The residents of the houses on a big-city square seem very familiar to us. The maid with her dreams, the notary who employs her, the policeman who was once wounded on the front, the student who goes in for political rows and drunken brawls and other characters in Flaw are playing roles that at first sight seem as standard as a tailor’s templates. They belong to a past era, though not a distant one – symbolised here by a stock market crash, a local coup or a crowd of unwelcome refugees. These snapshots of people suffering oppression, expelled from their familiar surroundings into an alien world, recall a sort of prototype for some twentieth-century experiences. However, not for the first time in Tulli’s work, the characters and events depicted here only seem on the surface to be a repeatable stereotype. Vivid, empathetic description gives them back their uniqueness. At the same time, someone who appears to be the narrator of this “little tale” is by no means omnipotent as its creator. He has to fight for a better fortune for the characters he has summoned into being. He struggles with the bungling that has taken over behind the scenes in this none too realistic square, and wrestles with the negligence that is ruining people’s lives there. With her typical wealth of language and musical sense of development and polyphonic form, Magdalena Tulli takes the story to a dramatic climax, and then to a surprising conclusion. Like Moving Parts, Flaw could perhaps be called idiosyncratic “inexhaustible literature”. The feeling that the narrator has too limited a power over the represented world seems here to be accompanied by an awareness that there is an ever growing number of tales about human existence demanding description and sympathy.
- Jakub Ekier
What about the square in the other tale, evacuated and closed off during a state of emergency? And the storylines that were suddenly cut short? And the residents, displaced from their own homes by a peremptory decree though they had nothing to do with the notary’s office or his strongbox? Up till now they had lived where they belonged, uninitiated into the secrets of the freight railroad, uninformed about the seams of loose sand beneath the foundations of their buildings, unaware of the poor quality of the mortar or of misdeeds whose concealment - though not from them - ultimately drove someone to take radical steps. They did not know whose invoice they had paid; otherwise they would never have come to terms with the wrong done to them. A misfortune is easier to accept when it is incomprehensible. And now, unlike the notary, these people no longer had anything to worry about. The worst had already happened. In the place where they had lived till now, the ground had been cut from under their feet.
And it should come as no surprise if they now begin to get off the tram at the stop in front of the district offices. At first just a handful, let’s say one family, as the kind of sign that heralds the arrival of crowds - someone has to make a start, and afterwards this start seems nothing other than the presage of an already familiar continuation. So then, the tram comes to a halt and the first refugees appear - a few dark figures of various ages, in thick winter overcoats, caps with ear flaps, scarves and mittens. They step uncertainly, stupefied by the sudden downturn in their fortunes. The question of whether they may have come here at a bad moment is the last one they would wish to ask themselves. They themselves were not asked whether the reversal they experienced was convenient for them. They carry out their suitcases and bundles and arrange them on the sidewalk as if they imagined - and this without a hint of gratitude - that it had now been granted to them in compensation for the home they have lost. The tram cannot move off until they finish dealing with their baggage, until with the help of the children they drag out all the cardboard boxes tied with string, the toboggan, the plush teddy bear, the gramophone with its huge trumpet, and the canary in its cage. While they are still lifting all these things down they have something to occupy them, and while there is something to do there is still hope. Later it will be worse. The moment the tram moves off they’ll begin to look about helplessly, not knowing what to do now with the luggage or with themselves. They’ll check to see that they took the tureen with the gold band, a memento of their best china service, for which there had been no room in the bags. They will have a small quarrel, allowing their raised voices to ascend as far as the windows of the apartments. Then they’ll press their ears to the trunks to figure out which of them contains the ticking dining-room clock. But no ticking can be heard anywhere, so they’ll have to open up the trunks and in the end they’ll see that the clock is lying there safely, wrapped in tablecloths, where they had packed it. If it hadn’t been for the haste imposed by unexpected events, they could even have taken sets of tumblers and glasses; they would have carefully wrapped each one in paper and packed them with sawdust. But if it hadn’t been for those events, which had taken place beyond their control, why would they have left their homes in the first place? The youngest girl is clutching a small pillow. This is her luggage. She stumbles along, bearing her unwieldy burden; but she receives no praise, because the grownups have forgotten about the job they assigned her. She’s disappointed and tugs them, now by the sleeve, now by the coattails: She wants to go back home. She used to be the apple of their eye; then why can’t they hear her now, whining and sniffling? It’s as if wads of invisible cotton wool had gotten stuck in their ears. And when she stamps her little foot on the sidewalk, their gaze passes over her distractedly, veiled by a strange mist of more important matters. The pillow could just as easily lie on the curb, and in fact it falls there. But all the despair remains without an echo. The little girl begins to understand that there is no return to what was before, and that all her privileges are over. And so she sits on the pillow, her eyes wide with bewilderment. And the tears that did no good dry on her cheeks.
But the two older children still do not suspect a thing. While the police officer busies himself checking the papers of the adults, the older children will try to feed the canary with a crust of bread thrust between the bars of the cage, their luggage abandoned carelessly on the sidewalk. The canary, tired by the journey, bristles its feathers and turns away. All that’s left for them to do is to run round in a circle. And so they run till they drop, laughing madly. With gleeful disobedience, for fun they’ll now run away from their mother and from a distance pull silly faces at their father - who is going round the square, making an effort to be polite, something that needs no explanation in his circumstances, and asking about some small place to rent. The mother, in the meantime, is at the end of her tether. Exhausted, she sits on the suitcases, though she’d rather just have lain down on the ground. She is in an advanced pregnancy; her coat no longer buttons across her belly, and resolution is expected at any moment. The children will keep hiding round the corner then coming back again, hot and sweaty, till in the end, worn out by their own high spirits, they burst into bitter tears. And it will be clear that their laughter meant nothing, for their tears are all that really counts.
Translated by Bill Johnston