One of the most gifted of contemporary European writers, Magdalena Tulli creates an intricate and, ultimately, inhospitable fictional world in her unsettling and fine novel Moving Parts. Tulli has been hailed as the “new Bruno Schulz,” but her literary heritage extends back to Franz Kafka, and her prose evokes the illusive and deceptive “reality” encountered in Nikolai Gogol’s later prose. Her nearest “relatives” among current authors include Cuban-born Italian writer Italo Calvino and American novelist Don de Lillo, the latter sharing Tulli’s strong sense of unease and impending disaster. Readers of English are fortunate to read her work in the masterful translation of Bill Johnston, who also rendered Tulli’s Dreams and Stones, as well as Gustaw Herling’s masterpiece The Noonday Cemetery and Other Stories, into English.
Tulli’s most distinctive contribution to modern letters may well be her hapless narrator, who loses all control over “his” text in the course of Moving Parts. Gogol’s narrator maintains ironic dominance over text and reader, while Schulz features a first-person narrator whose perceptions shape the readers’ reactions. But Tulli’s narrator can only observe helplessly as his world flies apart, a casualty of fictional centrifugal force with a “center that does not hold.” That her narrator is male, not female like the author herself, injects yet another disquieting note. The uncertain fictional world she creates in Moving Parts brings to mind the world of Eastern and Central Europe, or societies undergoing far-reaching changes. Tulli leaves the reader in a void, completely unlike the solid ground we encounter in the realist novel of the nineteenth century. Characters appear fleetingly and uncertainly, their fates unclear. They float in a nebulous space beyond the narrator’s control, perhaps even out of the reach of the author herself.
To underscore the insecurity of her fictional universe, Tulli typically depicts characters on the run. We encounter them in hotels—away from home—underscoring their vulnerability. When they are at home, their relationships unravel as the readers, uncomfortable witnesses to familial collapse, observe helplessly. Not even the narrator, the traditional locus of authority in fictional works, retains any sense of constancy or security.
Tulli combines homelessness with a universe gone awry in her images of displaced furniture that echo uprooted characters: “sofas, armchairs, and tables of that other world, deprived of solid ground, fall chaotically . . . into oblivion” (15). (Falling furniture foreshadows to a falling woman our “heroine”, who plunges into the void and dies “instantly” .) “The tale,” the narrator adds, “is like a hotel; characters appear and disappear” (15). A few pages later (23), furniture is piled up in a soggy heap out in the corner of the garden, where it will wait, forgotten, until clement weather. Tulli reminds us of the spatial and temporal fragility that lurks behind superficial solidity, and furniture, an everyday component of our lives vividly underscores this vulnerability. Our universe, she stresses, is built on sand, whirling through the blackness of the void.
How better to increase our sense of fear and helplessness than with a senseless crime? As in Dostoevsky’s later works, violence emphasizes the tenuousness of life. However, while in Dostoevsky murder is linked with larger religious issues, no such central theme emerges in Tulli. Thus we read that workmen are shot dead with an automatic pistol, a weapon divorced from a human perpetrator. The narrator—whose discomfort and powerlessness increase exponentially throughout—is “forced” to tell us about this pointless, bloody crime. He doesn’t act of his own free will, but the reader never finds out who has compelled him to recount this exceptionally unpleasant episode. Nor do we know why he recounts any of the incidents that he attempts to describe. His efforts are made increasingly difficult by his unruly and independent characters. But the characters themselves do not gain in strength, and the centrifugal forces that the author set in motion from the beginning pull characters and events out into empty space. At the end, the story has “slipped out of [the narrator’s] hands” (121).
By describing the narrator from the outside, Tulli effectively takes over his role and transforms him into yet another character. Midway through the novel, he has lost the privileged position we traditionally associate with a narrator. He is a most unwilling narrator, one who is “determined to do his job at the lowest possible cost” and who “sighs and sets to” (43). He gets his feet wet when attempting to keep pace with the novel (85). Unlike Herling’s narrator, always in control, Tulli’s is helpless and reluctant. We see him “calmly open[ing] and clos[ing] a double door and put[ting] a bunch of keys on a round side table” (41). As Chekhov’s readers recall from his play The Three Sisters, possession of keys denotes control, but Tulli’s narrator surrenders control when he deposits them on the furniture. Like peripatetic characters in the hotel and displaced furniture that hovers in space or gets shoved into a corner, forfeited keys underscore transience, loss of control.
Tulli elegantly distills the unease of a universe that has spun out of balance. She enlists details from everyday life, details that resonate with her readers’ own unpleasant experiences. We see a married woman (encountered earlier, in a relationship with her lover) sitting uncomfortably in a dentist chair. Dental problems compound personal problems, and we never know whether anesthetic was administered. But we know “it’s going to hurt” (49) if she wasn’t medicated. Tulli forces us to imagine an unpleasant scenario, including the whirring drill. She expands fictional anxiety to include her readers, in effect forcing us into this unsettling world.
Finally, the void prevails, and we are deposited in a silent world, the aural equivalent of visual emptiness. In her masterful novel, Tulli strikingly and subtly captures the essence of a world in transition between tradition and modernity. This elusiveness, an apt symbol of contemporary uncertainty, may also be an echo of Poland’s complex history.