"This is Magdalena Tulli’s most mature novel, born from the urgency of the cruel question: why does one write?" (Lidia Burska, Res Publica Nowa)
Magdalena Tulli is one of the leading Polish writers of the middle generation. When her debut novel, Dreams and Stones, appeared, she was acclaimed as an author with great potential. The critics were thrilled by her rich imagination, lively language and masterful command of the writer’s art, and compared her with Bruno Schulz, Italo Calvino, Georges Perec and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. In her new novel, Moving Parts, the narrator struggles to tell a banal tale of marital infidelity, but the book is a really a debate on the opacity of the world; in it the story told is of truth’s last resort, while at the same time being an illusion, because the ”moving parts” of the title have the real causative power. The ”moving parts” are the devices of language, unexpectedly diverting the flow of the story, sending it off on another track. The tale of Irena Feuchtmeier’s betrayal of her husband, ”an expert on sea transport”, and her affair with a circus acrobat, is echoed in the reported story of the affair between a black trumpeter, John Maybe, and the wife of a man called Fochtmajer, who owned the ”Polish Word” printing firm and was killed by the Germans while trying to escape in September 1939. The narrator himself is wounded by a bullet fired by a Wehrmacht officer. There are other characters in the background, too, one of whom brings in the theme of ethnic cleansing in the Balkans; there are also suggestions that we should be reading Tulli’s novel as a would-be, unwritten romance and as a story about the agonies of the twentieth century. The novel is written with perverse, melancholy humour: the feeling of loss – the loss of sense, the loss of someone’s presence, the loss of the truth about our life – can never be satisfied.
Creating worlds? There’s nothing simpler. You just shake them out of your sleeve. What for? To enjoy the sight of them twinkling as they rise towards the light, shuddering like soap bubbles before the darkness swallows them. As they’re flying up, it’s as if they’ve already fallen. Aren’t they lovely? It doesn’t take much thought to call them up and effortlessly cast them into the void, and there’s no one to save them. The narrator doesn’t know any more about it; he’s a rather second-rate figure, after all, as he admits to his chagrin. Founded as he is on the basis of faits accomplis, he’s only really got one concern – making sure he doesn’t immediately sink into banality at the very first sentence. If he could, he would much rather walk away with his hands in his pockets and leave it all to the mercy of fate, over which he has been denied any influence, or at least obstinately remain in eloquent, arrogant silence. But the narrator realises he has nowhere to go, and that he hasn’t been granted the privilege of arrogance. The sort of life, as far as you can call it a life, that he is fated to lead, offers no opportunities for choice. One little story, effortlessly shaken out of someone’s sleeve, must suffice for the entire essence of his existence, one that’s hungry for subjects and opinions, and embeds itself in their tissue like a rare kind of voracious parasite. The narrator is eager to believe that the person who conjured him up knows more, has a grip on the whole thing and is aware of the ending. But he doesn’t appear in person, either on this or any of the following pages; he leaves letters and faxes unanswered. Perhaps he’s been lounging in bed all week on crumpled sheets, with his back to the world and his face to the wall, with empty bottles or used needles lying about the place, who knows? So when a tragic turn of events sends a giggle through the back rows, or when a joke falls flat in sombre silence, the narrator knows there’s no one to look to – the whole thing’s only in his head. He must humbly put a full stop and go on to the next sentence as if nothing has happened. Like a clown in chequered pantaloons who falls off a stool amid gales of laughter that go rolling around the audience, then immediately climbs a wobbly ladder without breaking off his monologue: he’s a pitiful creature, irrevocably sent out into the sawdust yellow valley of the ring, who stumbles time and again on an even surface, a prisoner for life in the false arena. The tricks he performs in the sawdust ring are tediously familiar to everyone in the audience, even the little children, who fidget in anticipation of the elephant. The monologues are familiar, too – everyone knows them by heart, including the small round button of the final sentence, which the loop of the beginning hooks on to, as well as the dubious, unconvincing punch-line that’s just asking for an indifferent shrug. Every word has been heard before at least a thousand times. So what if they were in different sentences? No one cares about the details. It’s all so tiresomely similar, say the glazed looks on people’s faces. That’s why it’s better to be the reader than the narrator. As you sit and chew your gum, it’s nice to set the pages rustling fast, turn the last one and put the book lightly back on the shelf. That’s a much better fate than losing your trousers in a clownish chase after a runaway plot, getting tangled up in the breakneck aerobatics of acrobats and the deceitful tricks of conjurors, and ending up being hit smack bang on the nose by a rotten apple core, thrown by some unknown person. There, in the middle of the ring, with a few hundred pairs of eyes fixed on you, almost anything can happen and nothing surprises anyone, but never for a moment should you stop to wipe your face on the large spotted handkerchief that served as a prop just now. Instead you must take lots of low bows with a broad, bright red lipstick smile painted on your cheeks. Without sparing your arms, time and again you must sweep the air to the ground with your shabby bowler. When he’s only just reached the spot where he can put a full stop, the narrator is already having doubts whether the whole circus farce can really shift the weight of what should have been said here. Perhaps the bored spectators, with their eyes glued to the ring, can only find enough insight for the outside world to take each bow absolutely literally. If the narrator’s voice clamours for attention too insistently he will bring angry impatience down on himself; a humble request for a couple of pennies would be more favourably received. And so there’s no chance of a knowing wink or a shadow of fellow feeling. And there’s no salvation from loneliness in sight. But as we’re already into comparisons, isn’t it better to be the narrator than a character? Who’d want to be a character, walking the tightrope between a lost past and an uncertain future, like an acrobat dressed in a tight-fitting leotard so you can see his muscles at work and his defenceless belly going numb? Even that’s not enough – the audience will soon be bored to death, unless the acrobat gets a lady partner, the spangled sequins glittering on her flimsy costume, and her shoulder blades sporting a huge pair of butterfly wings. If she’s as crazy as he is, she’ll fling herself into his arms above the chasm, with no choice but to trust him blindly – or else she’ll rely on a safety net, too, as long as one’s been hung out below. But the show can only be really thrilling without the net. The wide open space overhead is breathtaking, and for a moment the audience feel as if their own bodies are balancing on the ropes up there, where they can’t see any restrictions, where freedom is apparently unlimited; there they meet and part, and pass each other over the abyss, with infinite space at their command.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones