Thursday, July 21, 2016

Lost threads

The trumpet announced that life was beautiful, while the violin, barely keeping up, wept drunkenly that it was too fleeting.
In Red, by Magdalena Tulli, is one of the most difficult and peculiar books I've read in recent memory. I recall hearing about it upon the publication of the English translation — it's been on my list for a few years — I was sold on the promise of its poetic and fabular qualities. And this short book has plenty of that.

But I read it without really understanding it; I enjoyed parts of it thoroughly, but other parts simply mystified me. For a synopsis of the story, such as it is, you would be best served by reading the review at KGB Bar Lit Magazine.

In Stitchings it is always winter. It is a town with a port (and therefore northern). But it has salt mines (of which southern Poland has a few).

The jacket copy says it's set in an imaginary fourth partition of Poland, that it "retraces the turbulent history of the twentieth century." The third partition of Poland had divided its land among the Austrian, Prussian, and Russian empires, effectively wiping Poland off the map for 123 years, until the Treaty of Versailles restored Poland. This is the nonexistent Poland my grandparents grew up in.

In Red begins just before Archduke Ferdinand is assassinated in 1914, and war sets the town into motion, if you can call it motion. It's perpetual motion, without direction. The town's affairs, we're told, are interwoven with those of the Swedish garrison,
Its very existence should be regarded as an especially favorable sign, bearing in the mind that a Swedish garrison is better than any Russian, Prussian, or Austrian one, just as a Swedish partition is better than any other possible partition.
It's to Stockholm that the necessary documents are sent. So this then is an imaginary third partition, one that unfolded differently than the history books would have it. The third partition dissolved Poland, there was no territory left to partition; presumably the fourth partition happens after the country is re-established: But there is no Second Republic of Poland in this fiction. The hussars were dealt with by the Germans, and then the Austrian military police. The proclamation announcing the creation of the Kingdom of Poland was read by a German lieutenant.

This "new" country is not partitioned (it is not shared) so much as occupied, overrun, subsumed.
No one noticed exactly when the snowflake that appeared on Strobbel & Slotzki's products changed its shape. From that time on, each of its four arms was bent at a right angle, like the wooden rulers with which Slotzki was so prodigal.
In Red is not tracing the history of the twentieth century so much as recounting the Weimar years and the Holocaust.

According to the preview of an academic article in Translation Review
The story told here is the history of the imaginary town of Stitchings. The town's name in Polish, "Ściegi," meaning, literally, "stitches," is implausible as a place name and thus begs to be translated. While "Ściegi" has no particular cultural resonance, it is unfortunate that for the Anglophone reader "Stitchings" conjures up images of an English country town. Stitchings/Ściegi, chimerical though it is, experiences historical events that place it squarely in northern Poland, albeit in an imaginary fourth, Swedish, partition. This is clear in the Polish edition; the translation omits a specific reference to the historical partitioning powers...
All this to say: I have trouble piecing together the fictional history and fail to understand why Tulli felt it necessary to shift the historical context to include Swedish governance at all. (Can anyone offer me any insight?)

That said, In Red has several charmingly fantastical — and symbolic — elements.

The young lady whose heart stops beating but who refuses to die. The end of her hereditary line, does she represent Poland? Jeszcze Polska nie zginęła... Poland will not die.

The forgotten intended who unpicks her embroidery, the red silk threads scattered by the wind to mark those who would die. Are these the stitches that held the town together, the stitches that were pulled apart, partition after partition? The reality of the Polish spirit was strong enough for the country to regenerate after three partitions, but the fiction shows us that the failure to preserve the essence of Poland at this crucial time would be its downfall.

The magical reality slides into darkness. The tale of the diva who disappears. The typhoid, the starvation, the death, the living dead for whom there is no salvation. Denying the existence of the sea, of a port, of any exit.

KGB Bar Lit Magazine:
The book is divided into three sections, each delving into the psyche of Stitchings and its attempts to deal with the chaos that befalls it. It reads like some sort of perverse fairytale, and whether through war and confrontation, through greed, or through drunkenness and debauchery, the citizens of Stitchings ultimately cannot stave off the literal and figurative winter that enshrouds them.
LA Review of Books, Politics and the Postmodern in Magdalena Tulli:
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.
NPR (Jessa Crispin):
Magdalena Tulli is one of Poland's most celebrated writers, and with In Red there is much to treasure. She plays with the line between unexpected and quirky very well. Despite the more fantastical elements, there is nothing twee about Tulli. A gritty darkness shadows Stitchings, as the occupying German army marches in, or as the Hussars disappear in the night, or as drunken soldiers freeze to death in the snow banks on the way home from the brothel. There is desperation and poverty and starvation. She creates an atmosphere reminiscent of the dark Polish forests of older fairy tales, the ones with the high body counts.
The Quarterly Conversation
In Red is Tulli’s most conventional novel — which is not to say it could finally be described as a conventional work of fiction.

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