WHOEVER HAS BEEN EVERYWHERE and read everything should now pay a visit to the novels of Magdalena Tulli. Tulli’s four books, translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston and published in the United States by Archipelago Books over the past decade, meditate on the creation of worlds. Her rapid, orderly sentences rattle with nouns. She forgets nothing: fountains, helicopters, hotels, blankets, clocks, paper, steel. “The creation of worlds! Nothing could be simpler,” asserts the narrator of her third novel, Moving Parts. “Apparently they can be conjured out of thin air.” It takes only the laying down of streetcar lines for a destination to come into existence. Soon enough a character, perhaps a tramp, perhaps a moody divorcée, wanders along, looking for some sense of action to cling to. Tulli’s prose is astonishing in its beauty and leaps of imagination. She has translated Proust and Calvino into Polish, and her kinship with the latter is especially marked. She also bears comparison to Borges and Marquez, as Tulli is a fabulist of the first order, manufacturing from cheap, ordinary words fairytale worlds like intricate jeweled boxes. Tulli’s work has been picked up, fondled, then set down again by critics in this country, where she is tremendously underexposed.
This is due to a misapprehension or to willful blindness. Her critical reception may be due to the assumption that women writers are concerned with the small-scale and domestic, no matter the material, while men, even when writing at length on suburbia and fatherhood, nevertheless are presumed to imply the world-historical. This prejudice may be compounded in the Tulli’s case by her formally unusual work, received in the United States largely as gorgeous but irrelevant fantasies. Her writing is indeed incomparably beautiful, as well as exquisitely attuned to political and social currents, past and future.
In her first book, Dreams and Stones, which won Poland’s highest literary prize in 1995, the tree of the world rises beautiful and fertile, bearing many cities in apple-shaped capsules. The cities, all different, all the same, sprout tall buildings, neat sidewalks. The sun always shines; the acoustics are excellent. Bricklayers and kindergartners begin to people the city, which is not only exceedingly functional, but ornamental as well. Adorned facades, fanciful grates and gutters, decorative stone figures, inspire the eye. The stone figures are so detailed and so finely crafted that within the stone pockets of their stone trousers or stone aprons, they carry stone letters of reference and stone certificates of residence, with the proper stone stamp or stone identification photo affixed.
Dreams and Stones especially, out of the four novels, is so amply rewarding sentence after sentence, that it would be achievement enough if it were only a pretty contraption. Opening Dreams and Stones almost at random produces tiny masterpieces of paragraphs:
[I]n any kiosk one can buy a street map of the city, folded into sixteen or thirty-two and marked on the surface by a special configuration that is like a gateway bristling with the black shafts of the letters W and A, like a great entrance guarding the teeming street names within. These names, printed in the tiniest lettering beneath closed eyes, evoke images of Sunday mornings, autumnal clouds racing across the rooftops, people in overcoats, cracked flagstones in the sidewalk, a music store with cellos in the window, an Alsatian dog with a newspaper in its mouth and a hundred thousand other things. All this breaks off suddenly at the thin line beyond which the white margin begins.
Tulli gives her reader the exhilaration of a child peering into a doll’s house or studying a finely wrought illustration from an old storybook. Her wealth of detail pleases unceasingly. Yet with the creation of beauty and imposition of order comes its opposite. Tulli’s eye is not only for loveliness, but equally for decay, corruption, ruin, and flaw.
In Dreams and Stones, as the green, bountiful tree of the world grows heavenward, while its opposite, a countertree, sinks its twigs into the earth. While birds sing in the branches above, vermin infest the boughs below the ground. These two trees are not coincidental, but conjoined halves of the same organism. And so just as hotels and hovercrafts appear in the city, so too do permanently broken washing machines, shabby apartment buildings, rusting warehouses, dead flies. In what was such a functional city, now train lines stand unconnected, only a slow, horse-drawn tram bearing passengers from one station to the other. A “city perfect in its entirety” where “every china teacup comes from somewhere and is destined for somewhere” is inevitably “eaten away by the sickness of never-ending disasters.” The city of stone crumbles, as does the city of dreams, the city of questions, and the city of memories. Even Paris becomes not the city of light, but a trash heap, with a tattered umbrella looming over it instead of the Eiffel Tower. Tulli’s fantastical cities inflate like soap bubbles, then burst to lie as lurid scum on a puddle. For all the organic nature of the tree and its underground double, it is at bottom the manmade power of creation and destruction that animates Tulli’s work. We might recall that there are other creators of worlds besides novelists who also have ambitions to cleanse and purify.
Anyone who visits the novels of Magdalena Tulli will marvel at the snow that perpetually binds the town of Stitchings, created three times over in overlapping narratives in In Red, her most recent novel to be published in the United States (2011). Like Dreams and Stones, In Red is an alluring fantasy of creation and decay, the focus as much on the city of Stitchings as on its inhabitants. For all its immense charm, In Red is embedded in a vicious slice of Polish history, the period between World War I and World War II. The novel’s political and social resonances should be abundantly clear. For whoever would visit Magdalena Tulli’s shimmering cities must visit as well those forlorn cities of the dead, where strange traces — shoes, hair — are preserved in eerie effusion. Though Tulli herself belongs to the generation born after the war, her mother is a concentration camp survivor. Tulli claims writing about the war years is passé among current Polish literati, and that she is somewhat of an outsider in that regard. That is, the Holocaust is explicitly the screen against which Tulli’s fiction should be read. Without this context, Tulli’s books may be passed off as ornate gewgaws, tours de force of narrative wizardry, as if their technical virtuosity were their sole rationale. Such a reading blunts their scope.
Through its sparkling sleights of hand, In Red reveals a hideous human darkness, as ever present as the rotting countertree. A character who was a lowly orderly in the first version of Stitchings we encounter, set in an eternal winter tundra, becomes in the second, balmier, harborside Stitchings a war speculator and entrepreneur, buying up the porcelain factory and the phonograph disc manufactory that have been the town’s longstanding industries. The new magnate is undone by a counterfeit bill he gets at a circus. This one false note multiplies, and soon his house is stacked with pale, worthless pieces of paper. Tulli’s comic panache makes the billowing, valueless currency just one ebullient image out of many, and we might be tempted to disregard its allusion to prewar inflation and devaluation. The reader could easily miss the sentence where the snowflake logo on the town’s porcelain is redesigned as a bent-legged star. By the end of Stitching’s third incarnation, as a cosmopolitan entertainment capital, shaven-headed thugs run amok. “The world has no need of freedom. It needs purity, it needs rules, it needs boundaries,” one of their leaders says, and they break windows, chalk slogans on walls, and drag the boundary-muddlers out of their houses. If we still don’t recognize the world this dazzling book reflects to us, we are encased in our own clean, comforting ignorance.
I wonder if those of us who loll in our barges down twilight canals of contemporary literature might prefer to believe that a writer of Tulli’s vast narrative capabilities is primarily interested in playing with form. We tend to see experimentation, certainly in contemporary American fiction, as formal play, as a way of kicking against the narrative straightjacket of soap-operatic plot, but as essentially aesthetic and otherwise disengaged. Nothing could seem more artificial than Tulli’s 2006 novel Flaw, published here in 2007. It begins with a tailor sewing the uniforms, aprons, and school jackets that the characters will soon wear. Inexpert carpenters have built a town square, and territory beyond it only sloppily developed. Grates lead into sewers, but workers have neglected to construct the drains that should lead down and away from them. Flaw overflows with haphazardness, everything made of substandard materials. At every step in the manufacturing cycle, someone has been cheated: the order inflated, poorer quality materials substituted, a kickback taken, corners cut, craftsmanship nonexistent. A slapstick farce with rapid costume changes, creaky scenery, no dialog but near endless event, Tulli seems as far as she could be from a sober reckoner of prejudice and terror. On this flimsy stage, a timeworn drama plays out. The maid loves the handsome student, who ignores her. No psychological interiority is possible, as characters are only roles — the notary, his wife, the general, the orphans — and they can change roles if they can scramble into another character’s costume.
Read as metafiction, exposing and then tormenting the devices of the fiction of which it is composed, Flaw is still fascinating, but banal. Tulli doesn’t name the refugees who show up suddenly in the town square to provide dramatic tension — every drama needs some — as Jews. They could be any displaced people, Kurds, Gypsies. Their fate is as horrible as it is predictable, as order must be maintained, the square swept clean of them. Tulli’s tense, irritable narrator can barely keep the story together. It must end quickly, with an inevitable dissolution. Only someone of more skill, and with better materials, could have made something more of it, the narrator contends. Thus Flaw self-consciously reiterates a familiar tale, but not to play with story. Tulli dares us to consider what narrative inventiveness means when shoved up against a brutal, continually wretched history.
Sewing, stitching things together, is an obvious concern for Tulli, as evidenced by the name of the town in In Red, and the use of costumes as fate in Flaw. Again, this could be misread as formalist flimflammery, as if she was merely resisting the sentimentality that comes from the traditional novelistic moves of character development. Flaw’s schoolboys are those who wear schoolboy uniforms, the maids those dressed in cheap calico, overturning any gesture towards psychological realism. Yet taken within a historical and political context, where we posit that the writer has something to say about the particular world she lives in, rather than only about the texts that inhabit it, Tulli’s fascination with costume and exteriority yanks a long, red thread out of the reader’s heart.
Flaw brings to mind a scene from the Hungarian writer Imre Kertesz’s strange, quiet, autobiographical novel Fateless, first published in Hungary in 1975, 30 years after the end of the war. Kertesz wrote and translated in obscurity for most of his career, hardly known even in Hungary, until he won the Nobel Prize in 2002. The hero of Fateless is a 14-year-old boy, detained on his way to work one morning and sent to Auschwitz. Moved to Buchenwald and then another camp, the boy suffers a suppurating wound on his hip, which the medical staff take an interest in. Shipped back to Buchenwald, a doctor interviews him, wondering how such a young, foreign boy came to be in this camp, alone. “Did you do something bad?” the doctor asks him. The doctor is perplexed that the boy’s parents were never told of his deportation. This seems to him as if without precedent, most irregular. All the medical staff cluster around the boy, shaking their heads, pitying him for this awful oversight, that the young patient is here without his family. While hardly anything more can be said about the horrors of the camps — the boy’s relatives all tell him, later, to forget about it — Kertesz hits at an immensity in this dryly comic scene. The boy has only ever been a Jew because of the yellow star on his clothing, and a convict (“Did you do something bad?”) because of his striped prisoner’s outfit. He has never been handled as if he had any interiority, individuality, or any way of escaping the fate his clothing brings him. When at last he finds himself in a hospital gown in a hospital bed, the doctor carries himself as if absolutely ignorant of the processes that have brought a teenager from Budapest to the brink of extermination in Buchenwald. The boy is only a patient now, which allows the doctor to believe himself just a doctor and not a cog in a massive machine that creates order by exterminating the Other. The doctor lies to himself, creating a bit of fiction so thin that the reality it covers becomes unrelentingly present. Tulli works in a similar way, her emphasis on the stage set, the costume, allowing just such an understanding, where we can suddenly see the pulsing life force the artificial tries to banish. Flaw, for all its hijinks, is massively sad. Its depth of emotion is all the more wondrous for having been so frenetically controlled by its narrative devices.
It’s too much to say that Tulli approaches horror with supreme indirection. W.G. Sebald wanders along the coast of England, musing on fisheries and cathedrals, everything but the Holocaust, which appears as only a thin sliver of his luxuriously ample meditations. Georges Perec, too, cuts up his war memoir W with an oddly interpolated fantasy tale of a cruel Olympics. These writers who have gone sideways at their histories and memories are able to show us as much through the tiny slits they open as others who have gone at the story more nakedly. Tulli is less indirect. Her narrative lightness, that cotton candy of flimsy stage sets, rotating scenery, haphazard peopling, her unmoored narratives that fling gangsters, undead heiresses, loyal servants, and anxious mothers in a kaleidoscope of choppy scenes, compel our attention as if they were shiny toys, but the kaleidoscope starts with a real and horrifying image before shattering it. Our habits of reading, and especially of reading women writers, and even more so of reading formally innovative writers, skew us away from hearing her novels’ voice of human darkness. Her concentration on the small-scale, on the doll’s house, might be more comfortable for us if seen as feminine play, rather than as a powerful lens on human brutality.
But it’s all right. Let us settle down behind the unblinking lights of our readers, with their inexhaustible fount of the readable so neatly compacted within. We wriggle into the plush seats of our high-speed trains and turn the headphones on. Soon, in only a couple of hours, we’ll arrive in a marble plaza fronting a cosmopolitan hotel. A man in livery opens the door, just for us, so kind, never making eye contact. Surely he speaks English, and will order a taxi for us later. Or let us bundle ourselves into a sleigh, heaped under blankets and still freezing. Froth flies off the sweaty horses, unless it’s snow, or the driver’s spit. At last we pull up to a dilapidated inn, which turns out to be no more than a room above a bar, with a bathroom down the hall. Our window looks out on a darkened outbuilding. The heavy phone on the table buzzes when we pick up the receiver, but we have no one to call. We rustle aimlessly around the room, from bed to dresser. The backing has flaked off the mirror, and shows gaping black across our reflections. Which do we see, our beautiful cheekbones, our lacerated necks, or both at once, the light and the dark, the tree and the countertree, both growing and creaking, upward and downward, now and forever?