Personally, I do try to read as widely as I can, but I must confess to certain prejudices. As mentioned before on this blog, I’m an unashamed city-girl. For me, the countryside is a nice place to visit, but I’d never want to live there. I will read books set in rural, isolated locations or quirky small communities, but I’m always most at home when the surroundings are urban. I don’t care where the city is, but I like it busy, bustling and, ideally, a character in its own right.
I had always though of the ultimate ‘book of the city’ being Italo Calvino’s virtuosic ‘Invisible Cities’ in which numerous mystical metropolises are evoked before the cumulative weight of them reveals that they are all depictions of Venice. Calvino has competition though, because I’ve just read Archipelago Book’s edition of Tulli’s ‘Dreams and Stones’. Forget the vague framing of dialogue or travellers, this is the ideal book of a city. Complex, contradictory, caught between nature and industry, this evolving and decaying setting is the only character in a book without pictures or conversation; a book which (unusually) is all the stronger for this uncompromising and thoroughly achieved ambition.
I haven’t called ‘Dreams and Stones’ a novel of the city, because I’m really not sure if it belongs in this genre. As I’ve said, there are no named character, only shadowy inhabitants who are no more central than the statues or architecture that imitates, supersedes and parallels their lives. There is also no clear story. The book begins with a description of ‘the tree of the world’. This sprawling entity has vegetation (cities: ‘each is the same: Every one is different. An embodiment of a singular possibility from the register of the possible that is the very name written above the railway platforms’), it also has a ‘countertree … growing into the depths of the earth, infested with vermin. The underground trunk is an extension of the trunk above ground; every bough is connected by an invisible water duct to a counterbough oppressed by tons of earth.’
Just as the city contains the possibility of every other city, it is haunted by its counter-city. On the one hand there is the ambition of stones and machinery, technology and labour, on the other there are the cities of dreams and memories. If there is a structure, it’s the passage from optimistic conception to entropy and despair, as the city fails to live up to its original promise of banishing the countercity and living an ideal of perpetual motion and progression. On the way, Tulli explores the media (‘for newspapers were among the first things that appeared in the world, even, it seemed, before the creation of printing presses’), entertainment (‘in this city there is a movie theatre on every street and a piano in every theatre’) and transportation (‘trams, trams and more trams ran from dawn till midnight and from one end of the city to the other and back again’). The general tendency is towards squalor rather than splendour, but there are enchanting tangents along the way, making you question the original confident vision of the city’s genesis. During the glory years, there aren’t just the trams mentioned above, the city also boasts ‘helicopters which were used by the municipal transit authorities and for which landing pads have been planned on rooftops as big a city squares.’ Then we’re told:
‘At a certain time, a large number of dark stars appeared in the sky of permanent stars which was suspended above the sky of clouds and below the sky of suns and moons. These were said to be merely ordinary stars that differed from others only in that for some reason they had died. And since they no longer shone they had become invisible. They were smashed to pieces by the helicopters of the municipal transit system which were roaming aimlessly beneath the vault of the sky without fuel, which they could not refill since there was nowhere to land: The landing pads on the rooftops had never been built and now they were overgrown with dense jungles of antennas. The fragile lustrous substance that the stars were made of lost its transparent quality after the collisions and rained down on the city as black dust. From it the plaster darkened.’
Though the book is really very short, it’s so beautifully inventive and the network of images and connotations is so complex it’s very hard to do anything other than quote long passages. I will ask for your indulgence with just one more, as it will hopefully demonstrate how the shadowing structure of the book reveals itself. Very near the end, we’re told about ‘the forgotten helicopters of the municipal transit system, which from having flown for so long without fuel have also shrunk and apparently now hover low over the ground in the botanical gardens in the guise of dragonflies.
As for the name of this city. All we know is that it contains a ‘mass of tapering Ws and As‘. The large statues of workers, the architecture, the European influences and the marauding Cossacks hint at Tulli’s home city of Warsaw. That’s only an educated guess though, more of a certainty is that I need to start hunting through Archipelago’s back catalogue for more of Tulli’s books. If the writing is always this masterful (and the translation always as good as Bill Johnston’s here) then I have a lot of reading to catch up on.
I received my copy of ‘Dreams and Stones’ from the publisher via Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.