Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

Magdalena Tulli: In Red

Written by Brady Walker
Active Image  “Whoever has been everywhere and seen everything, last of all should pay a visit to Stitchings.” This is the first sentence of In Red by Magdalena Tulli, a recent translation that caps off the project of translating her entire catalog, four slim novels that, on average, barely surpass 150 half-pages. The narrative focus never strays from the fictional, presumably Eastern European, town of Stitchings, but under Tulli’s narrative microscope, Stitchings twitches and evolves in unlikely ways. 
  
       

InRed.jpg“Whoever has been everywhere and seen everything, last of all should pay a visit to Stitchings.” This is the first sentence of In Red by Magdalena Tulli, a recent translation that caps off the project of translating her entire catalog, four slim novels that, on average, barely surpass 150 half-pages. The narrative focus never strays from the fictional, presumably Eastern European, town of Stitchings, but under Tulli’s narrative microscope, Stitchings twitches and evolves in unlikely ways.

The novel can be divided into three parts, though there are no chapter breaks, where the narrator echoes the initial introduction of Stitchings, but a completely different Stitchings than the one we’ve seen changing under our thumbs. We start in a pre-World War I era Stitchings, cold and frozen over, a quaint and comfortable place to its denizens, but wholly undesirable to outsiders, which is why the narrator describes it as the last thing on a vast itinerary.

In the next “chapter,” Stitchings transforms to a gray, but warm, coastal town, someplace that—the horrors and misfortunes of the previous chapters notwithstanding—is presented as a comely destination. This introduction is followed by another “chapter” of sudden deaths and downward turns of fortune, and the reader has, by this time, learned that if the narrator is interested enough in a character, she will see that character through to his demise, which is certain and typically premature. Sometimes they come back, but not to much effect.

The last chapter starts with a description of Stitchings as a place you should leave immediately, but you won’t because everything is too perfect. That cluster of paragraphs is really the only indication that life there is "perfect," since all of our many characters are sick or lonely or both, not to mention dying.

The narrative reads like an Eastern European 100 Years of Solitude in miniature, with no central characters, just a cluster of lives that form an overall impression of a sliver of the history of Stitchings. Characters flit in and out, sometimes forgettably so, to form a bustling picture of a tiny, tiny village that grows—through war and pillage, political corruption and forever-open eyes looking for the next business opportunity—into modernity.

Thanks to the tireless translator, Bill Johnston, I have now read every Tulli novel, and they are unlike anything else I’ve come across in my readings, bearing only slight resemblance to this or that. Characters are like set pieces, and the entire world Tulli builds feels like an intricate, lovingly built toy that is anything but precious: it is endlessly moveable and malleable. It shifts around you, a poem fighting its fate as a novel, a world so detailed and fast-paced that it’s hard to remember the previous page for all you’re experiencing on the present.

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