My Mother Is A River – Donatella Di Pietrantonio (translated by Franca Scurti Simpson)

In the last week I have been reading a number of posts from Open Letter books about the politics of the publishing world, more specifically the recent decision to not give Open Letter the U.S. publishing rights for Mathias Enard’s latest novel as the Publishing Agency wants the “right publishing house” for a work “that’s this important”. Seeing the grievances (from Open Letter’s point of view) makes you wonder why anybody would want to set up a publishing house in the first place. Which leads me to my latest review, a strangely titled work “My Mother Is A River” by Donatella Di Pietrantonio (translated by Franca Scurti Simpson).
The novel is the first release by a new UK based published Calisi Press. They concentrate on the publication of contemporary works by Italian women writers. A niche market, however as we know the lack of female representation in translated works is an ongoing issue, so for a new publisher to come along and solely concentrate on women writers is an event to be celebrated in itself.
“My Mother Is A River” is Donatella Di Pietrantonio’s first novel (original title “Mia madre è un fiume”) and was originally published in 2011, winning the Tropea and John Fante literary prizes, Already translated into German the novel is scheduled for release in English next month by Calisi Press. Di Pietrantonio’s second novel “Bella Mia” was published in 2014 and won the Brancati Prize.
This novel is a story of fractured memories, following the tale of a daughter (our narrator) looking after her dementia impacted mother and recalling their relationship. Written in first, second and third person and clinical, factual and at times scattered, the tale of the mother’s early life is recreated by our narrator’s thoughts of her mother, or retelling of stories once told to her:
I am incapable of showing her kindness. I never touch her. I can only imagine being able to caress her, her arms, the hands deformed by arthritis, her cheeks, her head. Her hair’s started to thin out too, as if the withering at work inside her skull were infecting its very roots. It’s like cancer in reverse, it shrivels instead of spreading out. She seems too young for this, she isn’t ready. We are not ready.
I don’t try to get closer, if I do it feels like the opposing force when you push together the matching poles of two magnets.
I’ve never put her behind me. I’ve never forgiven her anything. I was still planning to settle my score with her when she escaped from me into her illness. I quivered with indignation, as if she’d done so to spite me. Or I suspected I’d been the one to push her into it.
I’ve tried with my partner’s mother, fifteen years older and infirm. I bathed her. While we were helping her into the bath, she defecated on its edge. I cleaned up. I soaped her skin, lifting her flaccid breasts to wash the skin folds, where the skin rots and reddens with sweat. Several times, when wiping her anus, the sponge came away foul smelling and streaked with shit. After washing her frizzy, stringy hair, I applied conditioner and then untangled it with a wide-tooth comb. Every now and then she’d slide into the water and I’d pull her up by her armpits. I rinsed her, then Pietro and I got her out of the bath and helped her onto a chair. I rubbed moisturiser on her legs and arms, always so dry. A rivulet of gratitude dribbled from her mouth.
It only tired me a little. I didn’t find it the least bit difficult. She is not my mother.
Through the story telling we learn of our narrator and her mother’s simple country upbringing in Abruzzi, the ritual yearly pig slaughter, the local dances and the practice of choosing a dance partner. We also learn of her mother’s wedding, the extravagance even though they are from a struggling rural community. Her mother’s love of crochet, a task that is now beyond her. But we also learn of the guilt of not loving and spending time together when she could  and now being resentful and not loving because she simply cannot.
Her father is also frustrated at the decline in his wife, her mental shutdown, however he is a bit player in the novel, with the single voice of our narrator, exploring her relationship, fears, time with her mother:
I tell him off, I keep telling him she doesn’t do it on purpose, it’s a sickness. As I utter the words I hope they’ll persuade me. If she had cancer or diabetes we wouldn’t be so unkind to her. We can’t forgive her for having lost control of herself, of us.
The clinical and honest opening up of our narrator, brings the reality of being a carer for a person who is suffering mental loss, whether through Alzheimer’s or any form of dementia, and the pressures and fears that this journey puts on the individuals. We even have questioning of our narrator’s own sanity, what if this decline is genetic?
However bleak the outlook is for our narrator, we also have touching moments of tenderness blended with memories of easier, simpler times. For example we learn of her father’s yearly trip to Germany to work and earn enough money to keep the small farm going, whilst her mother worked the farm, or the brief periods where the women go and work in vineyards picking grapes.
Her memory is now a manuscript traced with invisible ink; I leaf through it page by page and hold it to the flame to reveal its secret.
A touching tale of mental collapse, a story that uses many linguistic styles to create a history but at the same time a sadness of having to live with a relative’s slow decay.
Welcome to the world of publishing to Calisi Press, and you can find out more about their upcoming works at their website I wish them well in the brutal political publishing environment.
To read more about the Open Letter issue I raised at the start of this review, read Chad Post’s blog entry here

Source of “My Mother is a River” a review copy courtesy of Calisi Press.

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3 thoughts on “My Mother Is A River – Donatella Di Pietrantonio (translated by Franca Scurti Simpson)

  1. Thanks for sharing this book – and the news of this new publishing house! I've only recently started going out of my way to read translations (and I'm really glad I did) and thus far I don't recall reading any by women, and I agree that it's a problem that needs rectifying.
    This one sounds amazing though and I'll definitely be adding it to my TBR.


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