Stitchings, the town in which Magdalena Tulli’s In Red exclusively takes place, is one of those fictional locales which always has me wondering if there is some place in reality perhaps so-named that has been reimagined, or if it truly exists only as a fantastic realm in the author’s imagination. With a poor working knowledge of anything geographic in general, it would not have surprised me to find out that Tulli’s Stitchings did in fact exist—but it is largely due to the power this imaginary town wields in dictating the course of the novel’s many intertwining threads that contributes to a nagging feeling that there must be something corporeal to this place, for it to grip its chronicler so tightly.
The narration never shifts its focus from the town: every narrative move seems to be led by flow of time through this singular place. Characters and plots appear and disappear as their significance waxes and wanes in relation to the life of the town itself. You cannot choose a favorite protagonist, for as soon as you do, Stitchings may have already lost interest, or better yet, said protagonist may well die (as most quickly do), but having died, might yet also return (not uncommon as well). The love story, the war story, these are not narrative frameworks Tulli has time to dwell on, for Stitchings presses on without regard for a classic conflict-resolution arc. A single bullet can be fired which will continue to orbit the earth, completely ignored, until it reappears in the town thirty pages later, firmly lodging itself in a man’s chest.
Throughout the book however, like the most insidious of villains, Stitchings remains largely concealed in the background. As its own entity, the town is only brought into the foreground a few times where the audience is directly addressed in the manner of a travel or tourist agency.
The book begins:
Whoever has been everywhere and seen everything, last of all should pay a visit to Stitchings. Simply take a seat in a sleigh and, before being overcome by sleep, speed across a plain that’s as empty as a blank sheet of paper, boundless as life itself.
As the book continues, there is indeed a feeling of drifting off into sleep, and emerging in a dream of Tulli’s writing, filling the landscape before you. Her seemingly easy mastery of language assists in transitioning you from scene to scene without you ever having noticed. There is a poetry in her language that shifts from the figurative to the literal so seamlessly that it is easy to forget what is description and what is action:
For Guards Street took its shape from the sinuous melody of the taps played every evening on the bugle. The instrument’s golden sounds soared into the air and wafted over the roofs of the apartment houses. But on the far side of the market square they dropped at once with the labored flight of a stunned bird.
From one sentence or paragraph to the next, I often realized new surroundings with no recollection of how I got there—such is the fluidity of her writing. Of course, this sometimes made for a bit of confusion, but as I had the text in front of me, I could go back and re-trace my steps, but this very act is part of the trap of the town that Tulli has put together.
In this town, rings that seemed lost forever are found once again, a dead husband refuses to die so that his wife cannot remarry—nothing leaves Stitchings, it is its own microcosm. And so it is shocking when Natalie Zugoff, a singer brought for the town theatre, appears near the end of the book, when you are sure things must be wrapping up. Understanding the nature of the book, however, as forcefully compelled by the long life of an entire town, that we have such a late introduction to a merely human character becomes unsurprising. In a way, Tulli has made something of a difficult trap for herself as author by writing a town that refuses to be wrapped up.
As the book comes to a close, Tulli must return the narration to a direct address to the reader, for there is simply no other way to end the book. It is an authorial address to both the reader and the narrative voice of the novel:
If you wish to leave Stitchings, do not hesitate for a moment: you have to do it between the capital letter and the period, without clinging to any broken-off thought, without waiting for the final word.