Magdalena Tulli: Moving Parts

Many years ago, in an interview I can no longer locate, Gregory Rabassa said that Osman Lins was a writer’s writer, one who tended to be liked most by those who were plagued by the creative process. It never did quite work for me, because creativity is such a variegated thing and the eye that stares at itself in Lins’s Avalovara became too decontextualized for me to see in it an analogy with the writer in the world, rather than the more romantic notion of the writer standing independent from reality. Better the anxieties of George Gissing’s New Grub Street or even Nicholson Baker’s U and I. But Rabassa quoted what he considered the ur-text for Lins, a passage by Cortazar in Hopscotch describing an ideal for a novel:

Everything would be a kind of disquiet, a continuous uprooting, a territory where psychological causality would yield disconcertedly, and those puppets would destroy each other or love each other or recognize each other without suspecting too much that life is trying to change its key in and through and by them, that a barely conceivable attempt is born in man as one other day there were being born the reason-key, the feeling-key, the pragmatism-key. That with each successive defeat there is an approach towards the final mutation, and that man only is in that he searches to be, plans to be, thumbing through words and modes of behavior and joy sprinkled with blood and other rhetorical pieces like this one.

On the other hand, there is Magdalena Tulli’s Moving Parts, a book that contextualizes itself in Polish history more than in the creative process, but still adopts a stance that appears most intuitively graspable by a writer. The metafictional conceit is there on the first page with the appearance of “the narrator,” and it can be hard to swallow. Sometimes it threatens to obliterate the text with the banal reminder that yes, this is a book you are reading. More often, though, and more successfully, Tulli debates the role of the will to organize facts and the question of who has the moral authority to do so.

The narrator does not narrate; he cannot get started. The story that he seeks out has noise in it, and the noise is not ordered. The proposed story of two couples and their love affairs jaggedly intersects with other motifs that grow more sinister, from suicide and random violence to the increasing encroachment by the Nazi occupation and gunboats at Kamchatka, although the novel never fixes itself in time as much as it does in space. (There are still cell phones popping up.) It ends in a multi-leveled and overtly Dante-esque hell, complete with elevator.

The narrator is not a narrator, but a joke of the pretense of being one. Here he goes around, trying to assemble a simple story while the world is exploding and collapsing around him. Comparisons to Bruno Schulz are inadequate, because Tulli never finds that serenity that Schulz locates in his creations. She rejects it; when the narrator looks for order (as with the elevator), it’s a trap door into more possibilities that are never sorted out. Our narrator, the old artificer, grows petulant and unlikable, not to mention trivial. To the end, the book resists structure (though not flow), and in that indefiniteness, it resembles the more stringent French nouveaux romans, but also Miroslav Krleza in its more active politicization. Tulli earns her plaudits; the book is something different from your average allegory, and it feels different.

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