Review | Monday 14 November 2011
In Red, the new novella from Magdalena Tulli, tells the story of the ill-fated town of Stitchings. From the very first sentence, though, Tulli makes it clear that this will not be a story that ends happily: ‘Whoever has been everywhere and seen everything, last of all should pay a visit to Stitchings.’ Tulli is regarded as one of Poland’s most important writers and it is easy to see why: her unusual prose is charged with irony and ambiguity that leads in a variety of unexpected directions, and it is the strength of her unusual narrative voice that ultimately knits together the disparate material in this wonderfully strange book.
In Red is not so much one coherent narrative, but rather a series of stories that seek to portray the transformation and ultimate ruin of a small town in Poland during the first half of the twentieth century. Indeed, the novel lacks anything like a protagonist, and the characters it does portray tend to appear and disappear quite suddenly, which is appropriate, given that virtually all of them die in unfortunate twists of fate. But even these dramatic events are typically related in indirect ways; the death of two significant characters in a hot air balloon, for example, is related in a rather unassuming sentence, which notes that ‘they disappeared in a gap in the clouds and that was the last the spectators staring into the sky saw of them’.
Tulli’s gift for understatement injects a wicked sense of humour into events that would otherwise read as tragic, and this laconic approach gives the novel the air of a twisted fairytale. Fittingly, the book engages in gestures at other points that share much in com- mon with works of so-called ‘magic realism’. A young woman whose heart has stopped beating is pronounced dead, yet she firmly refuses to die and continues to perambulate through Stitching and read novels in her study. A successful local business is destroyed because it was built on a foundation of ice that suddenly thaws. Much of the narrative derives its interest from these unexpected events.
In this sense, In Red works as a depiction of place undertaken through extreme literary measures, and would appeal to fans of books such as Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and Jenny Erpenbeck’s brilliant Visitation. Although some readers may find In Red’s fantastic plot twists frustrating at points, the book’s beautiful prose, which repeatedly employs rhetorical tropes related to sewing, manages to patch together a series of discrete stories into a fully-realised work. Aside from its local pleasures, though, In Red also serves as an intriguing meditation on the relationship between lived history and the act of storytelling itself, and how the travails of individual people can unexpectedly take on a much larger significance.
Emmett Stinson is the author of Known Unknowns