The conceit in Magdalena Tulli’s book, In Red, is a powerful and old-fashioned one. A character shreds some red silk to threads, and the wind carries each thread away until they land on soldiers’ shoulders. These soldiers never return home from the war. Even though this is a central conceit, established early, it ends up fading from your memory and becoming secondary to the quaintness of the setting, characters, and conflicts. Tulli somehow writes with an old ear, one that executes childish twists with the poignancy of an octogenarian.
The characters in In Red are reminiscent of those in Schulz, Gombrowicz, and Kafka, and their fates seem based on a bizarre, turbulent determinism. A singer who visits the town (ghostly Stitchings, too, resembles Schulz’s Street of Crocodiles) captures the hearts of hundreds and mysteriously disappears after a balloon ride. A daughter of a town magnate dies, only to refuse to be buried and stubbornly continues to read her romance novels. Two men escape the power of the red thread, though their impending doom seems postponed, not deferred. It becomes clear that the war they won’t survive is between each other and themselves; they are mortal enemies whose escape from insecurity and failure rests in their mutual hatred.
In the same way that the books of Schulz, Gombrowicz, and Kafka implode on their own strangenesses, so too does In Red. While these men write strangeness in a visceral imaginistic way, Tulli does so as if she’s discovering these stories in old archives. There is a distance between Tulli and her world, while Schulz especially seemed as if he himself belonged in the Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass. In Red seems all the more like an achievement; it’s harder to imagine these torpid, mythological, existential places if you don’t already live there.