Author:  Magdalena Tulli

Publisher: Archipelago Books

ISBN: 978-1-935744-08-5

Because Bill Johnston led the workshop I attended at the Bread Loaf Translators' Conference, I bought his translation of In Red by Magdalena Tulli. Johnston has published over thirty book-length translations from the Polish, including poetry, prose, and drama. He teaches literary translation at Indiana University.

Magdalena Tulli is a Polish novelist and translator and is one of Poland's leading writers. She's won the Gdynia Literary Prize and been short-listed five times for the Nike Award, Poland's most prominent literary prize. While her own novels have been translated into a number of languages, she has translated Proust, Calvino, and Fleur Jaeggy into Polish.

Tulli's novel In Red is a physically small paperback, a five-and-a-half by six-and-a-half-inch rectangle, 158 pages, around 46,000 words. More than a short story. A novella. But rich in image, rich in language, rich in vision.

It is—more or less—the modern history of a fictional Polish town somewhere on the Baltic coast, close to Sweden, but too close to Germany, too close to Russia. It begins: 

"Whoever has been everywhere and seen everything, last of all should pay a visit to Stitchings. Simply take a seat in a sleigh and before being overcome by sleep, speed across a plain that's as empty as a blank sheet of paper, boundless as life itself. Sooner or later this someone—perhaps a traveling salesman with a valise full of samples—will see great mounds of snow stretching along streets to the four corners of the earth, toward empty, icy expanses. He'll see pillars made of icicles, their snowy caps lost in the dark of a wintry sky. He'll draw into his lungs air as sharp as a razor that cuts feeling away from breath. He'll come to appreciate the benefits of a climate forever unencumbered by restless springtime breezes, by the indolence of summer swelter, or the misty sorrows of autumn. He'll take a liking to frost, which conserves feelings and capital, protecting both from the corruption of decay."

Before WWI, Stitchings' three main industries were Loom & Son, merchant and manufacturer of ladies' corsets, Strobbel's porcelain factory, and Neumann's phonograph-record factory. During the war, an enemy plane managed to bomb both Strobbel's and Neumann's warehouses. Although the colonel in charge of the town's defense emptied his pistol at it, "the airplane taunted the colonel. Time and again it appeared out of the blue, only to soar upward at the last minute, before the very noses of the artillerymen. The cannon was hurriedly reloaded and fired again. The aircraft, its undercarriage in shreds, went spinning halfway across the sky, trailing clouds of smoke as black as pitch, and crashed into the black rotunda of the municipal gas works. There was an explosion, and gas lighting went out across the entire town."

After the war, Neumann's works convert to manufacturing radio sets; Strobbel's porcelain factory—now Slotsky & Co—begins producing commodes and sanitary appliances; and Loom, which had survived the war on military contracts manufacturing shoddy uniforms, becomes a munitions plant.

Aspiring writers are told (I was told; I tell aspiring writers): Read the best stuff you can get your hands on. Read In Red because it demonstrates how much can be said with relatively few words. It opens possibilities for fiction. We learn about the town; we follow its history through the war and into the post-war period; we meet a number of vivid characters: Emilka, the Loom daughter who refuses to die properly; her suitor, Kazimierz, the town counselor's haughty son; Felek Chmura, Kazimierz's orderly, who returns from the war to become the town's leading citizen; Madam at the bawdy house that services both the town's leading citizens and the sailors from the port; Natalie Zugoff, a chanteuse so imperious, so extraordinary. and so captivating she can fill Jacques Rauch's theater night after night, and more and more.

Toward the end of the novel, Tulli writes, "Whoever wishes to leave Stitchings can avail himself of two methods. If he is an outsider—for example, a traveling salesman of his own virtues, obliged to compete for a favorable market, or a collector of experiences whom life has taught humility—without a second thought he ought to ascend at dawn in a passenger cabin suspended beneath a dirigible balloon. For it's easy to sail among the clouds, where the sun casts its pink rays over the cranes of the port and the docks, over the roofs of the banks, over the stock exchange . . ." If this person wishes to leave by ship or train, "he'll quickly realize that the desire to leave bears no relation whatsoever to the calendar or the clock. The right moment never comes at any time." Without a balloon, we are stuck in Stitchings forever.