Excerpts from “Dreams and Cities” by Daniela Hurezanu, The Chattahoochee Review, Spring/Summer 2008, pp. 160-166.
Magdalena Tulli’s book Dreams and Stones, published in 2004 by Archipelago Books in Bill Johnston’s translation, has been hailed as one of the most extraordinary books written after the fall of Communism in Central and Eastern Europe. It’s writing has been compared to that of her compatriot Bruno Schulz, and to that of Kafka, who himself had been a source of inspiration for Schulz. These kinds of comparisons are common when we encounter a new voice and feel the need to define it in some way, and since the only way we can pin it down is by encapsulating it into something we are familiar with, we always summon these familiar voices as a measure for the unknown. We think that because Tulli and Schulz share the same language and geographical space (Poland), one must have inspired the other; we think that because Kafka and Schulz were both Jews from Central Europe, they must have similar voices and world views. And we are not entirely wrong.
But for whoever takes the time to read these authors with an attention that goes beyond our comfortable assumptions, it becomes clear that they are also very different from each other. Kafka and Schulz were indeed almost contemporaries and the Jewish ethos streaming underneath their stories is recognizable as the same, but their style couldn’t be more different. While Kafka’s fight against idolatry, that is, the “lie” which any work of art is in its essence, is materialized in an austere style, Schulz’s style could be described as almost baroque. When we read Schulz, the influence of the surrealist writers who were his contemporaries is as undeniable as the presence of certain Kafkaesque themes: the authority of the father and the desire to overthrow it, the human metamorphosis into an insect, which in Schulz is taken to an extreme, for it is the father who is transformed into an insect. Shulz is a combination of surrealist aesthetics, Kafkaesque inner conflicts stripped of their religious anguish and Kafkaesque absurdness turned into grotesque humor. As for Kafka himself, one cannot recognize any influence in his writing; if there is any, it is not an influence; rather, it is distilled Judaism.
And what about Magdalena Tulli? As flattering as the comparison with these masters might be, I am not sure that it is entirely accurate. Like most comparisons, it too is based on something true: Tulli’s Dreams and Stones, a fictional prose poem or a poetic fiction, is reminiscent of Kafka’s parables in that the story seems to be telling much more than its surface lets appear; and it is reminiscent of Schulz in its unbound imagination and metaphoric associations. But its theme is remote from the concerns that the two Jewish writers had at the time when the lived and wrote. It is a theme that in today’s academic circles is described as nature versus culture or narrative versus technology, and which has been clothed in a jargon entirely absent from Tulli’s book – for, like any true creation, Dreams and Stones creates its own language as it re-creates the world. And because we often perceive things only in the shell we are accustomed to, we may fail to see what this book is about. Tulli’s countrymen say it is about a city, namely Warsaw, and they are probably right. But for those of us who do not know Warsaw, the book is no less vivid: the city it describes is not only Warsaw, but any city, a mythical city whose history replicates the history of civilization and the intricate relation between nature and artifact residing at the core of all societies. Knowing that Tulli has translate Calvino into Polish also reminds us that Calvino is the author of Invisible Cities, a collection of fable-like tales, whose narrator takes us through the labyrinth of the numerous cities he has passed through, all with names of women, all elusive and desirable as the women whose names they bear.
Dreams and Stones begins with the description of “the tree of the world,” which brings to mind the mythical image of the tree of life or of axis mundi. The tree, however, is not only he tree of life; it appears that it may also be the tree of death. The tree, which grows like all trees above the ground, has a “countertree,” which grows “into the depths of the earth,” dark and full of vermin. A rushed reading might conclude from here that we are dealing with the classical opposition between life and death, but Tulli’s story is much more complex than this. The opposition is between the visible and the invisible, between being and nonbeing, between that which is and that which could be, between the conscious and the unconscious, between the real and the imaginary. Moreover, each fruit of the tree contains in itself the possibility of the countertree. Which also means that the two sets of oppositions are rather sides of the same whole.
From the image of the tree and its countertree, Tulli’s book slowly takes us to the universe of the city. Each fruit from the tree encloses a city. Each city and every single thing in it are “the embodiment of a singular possibility from the register of the possible.” For every thing that is, another thing has been “taken away.” In order for something to exist as a unique form, another possibility has been tossed away. Existence is built on the loss of its counterpart––imaginary existence. For example a river triggers in the imagination of the city’s inhabitants the desire to create another river, whose characteristics are opposite those of the first river. And so, the city “contains within itself all possibilities at once, and the entire plan of the world.”
By the end of the story, the inhabitants realize that cleaning and repairing the city is not sufficient. Repairing only what can be touched does not take care of the invisible countercity, which influences the whole. The invisible is made of the flow of nouns, adjectives, verbs, and rules that link all ideas into a story. It may be, suggests Tulli, that the city and the world, i.e., the visible, exist only to make it possible for the inhabitants to dream their dreams.