Anyone who makes it to Stitchings appreciates its promising misty grayness and the moist warm breeze in which desires flourish so handsomely. A wide choice of furnished rooms with all the modern conveniences, and homemade meals available just around the corner, cheap and filling. Daybreaks and sunsets at fixed times. A moderate climate, flowers throughout the year. It’s well worth making the long steamboat journey, putting up with seasickness, till the port of Stitchings comes into view crowded with freighters flying various flags. Or for the same number of days rattling along in a train, dozing form tedium, rocking to the rhythmic clatter of the wheels. The visitor–for instance a traveling salesman with a valise bursting at the seams, as if instead a few samples he had stuffed it with all of his possessions–can choose to come by land or by sea, restricted only by the properties of the place form which he sets out. But his choice of route determines the fate that awaits him upon his arrival.
Magadalena Tulli’s In Red is a read worth your time. And your thought. Known for her prose works, In Red shows her talent for a surreal and encompassing narrative that, at 160 pages, is a workhorse of a novel. The reader is instantly thrown into the story of the town of Stitchings, a small town in the imaginary fourth partition of Poland. Set in an indeterminate time, the disembodied narrator swiftly takes through the lives of inhabitants and the main character, which is the town itself.
Not that this is a novel of fireside chats, but a novel of mendacity via greed, jealousy, neglect and imprisonment. Centered around three businesses–Strobbel’s factory, Neumann’s factory and Loom and Sons. These business keep the town afloat but eventually competitiveness and greed destroy in one way or another each one. A love affair begins between a young general and Emilka, only daughter of the Looms. Unfortunately, she is killed, yet her heart continues to beat on. This is where the novel begins it’s teetering between worlds–the real and the unreal. It carries over into the narrative as well, wondering exactly what we are reading, but always wanting to continue.
There are many imaginable oddities amidst the rotating cast of characters who all seem to intertwine in some way. Emilka, young girl dead with a beating heart, wants to go dancing, a man is shot and the bullet boomerangs around the world only to come back and hit him again, and an celebrated singer who disappears forever in an air balloon. Throughout the novel, characters die but don’t seem to fade away. This is best said by townspeople when sipping coffee at the local cafe:
“The dead are running the show.”
And this permeates the novel making it feel ominous tonally and with their lives caught in the space between life and death. Stylistically, Tulli incorporates her gift for metaphor and a well-bred distant voice meant for story-telling. Everything seems to wrap back around again, like the ways out of Stitchings:
Merchants locked themselves in their storerooms along with their wives and children, barricading the door, so as to wait out the worst and then simply flee–to the port or the train station. But what port were they talking about! They must have dreamed it. See–there was nothing but a boarded-up harbor building, the narrowest of jetties with a dilapidated bench at the end, over which a hurricane lamp hanging from a pole was lit after lunch and put out come what may after supper. By the landing stage, a peeling fishing boat rocked on the waves, its skipper afraid to take it out to sea. A real ship could surely only enter this harbor by mistake. And what kind of train station was that, it’s ticket offices bolted shut, the chintz curtains drawn from inside, with scraps of timetables blowing about the waiting room by the unlit stove.
A Polish writer of note (paired with a translator of note Bill Johnston), Tulli continues to showcase her growth as a writer. Weaving the fantastical fairy tale about the impossible fate of its habitues indelibly marked by the fate of the town. Tulli knows that there is beauty in tragedy and sets it before us beautifully.
Other works by Magdalena Tulli: