Last week I wrote about this year’s Best Translated Book Award and noted a few concerns about the relative lack of women authors in translation. So why not use this post to celebrate one such author, the Polish writer Magdalena Tulli, whom I (a bit slow on this one) have just discovered & am still reeling from? Her novel In Red is on this year’s BTBA longlist, translated by Bill Johnston and published by Archipelago—Archipelago has published four of her novels in English and it was at the most recent AWP that I went by their table, thinking to pick up one of hers, and found (the only one left! someone just before me apparently having bought out everything else) Moving Parts.
The game is afoot from the very beginning:
The creation of worlds! Nothing could be simpler. Apparently they can be conjured out of thin air. And for what? To delight the eye with their shimmer as they ascend toward the light, trembling like soap bubbles. Then they’re swallowed up by darkness. When they rise, it’s as if they were already falling. But are they not splendid? They’re casually called into being and thrown carelessly into the void; there is no one to save them. The narrator, a rather secondary figure, knows nothing more about it; he acknowledges this with regret. Alone and faced with accomplished facts, he is concerned about one thing only: that he should avoid descending into banality from the very first sentence. If he could, he’d prefer to walk away with his hands in his pockets, leaving everything to the mercy of fate, which he has not been permitted to influence; or at the very least to abide stubbornly in an eloquent, arrogant silence. But the narrator realizes he has nowhere to go. The privilege of arrogance is also denied him. The kind of life that has fallen to his lot, insofar as it can even be called a life, offers no opportunity for choice. A tale someone has nonchalantly conjured up must suffice for the entire substance of his existence. A tale hungry for subjects and predicates, lodged in their tissue like a rare species of rapacious parasites.
(Also in glorious translation by Bill Johnston.) The novel begins in what seems, then, a reflection on the construction of fiction—rendered playfully and with a distinctive beauty, but in the landscape of postmodern literature fairly familiar as endeavor. And indeed the novel offers wondrous moments of distilled wisdom on the nature and creation of fiction, in lines such as “The balloon of longing keeps the mortal suffocating mind on the surface. From the very beginning, though, the narrator’s position has been so unfavorable that he has nothing to long for.” Tulli’s sentences and images are different creatures than any of Beckett’s, but the suffering of her narrator echoes that which his trilogy indelibly describes. “For [the narrator’s] being is given continuity by the volatile essence of longing, and not by the sluggish weight of a body that could equally well belong to someone else and be located somewhere else,” as the novel goes on to note.
But as the last two sentences of the passage excerpted above suggest, this reflection on fiction—which seems rich and rewarding but perhaps safe enough, a house of mirrors we can still feel at home in—in the second half of the novel metamorphoses profoundly, becomes monstrous, “leads to something,” as Danielle Dutton put it succinctly in a review of the novel, “pretty close to hell on earth.” The novel takes what has seemed something like a game with fiction and before our eyes transforms it into a horrifying reflection on how we are each entrapped within narratives—cultural, historical, political—far beyond our control. We are subject even to the dictates of grammar, powerless—even the mere tenses of verbs, as the novel observes repeatedly, will have their way with us, prove inescapable. The “essence of the invisible structure”—of this novel, of any narrative, of the narrator’s frenzied movement through a landscape from which there is no exit and which with each turn, each so-called choice, becomes only more nightmarish—we are told “its core and foundation may turn out to be the predicate of sentences, which as a rule are unfeeling and, like judicial sentences, irreversible. No one knows where they come from; the narrator does not know either.”
Architecture assembles relentlessly around the narrator, a hotel leading to a farm, to an apartment building, to an elevator, to a field hospital, to the past itself. Just as we’ve been feeling we might learn the rules to this game, understand what Tulli’s up to with her seemingly comical narrator and characters whose names and visages echo one another scene after scene, in an amusing and then frighteningly restricted vocabulary, we realize how wrong we are: in fact the history of a nation is being laid before us, or rather we are being entombed within it. The devastation of World War II rends the narrative and exposes the horror of the sentence above: “the predicate of sentences, which as a rule are unfeeling and, like judicial sentences, irreversible.” The past is the hell we are bound to, from which no attempt at narrative can liberate us. And how masterfully Tulli leads us into this hell; following her narrator we enter the elevator and suspect nothing until its descent has proved irrevocable. Having introduced us early on to one couple, the Germanic Feuchtmeiers, she then in another scene offers their doubles, the Fojchtmajers, and notes as though innocently that “neither of [the names] sounds Polish.” Then:
Behind one of the curtains a gunboat of the Kriegsmarine pitches in the fog; behind the other is a throng of civilians, perhaps even Jews, half-transparent, with absent expressions. And why them in particular? This question, asked in a firm tone and requiring a response, relates to certain obligations imposed on the content by the two-part symmetry. The images should, for example, remain in equilibrium on both sides of unseen scales, thanks to their obviousness, which would be confirmed by statistics. This principle alas will not be upheld. The narrator does not consider it his responsibility. Evidently this crowd of extras was also in place and fate happened to pick them. Where did they come from? From nowhere. … It’s possible that from the very beginning they were somewhere between the lines. At most it might be asked why they remain stubbornly attached to their hooked noses and their sadness. This rhetorical question requires no reply, and doesn’t leave the slightest space for it; but a reply forces itself uninvited into the very middle of the paragraph. It declares that they were given no choice. Existing as a semitransparent crowd and deprived of their own power to be one thing or another, in everything they have to fall in line with the words of the description. They are obliged to make do with the adjectives imposed upon them and, whether they like it or not, fill them with their own existence, as they fill the cars of freight trains that are terrifying to get into, but which it so happens they have to enter. Otherwise it will immediately transpire that their own existence is no longer possible.
The nightmare arrives as easily as this (“Nothing could be simpler”—this bright phrase from the opening now casts a horrific shadow). A breathtaking passage, and one I shudder each time I reread. This book—a small thing, 133 pages, in a nearly pocket-sized format—is indeed a breathtaking, suffocating achievement, a work to return to and be undone by again and again.