“Italy is seen as a country of pleasures and beautiful things; there’s little interest in the intellectual life. That offends me, I guess. Over the years, I’ve developed that Italian chip on my shoulder. I’m like the British historian who said his studies of Italy were “reeking with bias.”
For a recent issue of The Translator, I spoke about Italian writers I’ve translated with Elisa Segnini, a lecturer in Italian at the University of Glasgow. Segnini is specialized in the translation and reception of Italian fiction abroad and the poetics and politics of multilingual texts. She’s written about the international careers of Elena Ferrante and Andrea Camilleri, among other things.
We talked of the stereotypes about Italy that afflict Anglophone publishing (perhaps now changing) and how they complicate the ability of English language readers to know Italy better and to appreciate unexpected literary modes, among them irony.
read the interview: Translating Irony in Two Writers from Italy’s Northeast in The Translator 24:1
Autismi, just published in an elegant new edition by Miraggi, is one of Giacomo Sartori’s most original and successful novelistic experiments. In sixteen distinct but interwoven episodes (or recitativi d’autore — “chants d’auteur” as the publisher defines them), the unnamed narrator paints a tragicomic portrait of an awkward, marginal man, a creature frequently at odds with his late capitalist world, perpetually puzzled by the rules of the game that govern family, work and society. The narrative voice is painfully candid and naively poetic. Apparently unstudied, it can bring to mind Samuel Beckett’s savage absurdity or the monstrous hilarity of a Kafka.
The volume opens with perhaps the most perfect of these episodes, the brief, haunting Il mio lavoro, (My job) about a strange profession that in fact is pretty much the author’s own: Sartori trained as an agronomist and soil specialist (a surprisingly lively scientific topic these days). “My job consists of digging holes in the ground. Large deep holes a person can easily get into. And in fact I do get in. Inter myself, you might say. But unlike a genuine interment, there is no one to shovel soil between myself and the pit. Unlike a real burial, I can move my arms, breathe at will, come out when I’m done. I can see a rectangle of sky, I can speak, I can howl out my joy, always supposing I have a surplus of joy. Mine is a temporary, reversible interment. When I’m done, I come out and go home.” And the book closes with a rant on end-of-life instructions, Il mio testamento biologico (My health proxy): “If, despite the above dispassionate suggestions of mine, you are unable to wake me, then terminate me. Joyously, as you would lift a carrot from the earth, already thinking about the taste in your mouth. Do it knowing you have my full support. Tell yourself I would do exactly the same in your place.”
Death is a guest here, invited or not, whether in the sarcastic Il mio primo infarto (My first heart attack) or in the masterful Mio suocero (My father-in-law), a stark portrait of the man, only briefly met and now already laid out in his bedroom for the wake, observed in part through the friends and acquaintances who have come to pay respects, in part through the disenchanted eyes of one of his non-conformist sisters. Épater le bourgeois is the order of things: the naughty vicissitudes of Il mio organo di riproduzione (My reproductive organ; a fiercely independent member, always getting into trouble) come right before the angry, chastening tale of Mia sorella (My sister), a woman whose conformist tendencies are enforced by her upper crust husband, dispenser of an appalling conservatism. But, says the narrator, he’s often told there’s a family resemblance. “At times even my wife accuses me of being the double of my sister, only a more easy-going version, more democratic if you will.”
In l pesci pescati (The fish fished), a boy finds a community of strangers, who like him, enjoy fishing. “I liked waiting for a fish to bite, just as even today I like waiting for something to happen. Certainly this pleasure is by no means real enjoyment, and even less celebration; rather it has to do with privation, and perhaps even with suffering.”
Among the most savage sketches are two devoted to the publishing industry, Il mio attuale editore and Il mio primo editore: mocking portraits of two figures, one from a major publishing firm, one from a small house, who are tremendously bourgeois and much wealthier than their writers will ever be, successful men who like the sound of their own voices and are evidently annoyed and embarrassed by this hapless author. Fascinated by the trophy-like “chair upholstered in famous writer skin” that decorates his publisher’s office, our hero is appalled, impatient and at the same time eager to please. Here and elsewhere, Sartori achieves a quiet, subversive pathos that always comes as a surprise.
Some of this material overlaps with that of another, earlier novel, Anatomy of the Battle, of 2005, composed of brief bursts of non-chronological narrative each one paragraph long. The account, of a boy growing up in a Trentino family led by an unrepentant fascist father, moves back and forth in time and mood with ease, culminating in a reflection on the cult of heroism and political violence in both Fascism and the extraparliamentary left of the 1970s. Although he doesn’t write conventional political novels, Sartori measures the worlds he describes politically, sometimes in historical terms (when he confesses the sins of the Fascist males in his line, or describes the extremist pied noir father-in-law of Mio suocero, mentioned above). And sometimes in class terms (Anatomy’s painful depiction of a snobby, bourgeois, would-be aristocrat mother, once much loved, of whom traces are found in Autismi too). In other novels (Tritolo (TNT), Rogo (At the stake), Cielo Nero (Blackshirt heavens) readers are led inside the uneasy consciences of a Sud Tyrol bomber, three female infanticides, and a Nazi woman spy in love with Fascist Count Galeazzo Ciano.
None of ten books of fiction and poetry that Sartori has published to date is as well-known as it ought to be. His prose is eccentric and his writing has few of those qualities traditionally considered literary; they are stories without the self-conscious intellectual thread running through them that characterizes a sizeable part of what passes as “Italian literature” today. In Autismi, instead, we find no thoughtful premises, no meta-observations and no hint of a thinking author or any figure voicing superior authorial insights. The deep autobiographical vein to Autismi and the first-person voice—intimate, colloquial but never flat, at times baroque–are at quite at odds with mainstream, realist Italian fiction today.
Sartori, a native of Trentino, has made his home in Paris for many years, and permanence in France has shaped his style in more ways than one. Autofiction had its origins there, and the novel has evolved into shapes still mostly unfamiliar in Italy. In France, it’s easier to recognize what Sartori’s up to. There’s a comic vein running through everything he writes, although he is not a comic writer, nor does he deal in autobiography per se, although he draws deeply on the political and social elements of his family and his class—mixed, both bourgeois and renegade, abrasive fascist. An epigraph from Marguerite Duras points to the method: “One writes what one doesn’t know of oneself, of one’s mind and one’s body. This is not a reflective act but a sort of faculty that exists to one side, parallel to one’s person. Another individual that appears and comes forward, invisibly.”
Alas, neither humor or autobiography is very highly considered in Italian literary criticism. One could go further and say that humor is usually suspect, considered cheap and often found disturbing.
But as the exhilarating Il mio lavoro suggests, Sartori is one of those odd birds who comes to writing novels from a foreign country: a background in science. Scientific and technical matters worm their way into his fiction, and his prose is marked by a scientific habit of preferring the concrete and the measurable. His standards of invention and knowledge are not quite those of the artist. In an interview with an American literary journal he said this:
“Even the humblest researcher knows the thrill of grappling with problems still in process, of entering untrodden territory. And such work tends to be undertaken with humility, from an awareness of one’s own limitations, and of the limits of one’s own knowledge. You always need others, since even Einstein wouldn’t have become Einstein without the help of other highly skilled mathematicians. And you never forget that your own discoveries will quickly be surpassed.”
Read an excerpt in English
Not long ago, reading some foolish comment on Twitter, I was reminded of a person I consider, not entirely unfondly, My Troll. MT is American, a fellow translator and I know him, so to speak, because a couple of years ago he wrote a longish blog post attacking me that gained some traction and came to my attention. (His gender is pertinent, maybe; see below.)
So I got his email and wrote to him, suggesting that we were surely better off being friends. He declined, and then he blocked me on both Facebook and Twitter. When I complained that he’d misrepresented me (with his slanted English translation of something I’d published in Italian) his response was: well, I don’t think you have the grounds to sue me, if that’s what you’re thinking.
Sue him? Okay, he didn’t want to talk. He was trolling me. We were done.
I admit, it rankled. The transposition of my thoughts into his English was particularly galling; My Troll accused me of being a privileged literary snob. I had written something about a well-known novelist who sells a lot of copies, and although I didn’t use the A Word (and actually never do) MT decided that my views showed that I’m a worshipper of Art and have only disdain for the material side of writing books. Art, that is, Art for Art’s Sake, was my creed: MT was certain. “And as everyone knows, and as Randall implies, the only real art is that which no one knows about. If art is popular, if people like it, if they can understand it—and especially if it makes money—it is automatically sullied.”
This went on for a while, until my devious, corrupt and elitarian motives had been throughly exposed. He wasn’t kind. I was a snob and a sloppy translator to boot. When the words “she fails to establish a prima facie case” came into play, I did briefly consider finding myself an attorney. It wasn’t the accusation, it was the terrible rhetoric.
Of course I never said or implied any such thing about Art–never even thought it. But MT was well-versed in his argument, because lo and behold, it was one he had made before. The reader was immediately referred to another of his essays, entitled Please Stop Talking About Art! I was a snob, but worse, I was really just an elaborate pretext to introduce some of his Work.
I say Work not without some animus, because when writers and visual artists gather to talk of their Work one of my own pet peeves comes into play. I can’t help feeling that Work is more exacting (or perhaps I mean more oppressive) and less free-spirited than writing a story or painting a painting. I cringe, too, to hear artists talk about making Art. In fact, I get the hives when either Art and Work is bandied about. I’ve had my share of unrewarding jobs that left me no time to do anything I enjoyed or believed in. Writing and translating have always been more play than Work for me.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying MT was being pretentious. And I’m not accusing him of making Art. Sadly, though, he does show symptoms of a nasty condition men can be prone to, when they seize on something a woman has said to unload their scorn and set the little lady straight. What’s in it for them, I don’t know, unless it’s a link to something they’ve written. Otherwise why make those long, noisy, disparaging speeches proving that the woman is very mistaken? And that they are ever so smart. You wouldn’t think, given their low opinion of women, that showing they are smarter than we are would do anything for their egos. The truth was, I really didn’t want to have a horse in this race.
I wanted to like My Troll. For a number of reasons. I had learned a little about him from a few colleagues and there were reasons to admire him. He was said to be smart and fearless in many ways. He hadn’t always had an easy time of it.
But reluctantly I came to understand that he couldn’t have cared less about liking me. Let alone admiring me. I was damned if I did and damned if I didn’t. The chip on his shoulder was such that he was bound to despise me for the privilege he assumed I’d enjoyed. And I had been privileged, up to a point.
See, I have to admit that My Troll got to me. The unflattering assumptions he made about me–that I am a snob, that I only don’t care about money because I presumably have lots, that I’m not quite as qualified for my job as I should be, and probably got my work through elite connections– not for one minute do I think they are true. Yet at the same time I know that the system (the translation game) and the System (roughly capitalism) are in no way fair. And I gather that My Troll was dealt a worse hand than I in several ways. Much as I’d like to write off his unkindness toward me as brute male chauvinism, something tells me that’s only a part of the story.
To say I’m grateful to him would be an exaggeration, but let’s just say that even a troll can sometimes teach you a lesson.
I’ve been reading Daniele Petruccioli’s new study on translation, Le pagine nere (“Black Pages”, a play on words on the canonical “blank page” the writer must face every day at her desk.) Unlike the writer of original prose who fears not being able to fill up the blank page before him—allow me to alternate the pronouns–the translator has an equally demanding task, says Petruccioli.
She’s faced with pages all too dense with black print, words that must be rewritten, reinvented, in a second language. Judging whether the job has been done well is never easy. The reader of the target language, who at times will desire prose that’s effortless, other times something distinguished and “literary”, must be accommodated. But so must the reader who has a deep knowledge of the source language and culture and demands they be adequately reflected in the new language.
In his preface to Pagine nere, Enrico Terrinoni, who with Fabio Pedone recently published an Italian Finnegan’s Wake, writes that the act of translation, far from being a task for specialists, is one of humanity’s basic ways of knowing and sharing, not very different from speaking and writing, all activities of communication. It demands “application and seriousness, above all, moral,” says Terrinoni. The translator, he writes “is a sort of Charon in reverse, taking the damned to the land of the living.” Life is restored in the act of interpreting the text, for as Petruccioli writes, “interpretation is a process simultaneous with translation—indeed it may not even be distinguishable”. His book is a plea for recognizing and condoning the act of interpretation as one of the translator’s primary task and responsibilities. The fact that a conservative “literal” translation that sticks very close to syntax and cognates is almost never the best way to express a text in a second language text is something many writers, editors and reviewers still have to learn.
Although nurtured by the works of various scholars of translation and cultural studies, Petruccioli remains appealingly concrete in discussing the pitfalls and dilemmas faced by the translator. I wandered around on what was left of my Zanax: how to convey the English phrase’s distinctive alliteration in a language that doesn’t have a W nor an X to confound it with? He writes about learning to hear the voice of the narrator; using Italian regionalisms and other mixed languages to convey place and character; creating rhythm in a second language when the first is strongly marked; syntax, punctuation and establishing rhythm. He’s particularly interesting on the conflicts that can arise between a translator and her publisher, for example, editorial pressures to produce a simple, well-groomed Italian in translation no matter how eccentric the original, and the contentious issue of regionalisms or language that will not be understood by every reader, often anathema to editors and publishers. The “interpretive” translator is the one bound to have the most hassles in the editing process, because he’s thought about the text harder and sometimes has a deeper understanding of the language.
In the past few years we’ve seen a surprising new public interest in translating and reading translations. The excellent Pagine nere couldn’t come at a better time.
‘Supermeat that’s redder than red. Bloodier than a slit vein. Tenderer than a mouthful of petals. More nutritious than three whole meals. Humans eat it. Pigs find it revolting ← its sponginess, its smell. Pigs refuse PanCarnis. SuperMeat.’
“City of Pigs” tells of an ugly, heartless world to the measure of no one, in which the protagonist, a pig, learns he is not merely a cog in a machine but destined for the tables of the NormoLimbed, the bosses. The story appeared on the lit blog Nazione Indiana in March 2017. The author, Davide Orecchio, is one of those Italian writers whose originality and moral and esthetic seriousness aren’t always easy to convey in a brief translated excerpt, for his longer works of fiction also depend on subtle cues and a weaving of themes through a series of chapters. This, however, was a story that could be read and appreciated on its own.
Best European Fiction 2018, Dalkey Archive’s annual collection, chose “City of Pigs” for inclusion this year. It is an “extraordinary story of outright dystopia” writes editor Alex Andriesse in his introduction. As different as it is from other works by Orecchio, the author’s bountiful imagination, his verbal artistry, and his tragic but not entirely pessimistic world view, so apparent in his full-length fiction Città distrutte: sei biografie infedeli (2011) and Stati di grazia (2014), were visible here too.
Those two earlier books, collections of stories that weave together to form a greater story, illustrate the author’s preoccupation with the workings and the judgments of history. Orecchio, in fact, holds a PhD in European history. In the fall of 2017 came a third book, Mio padre la rivoluzione. (“My father, the revolution”) a deeply thoughtful, poetic, personal-but-not-really-first-person book that investigates the mythic power of the Russian Revolution, both as Soviet hopes and as the terrible reality of Stalinism. Once again Orecchio displays his special ability to animate history, a sort of meta-character acting beyond the reach of, yet also made by, the individuals in his three books.
While Orecchio’s other works focus on past and present, “City of Pigs” is located on the border between present and future. A pig foolishly wanders into a supermarket from the ugly, alien urban environment outside and discovers that city pigs are the principal ingredient in PanCarnis, ersatz meat declined in pseudobeef, pseudoveal and pseudoturkey on sale to humans. The story is told from the porcine point of view: confused, lost and frightened. It’s not enough that the humans despise and exploit him, he now understands he will literally be consumed by these NormoLimbers who control the city.
Fascinated, horrified, he examines PanCarnis, this “substance that is nearer to orange than to red, shiny and phosphorescent, laid out in slices on the majolica tub.” “Chameleon-meat. That assumes the desired form. As desired. Like a prostitute.”
On a hologram he watches a mother feed her child slices of pseudoprosciutto: “The flavor of meat. A new flavor. Mortality. Barbarity. Power. Window-dressing. Hypocrisy. The price of meat. I don’t want to watch. I don’t want to know. Astro Eclipse ™ white light. The dazzling color orange. The truth. Human taste, human gluttony. The condiment, the preserve. Pepper corns between the teeth, dregs of skin. Fat. Salt, thirst.”
The poetic quality of Orecchio’s writing is matched in all his work by a concern with power, and often power that is exercised cruelly or unfairly. In “City of Pigs” he captures the anxiety and terror of the victim in a universe he neither comprehends nor controls.