In the small Polish town of Stitchings, the rules of the outer world do not apply. After a girl’s heart has stopped, the family starts preparing for her funeral. Only she won’t lie down and die, insisting she’s fine and why won’t they let her go dancing? Her beloved, unwilling to marry a slightly dead girl, leaves her for another. Buildings come and go, vanishing without a trace. Bullets fly around the world for years, until someone walks into their path at the wrong hour. A girl at her sewing accidentally marks soldiers for death with her fraying red silk thread.
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And yet, there’s something familiar about the place. Magdalena Tulli, the creator of Stitchings in her new novel In Red, has no words of encouragement for the city. She writes, “If you wish to leave Stitchings, do not hesitate for a moment.” But with the invading armies and the growing violence and the corruption of businessmen and politicians, the city echoes quietly its real-life inspiration, the fate of small towns overwhelmed by the force of Poland’s 20th century.
I spoke to Tulli about the intersection of fact and fantasy, about the origins of Stitchings, and about being a Polish writer translated for an American audience.
Tell me a little about the town of Stitchings and how it came to live in your novel. And why you would not recommend the town to travelers.
It's a place with no permanent features. It changes from constant frost and positioned in the countryside, to positioned by the seaside and eternal heats. The scene looks like this and then like that while the dwellers don't notice anything special. That's what usually happens to people. We ignore big changes in our world as long as possible. A really interesting property of the human mind.
I am not the one who could recommend this town to travelers or not. We know, you and me, it's literature. The narrator, however, is convinced that the town really exists, and he actually doesn't recommend it to anybody. When the reader arrives to the end of the novel, the reason becomes clear. It's because you cannot live there and you cannot escape. It's too late to save yourself. So, don't go there.
There was a lot of geopolitical history alluded to in In Red. The conquerors and the conquered, the bombings and the men sent off to war. The book itself, however, did not seem terribly political in nature. But in any town's history, it's going to be affected by outside forces. Did you want to set the fictional Stitchings into a recognizable Poland, or did you want to place it outside of history?
I wanted to set Stitchings into a recognizable central Europe, absolutely inside of history. It's kind of short cut, but still recognizable. The idea of uniformity by violence appears in some characters of my novel and finally in the crowd, because it's coming back recently in many European countries, including Poland. It isn't yet arrived to power and we hope we are not going to end like this—I mean like most of the European nations in the ’30s.
Do you then, as a writer, think it's your job to keep an eye on the darker side of history and of the present? That you have a greater obligation?
I never think like that. I just write about what is important to me. No political guidelines, just the observation that we all suffer while mistreated or humiliated or abused. In In Red I tried to reconstruct the course of the processes and show their human background.
There have been a handful of Polish authors who had respectable appearances in English translation this year. There was a new Gombrowicz translation, and Stasiuk had two new books here, as well as your own In Red. Who in Polish literature would you recommend for an American reader?
I cannot answer this, excuse me. I haven't read anything for a long time for I was working hard, no spare time. In the past I used to read more, but not enough to pose as an expert. Certainly Gombrowicz is amongst our greatest. The other is Bruno Schulz. The problem lies in translations, however. I cannot imagine a good English translation of these two authors. I'm trying to recall good Polish writers who could be translatable. Let's say, Kazimierz Brandys, Stanis?aw Dygat. It's not the end of the list.
What, to you, makes a book impossible to translate? And how do you feel about your own English translations?
Everything more than simple and direct storytelling is a challenge to a translator. Some stories are constructed in a way that the story is not the whole of the novel. So, the rest is a big challenge, and it's very easy to get lost. Then the text may become incomprehensible or subject to misunderstanding, no matter how excellent is the English [or French or German] used by the translator. If there are things like metaphor, irony, allusion, intentional understatement, it's also a problem.
In my novels the important thing is tone. It's the key to catch metaphors, irony and so on. The tone is a challenge for translators, too. Polish texts are often deceitful, you should not lap them up. I [advised on] all my English translations and gave the translator my good advice. As far as I could see problems, it worked. English is not my language, however, so I could easily miss important points—or, on the contrary, cavil with no reason.
Jessa Crispin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Bookslut.