How can we live in a world that turns out to be a trap? How can we talk about something we have barred ourselves access to for many years? Noise by Magdalena Tulli is an intimate story woven into the grand history of a century marked ignominiously by war’s “times of contempt”; it is a tale about how to survive catastrophe—how to clear the minefield of one’s memory, come out of hiding, become master of one’s own fate.
The heroine is a little girl, the daughter of a woman whose emotions remained trapped behind the barb wire of Auschwitz. Her few loved ones are destroyed by the war, while in the world of those who have survived, in brutalized communist Poland, goodness, empathy, and understanding are in short supply. With her inability to connect with people and her lack of self-confidence, the girl becomes easy prey for her peers. Even years afterward, as a teenager, then as the mother of two sons, she remains the hostage of the little girl. Many years later, a cousin in America she is not fond of sends her a letter that triggers a stream of recollections and at the same time also of events.
To begin with, it might seem that this new novel is simply a continuation of the brilliant, prize-winning Italian Stilettoes (2011). Nothing could be further from the truth—in Noise Tulli effects a spectacular escape from the world of her nightmares presented in the earlier book. The little girl in this novel, left to her own devices, befriends an imaginary fox, terror of chicken coops, object of hatred of every society—like her, a perpetual outsider. No surprise here—in many folk mythologies the fox personifies the trickster, someone whose status is ambiguous, who is both despised and admired, scapegoat and also guide to new worlds. Much later, the teachings of the fox allow the heroine to escape from her oppression; to find understanding for her mother, who was an inadvertent victim; to forgive not only her persecutors but also those who once were directly responsible for the afflictions of wartime, and now populate the imaginarium of European memory, or these days rather post-memory. All of them, victims and oppressors, in the twentieth century constitute what she calls a great “family.”
Tulli’s novel says more about postwar Poland and Europe than many volumes written by historians and sociologists. In Noise the living converse with the dead; in the underworld, at a tribunal presided over by the Fox, there is a great judgment upon what has happened. Tulli’s prose is about the need for forgiveness, about how to live in such a way that the sense of shame by which victims are stigmatized does not turn, paradoxically, into a sense of guilt. About how to find a way out of the chalk circle in which those wounded by ricochets struggle with their undeserved suffering. The terse, ironic tone of the writing has an admixture of the phantasmagoric. But this phantasmagoria works in the interests of a great metaphor that has the dimensions of a realistic argument. Noise is a psychotherapy session, an overcoming of trauma with the aid of literature. Literature can become a lifeline across many an abyss in life. Magdalena Tulli’s new novel is the clearest proof of this.
Translated by Bill Johnston
“Children are a lottery,” she said to me one time, a few decades later, during a walk in the park, by the swings. In her time she’d played that lottery; she hadn’t won anything, and had been disappointed.“There’s no way to tell in advance who’ll be born. You’re at the mercy of chance.”
She may even have liked walking in the park, though no doubt she would have preferred to take a bus ride somewhere far away, on her own. By that time, however, if she’d done that she would almost certainly have found herself in trouble and been brought home in a police car many hours later. So the park was the only option.
“A child is like a box,” I remarked. “It’s hard to take something out that you didn’t put in.” She wouldn’t agree with me. It could happen, some people had managed it, once a long time ago she’d had hopes of succeeding as well. She had counted on it. She expected there to be something in the box. After all, the whole point of a lottery is that it gives you a chance. But for a lottery you need good luck.
There was a cold wind, and I fastened her coat under her chin.
“I never had the opportunity to put anything into the box, if you want to know, ma’am,” she said. “There was no connection with her, nothing I tried worked. It was nothing but problems from the very start.”
I looked into the well of decades past. The problems lay at the bottom, tiny as pebbles.
“And now? Is it any better now?” I asked, taken aback by the thought that my mother was right after all: it was a lottery and you could win something. Were my sons not better children than I had been in my time?
And my mother—had she not in fact taken out of the box more than she had put in?
She eyed me doubtfully; perhaps for a moment she had the impression that I looked a little like the daughter she barely remembered anymore.
“No, it’s not better. She hasn’t visited me in years,” she replied. “She never even calls. “Whenever I ask her for anything she always refuses.”
The pills did no good. They couldn’t. True, the illness would have progressed more slowly if my mother had begun taking them right away, instead of reassuring us that the worst had been ruled out. Because it was precisely then that she got some crazy notionabout the medication that I found later in the dresser, the seal still intact on the container. We’d been told thatthe pills would delay the worsening of her condition. But the illness was incurable. Incurable? His mother couldn’t understand what that meant. That nothing could be done? That we had to be content with flashes of lucidity while they still occurred? “How can you allaccept something like that, how can you sit with arms folded, waiting for it to get worse!” she would say angrily. As for her, she wouldn’t agree to it, she refused to just sit and wait. “Nothing is inevitable!” she would shout, forgetting that raising her voice was not her style. At the district clinic—she would remind us, before she began to suspect we were driven by ill will—my mother had had a good doctor who didn’t prescribe medications of that kind. In his mother’s view we should have gone back to that doctor from the clinic. The entire time, she asked only one thing of me—that Istop constantly interfering. That I let my mother go wherever she wanted on the bus on her own, that I give her a break with the park. She ought to have complete freedom, it was her right, didn’t she live in a free country? Independence would supposedly be the thing to keep her in good shape. Independence alone.
It was the only remedy.
“She hasn’t been in good shape for a long time now,” I would point out, trying to bring his mother back to reality.
“Exactly,” she would retort. “Because you took away her independence.” And turning to my mother, she’d say:
“Promise me you’ll stop going to that new doctor.”
My mother would have done anything in her power to reassure his mother and make her feel better. It was just that the promises she made vanished from her mind. But she didn’t forget that it had been about the pills. At supper she hid her pill in her pocket, wrapped in a handkerchief.
At moments like those, when his mother voiced her opinions about diagnoses and treatments, the same anger would grow in both of us, spilling out between us like a stormy sea. I couldn’t forgive her for incessantly demanding the impossible of me. In her view it was my bounden duty to hold back the unavoidable, while inside me, along with the little girl and her fox there was also someone I didn’t know all that well, who was capable of anything, who would have had the strength to fight back, to actively oppose her will. I studied her out of the corner of my eye: we were somewhat alike, if not in appearance, then in character at least. It was hardly surprising, we had common ancestors after all. Yetthe person within me who could have opposed her was bound and gagged. Their fury raged in me, but it was helpless and mute. Anger did not translate into action, it was incapable of pushing his mother aside. Whoever the person was, they couldn’t be relied on. I had to seek help elsewhere. I had to meet with him, with her son. He agreed, he found time for me, but right away he gave me to understand that he found my request indelicate.
It was his mother, he reminded me. He would support her whether or not he thought she was right. His gaze shone with the reflected light of his firmness. He could be firm when he was defending the rules she had introduced, when he refused to cast doubt on the opinions she would express in her imperious tone. That was the only time he was capable of being firm.
“What did you expect of me?” he asked.
Her madness inspired my respect as well as my resistance. When I found myself in the car with her, the houses and trees fled past as if we were about to cross the finish line in a world rally championship. She radiated confidence that she was indestructible and that others too could not be harmed while they were with her. After the loss of the court case she came to her sensesa little, and she agreed to slow down.
The day after the evening when my mother had died, I completed the formalities, then I went to see his mother. We sat in the kitchen drinking tea. We were both dazed by the sudden absence, which seemed overwhelming. That morning I’d been looking for the receipt for my father’s cemetery plot. I’d found it in an envelope that also contained a letter addressed to the two of us. I laid it on the table. His mother started reading it and frowned. The letter stated that my mother wanted no gravesite or funeral, that she wished to be cremated.
“In nineteen seventy-eight she couldn’t have written that,” his mother said as she studied the shaky characters.
It was true, itcouldn’t possibly have been in seventy-eight. In those days she was healthy, her elegant handwriting hadn’t even begun to falter. The remote date in the top right corner spoke tellingly about my mother’s personal calendar, in which time did not flow forward in a straight line but strayed, looped back, and retreated thirty years.
I was tormented by the idea that my mother may have died feeling thirsty. It monopolized my thoughts. I told his mother about it. She placed a hand on my arm.
“I’m sure you did the best you could,” she said.
Shortly before her illness and death, his mother went to a historical exhibit about a concentration camp, the last and worst of those she had been in. I was surprised—previously she’d given such things a wide berth. As for him, he refused to go with her.
That was why she called me. She thought that if she went alone, she wouldn’t come back. She was afraid, I was certain of it.
Her last and worst camp was located near the city of Linz; she arrived there from another, better camp outside Dresden, in a column of prisoners who had made a formidable journey of several weeks in freight cars, interspersed with long marches. By some miracle, no one died. The commandant of the evacuated camp had a bag of sugar and a spoon. He gave the bag to an NCO, and the NCO, amid the infernal chaos of roads and train stations, every day put a spoonful of sugar in each prisoner’s mouth . At their destination, the camp authorities took charge of the convoy. At that point the responsibility of the conscientious previous commandant came to an end. In that last, worst camp, my mother’s sister survived twelve days; for the last few she was unconscious. On the thirteenth day, the Americans arrived. If they’d come later, she probably wouldn’t have lasted till the fourteenth day.
In the subdued lighting she stared at the emblem over the gateway, the interior of the barracks. And the rows of photographs. Afterwards she sat on a chair by the cloakroom as if she were waiting for something else.
It was the thirteenth day, but I could see with my own eyes that the Americans had not arrived. I had to take her away. That was exactly why I was there.
Translated by Bill Johnston