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Fiction: Prose is But a Stage

Magdalena Tulli, Flaw (2007). Courtesy of Archipelago Books.

Magdalena Tulli (translated by Bill Johnston), Flaw (Archipelago, 2007)

“In a narrative every object is always magic.”
-Italo Calvino

Polish author Magdalena Tulli has published four award-winning books, three of which have been translated into English and made available to the U.S. market by Archipelago Books. Although dialogue and traditional character development, as well as concrete settings seem to be eschewed, the books are not experiments; they are eloquent renderings of Calvino’s expansive sparsity, and take part in Borges’s infinite re-ordering.

Tulli’s first book, Dreams and Stones (Archipelago, 2004), published in Poland in 1995, is a fluid meditation on memory and narrative. In charting the construction and interconnectedness of a city, she demonstrates the futility, once the city has manifested, to envision the original plans—just as the Kahn of Invisible Cities is at a loss to comprehend the cities of his empire, no matter how many accounts are related to him by Marco Polo. Moving Parts (translated in 2005) centers around a narrator who is literally unreliable, constantly losing interest in the story and the characters at hand.

Flaw, which chronicles the disruption of an unnamed city by economic collapse and the appearance of refugees, fully engages the reader in Tulli’s meditation on story. The work opens with a rendering of a tailor, in whose shop-window hang the cloaks and uniforms for the characters that the tailor will stitch. Soon the point of view shifts to the first person, taking the voice of a set designer, and the rest of the city is drawn on plywood backgrounds, a skeletal, provisional environment that brings to mind the naked sound stage of Lars Van Triers’s film Dogville.

Tulli has been compared to the Polish author and artist Bruno Schulz, a contemporary of Kafka who wrote of mysterious circumstances and deceiving appearances. In allusion, Tulli invokes the mysterious train of the story “Sanatorium at the Sign of the Hourglass.” But her concise prose style, though lyrical and rich, is devoid of flourish or second thoughts, a nod to the perfection and invisibility of style called for by intercontinental postwar writers. The work also makes reference to the Nazi’s Germanization of the Poles, along with the Eastern European experience of emigrating to America, but the historical setting is vaster, and could represent wars, revolution and repression in other parts of the world. When an amateur militia is assembled to suppress the refugees, Tulli has a new backdrop rolled out with panels that have been removed, “evident signs of censorship” that mean to erase the defacement of dissent along with repressive bloodshed. The gaping holes in the façade, once riddled with bullets or graffiti of the resistance, are a vague but persistent reminder of what happened before.

A detail as allegorical as this brings to mind the endless regime changes that attempt with futility to whitewash the past. It is the novel’s references to so many events of history that makes it powerful, and its reduction from individual consciousness to objects, clothing and ephemera that makes it possible to grasp.


David Varno

DAVID VARNO's writing has appeared in BOMB, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Electric Literature, Paste, Tin House, Words Without Borders, and elsewhere.


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2007

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