A contemporary novel that employs the unconventional devices associated with le nouveau roman, a fashionable French literary movement of the 1960s whose leading exponent was Alain Robbe-Grillet, may seem passé to many. But Polish writer Magdalena Tulli has added fresh touches to the style and has given Flaw a distinctly East European feel.
The plot is set in and around the main square of an unnamed city. This confined space, penetrated by a lone reappearing streetcar resembles a maze in which a plethora of characters live their lives without venturing very far. Then again, these disembodied characters themselves do not add up to very much and are little more than impersonal physical objects defined by the costumes they wear: those of a policeman, a notary, a maid, an airman. For Tulli, costume defines character. “What would the general’s protruding belly, or the adjutant’s skinny ribs, have been without the insignia of rank?” she writes. For all practical purposes, our daily uniform is what we are. This is a provocative claim by a novelist who is a psychologist by trade.
It is a testimony to Tulli’s inventiveness that despite having created characters less robust than papier-mâché, she has mapped them into some dramatic plotting. The centerpiece is an all-too-familiar modern-day confrontation that pits the longtime residents of the square against a group of refugees. The refugees suddenly arrive by streetcar and invasively occupy the square. “The newcomers’ attire does not blend subtly into the background; on the contrary, it is strikingly dark, and stands out in sharp contours displeasing to the eye.” A respectable housewife peeking through lace curtains into the square expresses her indignation at the newcomers’ arrival. They “ought to realize that they are not at home here.” Among other things, they threaten to bring with them a harsh climate of bitter frosts and blustery snowstorms that are foreign to this place.
The unexpected appearance of destitute refugees in drab winter clothing lugging shabby suitcases in the carefully cultivated gardens of the unremarkable town square can be the story of Everyman, of Everymigrant. Conceivably this event could take place in the Place des Vosges in Paris or the Stortorget in Stockholm as seamlessly as in Warsaw’s Place Zamkowy. Local residents’ reactions would probably be similar. The East Europeanness of Magdalena Tulli’s plaza lies in the costumes that are worn in it. The pervasive drabness of all its inhabitants marks the story as one of a society in transition in which all characters are struggling to put on a better costume.