"In Red" by Magdalena Tulli [25 Days of the BTBA]
As with years past, we’re going to spend the next two weeks highlighting the rest of the 25 titles on the BTBA fiction longlist. We’ll have a variety of guests writing these posts, all of which are centered around the question of “Why This Book Should Win.” Hopefully these are funny, accidental, entertaining, and informative posts that prompt you to read at least a few of these excellent works.
Click here for all past and future posts in this series.
In Red by Magdalena Tulli, translated by Bill Johnston
Publisher: Archipelago Books
Why This Book Should Win: Bill Johnston really deserves to win this award. Especially as the only translator with two longlisted titles.
Today’s post is by Sean Bye, an amateur translator of Polish and Russian, and artistic co-director of the Invisible Theatre Company. He is a graduate of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, where he studied Polish language and literature. He is based in London.
Magdalena Tulli’s In Red tells the story of the tiny, fictional town of Stitchings, in an imaginary region of Poland under Swedish occupation, where it is winter all year round and the sun only rises for an hour or so around lunchtime. The book takes us from the start of the twentieth century through to about the 1930s, as Stitchings is first occupied by the Germans in World War I and then finally in an independent Poland.
In Red toys with the idea of a small town as a world unto itself where nothing ever changes, like the local textile factory, run by generations of identical fathers and sons, all named Sebastian Loom. The story of the book, to the extent that it has one, is of this equilibrium being interrupted. As the book winds its way through the history of Stitchings the town becomes literally unrecognizable, out of nowhere developing a balmy climate and a bustling port. Main characters are born and die practically without comment as the story moves from one character to the next, each of them with their own rich, almost standalone story and most of them coming to a grisly end. One story flows into another following a logic that seems at once natural and inscrutable. The sense of poetic drift is emphasized by the book’s magic realist style. Bullets circle the earth before killing, soldiers are marked for death by small strands of red string that drift from a young woman’s embroidery, and the weathercock on the town hall is tied with a tiny, silver string to a lucky star in the sky.
In Red is an intensely visual book, overflowing with rich images and picturesque tableaux that round out the portrait. The reader in the end is left with the feeling of having completed a grand epic in 158 pages, of knowing the town of Stitchings and its people inside and out, a town where the topography of people’s lives is as dark and labrythine as that of its streets. Nothing is ever entirely as it seems in Stitchings, and as the book draws to a close, the reader is left with the feeling that this book may not have been what we first thought it to be, either—a neat little turn that made me eager to come back to it. I read the book with the Polish original in one hand and Bill Johnston’s translation in the other—Johnston works wonders with Tulli’s knotty, complex prose. He is to be commended for bringing this little masterpiece to us in English in such consummate, effortless style.