From the Slavic and East European Journal
Review by Kirsten Lodge
Dreams and Stones, by the Polish writer Magdalena Tulli, is a postmodernist masterpiece of lyrical prose that defies generic definition and is rife with paradox and metaphor. Lacking characters and a clear narrative, it is non-linear and frequently non-rational. The world of Dreams and Stones is one in which nothing can be fully known, the past has left half-forgotten and distorted yet transformative traces on everything, and every word contains its opposite. Striving towards utopia inevitably flags and becomes weariness, sickness, and ultimately corruption and debauchery, as the enthusiasm of constructing a new order is transformed into sorrow. Continued disillusionment leads to cruelty and violence, which hasten the city’s demise. The disintegrating metropolis collapses, in the end, into an apocalyptic nightmare of miry swamps, torrid heat, ice, and floods.
Every city, for Tulli, is composed of dreams and stones. Dreams include thought, memory, and language, which are boundless, intangible, and invaluable. However, they are also impermanent. Thoughts and memories are like sunken coins in the cold black “groundwaters of oblivion” (87), which slowly wear them down, heedless of the principles of reason. The city of dreams is a city of death, but it alone has human value. The language of memory also dissolves as time passes, and Tulli gives this linguistic fragmentation imaginative physical form. The W and A—presumably of WARSAW—for instance, are broken letters of shattered words that have been dispersed far and wide in both time and space. They can be seen in the form of the roofs and steeples of the city destroyed by war; the spikes of rickety fences in the city of today; and the Arch of Triumph and Eiffel Tower in Paris. Just as language leaves its detritus on the cityscape, the city of yesterday is inseparable from the city of today. The many fractured layers of the city’s history overlap on its geography.
Countless memories were lost when the “city of furnishings” became the “city of excavations,” i.e., when “a vast bomb crater” (63) appeared in the city’s heart and fires raged through it, destroying dreams, lives, and things. Yet many memories nonetheless survived into the ensuing period of optimistic reconstruction, when time seemed to be accelerated. People demonstrated faith, strength, and bravery as they dedicated themselves to labor to attain their beautiful dream of the future. Though faded and distorted, memories of this era and the subsequent failure of its ideal live on in the contemporary city of corruption, drugs, and American banks.
Whereas dreams, like nature, are ephemeral, yet living and unique, the stones of cities are permanent and tangible, but not alive. Though they possess neither language nor memory, they blindly and mutely observe the life of the city, as do the stone statues built in the early years of communism with their “protruding eyes without pupils” (26-27). Only the stones, which are outside time and language, will continue to exist, “a steadfast endurance free of any name” (110). Dreams and memories may disappear, but the city’s stones, for the most part, will remain. And even if they should fall or crumble to dust, they are always free of coercion and emotion, unlike the inhabitants of cities, who succumb to oppression and suffering.
Tulli’s vision of the world and the growth/construction of the ideal city are founded on two central metaphors: the city as a tree and the city as a machine. At first she criticizes the (Communist) builders for envisioning the city as a machine in which every part is replaceable. She then appropriates that metaphor, however, and describes the building of the utopian city as the construction of an intricate complex of machinery. The futuristic city’s mechanisms are so complicated that multiple breakdowns are inevitable, replacement parts cannot be found, no one is able to repair the damage, and eventually the city-machine begins to fall apart. It is the desire for utopia itself—the constant effort to dispel disorder from the world—that paradoxically creates more chaos, or what Tulli terms the influx of the “countercity.” Even the artificial stars n the sky go black, and sooty dust descends upon the dark metropolis. Not only the city, but the entire universe is nothing but junk.
For Tulli, however, those who compare the city to a tree are not only enemies, but also brothers of those who see it as a machine, for the manmade and the organic are always interconnected. As the world dies, each individual is alienated within a distinct city showering her not only with crumbling plaster, but also with dead leaves. The nature motif returns here, near the end of the book, echoing the first paragraph, which describes the tree of the world. Here too the natural and the inorganic mingle: when the tree of the world loses its leaves, they turn brown like “pieces of paper turned to ash or rusted-though tin cans” (7). The metaphors of “tree” and “machine” are inseparable; they are the obverse and reverse of a single coin, like good and evil, life and death, Tulli asserts.
Dreams and Stones is a difficult book, but it merits and rewards close readings and re-readings. Anyone interested in contemporary central European literature, or in post-Communism or postmodernism in general, will be deeply impressed by this brilliant elegiac work. But is it too complex for undergraduates? I taught it and found that about half my students didn’t like it because it was too difficult, while the remainder enjoyed it very much (though there was a lot that they didn’t understand). Some contextual background, close reading, analysis, and discussion helped them to appreciate the text, and at the end of the semester two students said it was their favorite reading of the course. I would, therefore, recommend it for undergraduates as well as advanced students, provided that the need for essential historical background and substantial guidance in interpretation is recognized.
Kirsten Lodge, Columbia University