For Isabel: A Mandala – Antonio Tabucchi (translated by Elizabeth Harris)

ForIsabel

A short book, a short review.

Although I own five books by Antonio Tabucchi, I have only previously reviewed two titles here. In 2015 I looked at “Time Ages in a Hurry” (translated by Martha Cooley and Antonio Romani)  and “The Women of Porto Pim” (translated by Tim Parks) both published by Archipelago Books, and they have just published another Tabucchi this time with a fourth translator, Elizabeth Harris, the translator who brought us “Tristano Dies – A Life” late in 2015.

Unlike the previous tales by the celebrated Italian writer, “For Isabel – A Mandala” is a more obscure plot, containing a narrator, Tadeus Slowacki, a Polish writer who has returned to earth, more specifically Lisbon, from space, to search for the missing Isabel, his former lover. The book made up of a number of clandestine meetings between Tadeus and people who last saw Isabel. Each of these meetings leads to another meeting, whilst Fascism lurks dirtily in the background.

The photographer shifted positions and lit another cigarette in his long ivory holder. He seemed uneasy. Silent, he eyed me from head to toe. And then he said: are you a journalist? I allowed myself a chuckle. Though I didn’t want to be sarcastic, his question somehow invited sarcasm, and so I told him: you couldn’t be further from the truth, Mr. Thiago, I assure you, your guess is completely off-track, death is a curve in the road, to die is simply not to be seen. Then why? he asked, even more perplexed, to what end? To make concentric circles, I said, to finally reach the centre. I don’t understand, he said. I’m working with colored dust, I answered, a yellow ring, a blue ring, like the Tibetan practice, and meanwhile, the circle is tightening toward the centre, and I’m trying to reach that centre. To what end? He asked. I lit a cigarette as well. It’s simple, I answered, to reach consciousness, you photograph reality: you must know what consciousness is.

Like the subtitle itself “A Mandala” this is an expertly crafted work, like a mandala, slowly a cohesive picture comes into place, just like the sands of many colours placed on the plain canvas in front of you. And the nine concentric circles, do they have a deeper meaning, is Tadeus making his way through his own “hell”?

A tale of searching for meaning, whilst Tadeus is searching for Isabel, each of the other characters is searching for something else; “the important thing is to search”, and again, like the mandala, are these searches are in concentric circles? “A person can’t believe it’s possible to reach the boundaries of the universe, because the universe has no boundaries”. The characters searching outwards, Tadeus, inwards, he is “trying to reach a centre”. Like Dante’s “Inferno” as Tadeus moves closer and closer to the centre, the characters become increasingly bizarre, are we witnessing Tadeus’s own journey, masquerading as a search for Isabel? Tadeus’ journey into the depths of hell?

I’ll find a lover and I’ll make him die from unhappiness

Another beautifully crafted and subtle tale from the pen of Antonio Tabucchi, a story of grief, a search for meaning, a travelogue, the eternal pursuit of happiness. All of the standard characteristics of an existentialist work, tightly packaged into a story of a man searching for a girl, and slowly learning about himself. As Tabucchi says in the “Justification in the Form of a Note” that opens the book:

Private obsessions; personal regrets eroded but not transformed by time, like pebbles smoothed down by the current of the river; incongruous fantasies and the inadequacy of reality: these are the driving principles behind this book.

Fans of Antonio Tabucchi will surely appreciate this latest publication, yes they continue to appear five years after his death, readers not familiar with his work may find this one slightly off kilter and would probably be better placed being introduced via the two titles above, or “The Flying Creatures of Fra Angelico” or “Tristano Dies, A Life” all published by the independent publisher Archipelago Books.

Having not read all of the different titles back to back it is hard to compare the different translators, and how they treat Antonio Tabucchi’s subtleties, this work gliding along without a hitch, a sign that all is well with the world. However not being an Italian speaker I can’t go into detail about the different approaches.

Disclaimer – My copy of this book forms part of my annual subscription to Archipelago Books.

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Malacqua – Nicola Pugliese (translated by Shaun Whiteside)

Malacqua

I have been extremely lax in my blog duties, with many, many titles being read and unreviewed, promises made of updates on my Proust journey or updates on progress through Arno Schmidt’s “Bottom’s Dream” and it has all come to naught, hopefully over the coming weeks I can make some time to update you on a bunch of titles I have recently read, or am reading.

Today an upcoming publication,  “Malcqua: Four Days of Rain in the City of Naples, Waiting for the Occurrence of an Extraordinary Event” is a novel originally published in 1977, the author did not allow a reprint, and it is only after Nicola Pugliese’s death that the book has now returned to the shelves. The original book, “Malcqua” was published by Italian writer Italo Calvino and is now available for the first time in English from independent publisher And Other Stories. “Malacqua” is similar to Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, being set in Naples, however I think this is the only thing they have in common (besides originally being written in Italian).

Although “Malacqua” has one steady character throughout, in journalist Carlo Andreoli, following him during four days of endless rain, the real protagonist of our story is the city of Naples itself.

And on the city this veil of rain, and they were aware of the waiting, waiting as draining as an animal’s agony, alive and dense as an interminable outpouring of blood. The horse lies supine on the asphalt of Via Partenope, the powerful cage of its chest rising as it breathes, and the silence all around is palpable, and from the horse’s nostrils the blood gushes and gushes. There is little left to say: That it was part of a team of eight, and that on the sea of Via Partenope, along with his seven travelling companions, with the coachman, and with the gravediggers, it had set off on its last dignified job: the collection, carriage and disposal of the corpse of a name who had expired the previous night, in his bed, in his own sheets, with the breath of his children on his face. The horse, however, was dying alone, yes, truly alone, a horse on the asphalt breathing its last, his heart giving up?, what?, through the veil of rain that was coming down and fraying the city’s edges you could sense the unease and the sad presentiment: life would have to change. And perhaps it was changing at that very moment. In the greyish weft of silence, the rain came down as a warning and an admonition, it came down and it grew, black regret unwaveringly consolidating between rib and rib, and in the bones that rainy dampness, and that disconnected noise that suddenly detached objects and people, built walls, and green partitions, and drove newly pregnant women into their houses and constrained them there, besieged.

The novel takes place over four days of incessant rain, firstly sinkholes appear, the next day mysterious voices start coming from the Maschio Angioino but their source cannot be found, on the third day five-lira coins start playing music which can only heard by ten-year-old girls, day four… “waiting for the occurrence of an extraordinary event”…

Through looping repetitive prose Pugliese creates a labyrinthine effect, as a reader you become lost in the darkness and rain, just like the characters themselves;

The men had begun to desert the offices and factories, the banks and offices. It wasn’t fear, it wasn’t that, just a sad presentiment…

In some ways you could treat this as a mystery story, is there a link between the sinkholes and collapsing buildings and the mysterious voices? What will be the “extraordinary event” referred to in the title? However at the core of this novel is a tale of loss, a story of despair.

Each chapter introduces small character studies, the anguished lives of dread, all against the never ending backdrop of ceaseless rain.

The meandering paragraphs that can run for many pages cause time to become distorted, in the time it takes to have a shave an existentialist crisis can occur, and the four days of rain feel like months, however some events happen rapidly, for example a death is quickly followed by a funeral, and other simple events can take hours.

How, in the end, do we tell the story of that distorted anxiety that climbs, and pants, and groans, and that voice that sails and flies across the asphalt: on his hands now it descended to press on the provisionality of an inconclusive gloomy and unbreakable presentiment which still drags glowing decorations down into the mud of anxiety. It goes on now, it goes on drawing assents to shame, the uncertain fear.

The future is very bleak indeed, even when awaiting an “extraordinary event”.

A masterful engrossing tale of decay and loss, the City of Naples moving into the modern era, not a style for readers of straight narrative plots, but one that hooks you into the darkness and bleakness of a city that is subjected to an event that cannot be controlled. Yet another fine addition to the And Other Stories collection.

As a subscriber to And Other Stories publications I receive the titles ahead of the general public release. This title is due for release on 14 November and unfortunately it is ineligible for the Man Booker International Prize as the author needs to be living to be eligible for that award, otherwise I would be tipping it to be in contention.

The Story of the Lost Child – Elena Ferrante (translated by Anne Goldstein) – Man Booker International Prize 2016 and Best Translated Book Award 2016

Today I’m looking at a book that has made both the Man Booker International Prize shortlist and the Best Translated Book Award shortlist for 2016, a novel I read on its release back in September 2015, Elena Ferrante’s “The Story Of The Lost Child” (translated by Ann Goldstein).
I am going to imagine a situation, I am a reader, I want to try something from a well-known prize shortlist, I want something by a female writer, something European, Ferrante it is (I could choose “Murder Most Serene” by Gabrielle Wittkop, translated by Louise Rogers Lalaurie, but that’s highly unlikely, Ferrante is the only qualifier under the “female, European” criteria on both lists, Wittkop not being eligible for the Man Booker and therefore not on the list). I am surprised, the local bookshop has quite a few copies, must be a good book, I’m not even going to read the back cover, it may influence my purchasing decision, that’s it, mind is made up, cash changes hands, I’m now the proud owner of a “literary” work from Italy. Can’t wait to snuggle down and read it…
I seem to recall somebody at the book club mentioning this anonymous Italian writer, something about “Ferrante Fever”. Being a strong anti-vaccine activist, I haven’t received my inoculations to stop the malaise hitting me, but with a pretty solid immune system I’m very confident that although some symptoms may appear, I will not succumb to a full blown fever, I’ve read four volumes (and am about to start a fifth) of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s personal struggle, if that didn’t give me night sweats and fatigue I’m fairly confident a publicity shy Italian will carry no germs.
The first pages have an “Index of Characters”, we start off with the “Cerullo family (the shoemaker’s family), Raffaella Cerullo, called Lina, or Lila. She was born in August 1944, and is sixty-six when she disappears from Naples without a trace. At the age of sixteen, she married Stefano Carracci, but during a vacation on Ischia she falls in love with Nino Sarratore, for whom she leaves her husband. After the disastrous end of her relationship with Nino, the birth of her son Gennaro (also called Rino), and the discovery that Stefano is expecting a child with Ada Cappuccio, Lila leaves him definitively. She moves with Enzo Scanno to San Giovanni a Teduccio, but several years later she returns to the neighbourhood with Enzo and Gennaro.”
WHAT? “The neighbourhood”? What neighbourhood? Who are these people? She disappears without a trace? When? If so why is she in this book? Who is Enzo?
Damn this list of people, I’m going to start reading it.
Okay, the first page and a half we have Lila, Nino, Dede and Elsa (the sentence introducing them reads “In reality, what mattered more than that offense was the mention of Dede and Elsa.”), Marcello Solara, Gennaro, Stefano and then it spirals a few more pages with some bloke called Pietro turning up.
I better go back to the list of characters….no joy…back to the book.
Nino goes to Naples, Lena to Florence, but who is Adele in Milan?
Let’s face it the foundations, the very core has been laid in the previous three works, well and truly before you even open this book.
Yes, of course, it is a measured opening here, it is slowly reintroducing us to the people, reminding us of the affair Lena is having, re-establishing the various cities and their significance and of course we need to be reminded of the influence that Lila plays over Lena’s life.
But in my opinion, the whole scenario is bizarre – how can this book be up for these awards? The book, to a new reader, makes no sense, who are these people? Maybe the back cover would help you out, give you an idea of what is going on….WHAT, it is just reviews?? Ohhh it’s on the front cover “The Fourth and Final Neapolitan Novel”? Why didn’t anybody tell me? 
I know I would probably be living in a cave not to know this is part of a series, but I’m trying to make a point okay?!?
I know this rambling is not really a review of Ferrante’s latest per se, however what is the point of adding yet another view to the plethora of opinions that are out in cyberspace? It wouldn’t count for much at all, if anything. This rant is merely my opinion as to the merits of this work winning either the Man Booker International Prize or the Best Translated Book Award. Neither of these prizes is given for a body of work (although the Man Booker International Prize was for a body of work, not a specific book, prior to this year, it is no longer the case). As a standalone novel I was seriously disappointed that it made either list, let alone both. Is this on these lists as a consolation for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize ignoring the first three instalments? Or the Best Translated Book Award feeling guilty that the opener in the series “My Brilliant Friend” was completely overlooked and the following two, although being shortlisted, were beaten by László Krasznahorkai (“Seiobo There Below”) and Can Xu (“The Last Lover”)?
Let’s face it, book number four is going to be bought by people who have read numbers 1-3, number four is going to be liked by people who have already read 1,200 pages about Lena and Lila, it’s a conclusion, people like closure, they’ll feel as though they’ve lost a friend but they’ve gained an experience.
Let’s have a look at the Goodreads reviews of the Ferrante fever:
“My Brilliant Friend” – average 3.9 from 35,557 ratings (30% are 5 star)
“The Story of a New Name” – average 4.4 from 15,305 ratings (52% are 5 star)
“Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay” – average 4.32 from 11,401 ratings (48% are 5 star)
“The Story of the Lost Child” – average 4.42 from 9,149 ratings (56% are 5 star)
Number of ratings decreasing, as you would expect whilst people make their way through the books, and of course there will always be people who drop off the bandwagon along the way, but the ratings themselves are increasing the further people get into the works. Another interesting point is the lowest average scores come for the first novel, a work people may have tried and decided to go no further, only adding fuel to the fire that a score will increase the further you travel along the series journey, only diehards are going to read 1,600 pages.
Personally I did not enjoy the third in the series anywhere near as much as the first two (my review here reflected that) http://messybooker.blogspot.com.au/2014/12/those-who-leave-and-those-who-stay.htmland this feeling carried over to “The Story of The Lost Child”, although I did think it was much stronger than “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay”. Having struggled with writing a review for this book when the reading public has the fever, with four books all in the best seller lists, I’ve resigned myself to just presenting my view that as a standalone novel this book should not be on the award shortlists. You watch it win both.

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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 http://calisipress.com/ 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 http://www.rochester.edu/College/translation/threepercent/index.php?id=16002

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

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