(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.