new characters in turn produces the novel’s narrative structure: a chronicle of notable personages and events in Stichings, a (fictional) town in a (fictional) province of northern Poland.
Stichings itself is really the main character in In Red, tracking what happens there through roughly the first half of the 20th century its primary concern. In this way it is perhaps not a radical departure from Dreams and Stones, adding people and their interactions to the portrayal of a city, superimposing their “story” on the story of the city’s growth. Although Stichings regresses as a much as or more than it progresses (at the end of the novel it is consumed by fire), it could be said to serve the same function in this novel, in a less overt, more outwardly disguised way, as the city does in Tulli’s first novel: as the vehicle for an allegorical representation of the act of literary creation. In Red’s enactment of this allegory calls less attention to itself and for the most part remains implicit, but the framing of the novel clearly enough emphasizes the symmetries of commencing and concluding the act of storytelling: “Whoever has been everywhere and seen everything,” the novel begins
last of all should pay a visit to Stichings. Simply take a seat in a sleigh and, before being overcome by sleep, speed across a plain that’s as empty as a blank sheet of paper, boundless as life itself. Sooner or later this someone—perhaps it is a traveling salesman with a valise full of samples—will see great mounds of snow stretching along streets to the four corners of the earth, toward empty, icy expanses.
The novel’s closing lines if anything make the parallel between the story of Stichings and the invocation of fictional worlds through writing even more apparent:
Traveling salesman in search of happiness or deliverance: if you wish to leave Stichings, do not hesitate for a moment: you have to do it between the capital letter and the period, without any broken-off thought, without waiting for the final word.
That the novel focuses on the act of creating a fictional “place” such as Stichings does not mean it fails to maintain the illusion that Stichings is a “real” place. Polish readers would no doubt finds its details and its portrait of the life of the city entirely genuine; for the rest of us, the illusion of reality certainly seems complete. The characters, however much they are deliberately made to echo and repeat, are still credible, recognizable human beings. The stories of success, failure, and misadventure in which they are involved are likewise recognizable and recognizably human. The reader could take the overtures to the “traveling salesman” as invitations to enter into the fictional portrayal of Stichings and its inhabitants, without necessarily reflecting on the process of literary composition or interpreting the mechanisms involved. Readers could certainly enjoy In Red as a lively narrative of the notable events in an out-of-the-way corner of Europe, although not so out-of-the-way that we can’t see ourselves reflected in the people living there.
However, while In Red could be read and appreciated for its more conventional, if at times eccentric, treatment of plot, character, and setting, such an appreciation would remain incomplete without the opportunity to situate this novel in the context of Tulli’s still evolving body of work. The access that Archipelago now gives us to this work in full allows us to see that Tulli is a writer who begins in an awareness of the artificiality of literary creation and the independent logic expressed by stories, but who has also endeavored to embody these concerns in narratives that appeal to familiar expectations of literary narrative. Even if we still cannot say that through these translations we can apprehend Tulli’s most immediate engagement of these concerns with the resources of the Polish language, nor can we experience the historical and cultural resonances of the depiction of this period in Polish history as readily as Polish readers, we can, thanks to the work of both the publisher and translator Bill Johnston, make a more concerted effort to estimate the achievement of this writer than we can with most writers we can know only through translation. My own tentative judgment is that her achievement is considerable, perhaps even singular, in the way it enlists “postmodern” strategies to further traditional goals of storytelling.