November 24, 2011

Book review: That awful mess on the Via Merulana by Carlo Emilio Gadda

Hersilia Press @ 3:36 pm

THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS

That awful mess on the Via Merulana is a classic of Italian crime fiction and only recently I managed to close this terrible gap in my knowledge :-) so at risk of being considered a philistine by many experts, here are my thoughts on it.

It was published from 1946 (in serialised form) so I was prepared to contextualise the writing and the plot to its historical setting. The first 50 pages really had me in stitches: the use of the Roman dialect and the description of people is really amazing. However, despite two murders happening in the book, it is a bit of a stretch to call it a crime fiction book. It is more a snapshot (and a long one at that) of life in the Roman suburbs in the fascist period. It might spoil the plot to say that the culprit is not found, despite the best efforts of the investigators.
And the book does feel like it’s unfinished, especially in the last page.

I do appreciate the masterful use of language and its historical importance (Gadda echoes other masters of Italian literature like Belli especially in the use of dialect). However, frequently the author launches into “soliloquies” where even a native speaker is baffled at the use of words, and which do not seem to me to have much purpose except for showing off such mastery of language.

The plot really is very thin but this is perhaps a characteristic of Italian crime fiction, much more based on the insight into characters than rollercoaster action – and undoubtedly Gadda was one of the founders of this particular style.

All in all, I find it very hard to express a non-contradictory opinion: it is indeed a translator’s nightmare, and the use of language is second to none (perhaps only Umberto Eco comes close). But, perhaps because of the different historical setting, there are a lot more aspects which I value in a book: plot, consistency and flow, which seem to be somewhat lacking in this one.

October 4, 2011

L’uomo nero e la bicicletta blu di Eraldo Baldini

Hersilia Press @ 10:04 pm

L'uomo nero e la bicicletta bluL’uomo nero e la bicicletta blu by Eraldo Baldini

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sono cresciuta in città (Bologna) ma mio padre è nato e cresciuto in provincia, che ai suoi tempi era come aperta campagna. Ho sentito storie di finestre gelate all’interno, e mi ricordo gite da cugini che vivevano in campagna, dove si giocava nel fienile e si correva dietro alle galline.

Questo libro è la storia di un bambino, Gigi, cresciuto nei primi anni Sessanta nella Pianura Padana, in un paese di campagna dove tutti i pochi abitanti si conoscevano. La sua famiglia, composta dal babbo lavoratore mercante di animali, la mamma che riesce sempre a sistemare situazioni difficili, un fratello molto più furbo di lui, e un nonno che ne ha passate di cotte e di crude, non è abbiente ma la situazione diventa ancora più difficile a causa della condizioni economiche dell’intero paese. Gigi sta risparmiando e cercando di mettere da parte qualche soldino per comprarsi una bellissima bici blu che ha visto in una vetrina, sapendo che la sua famiglia non se la potrà mai permettere. Diventa amico di una bambina della sua età che si è trasferita da poco dalla città, e trova in lei un’amica vera con cui condividere i giri in bicicletta e la cattura delle rane.

Il libro ha aspetti sia di Bar sport e di Don Camillo, descrive in maniera impeccabile le campagne e la vita povera degli anni Sessanta, e i personaggi e gli avvenimenti rispecchiano l’ingenuità e la innata saggezza di un bambino di dieci anni. La prima metà del libro mi ha fatto ridere di gusto, tanto le situazioni (non poi così improbabili) sono descritte con ironia e semplicità. Nella seconda metà il libro cambia decisamente tono, e fa apparire aspetti diversi e inquietanti della situazione.

Mi è piaciuta moltissimo questa storia, che riesce a utilizzare parole semi-dialettali come cavedagna e sfrucugliare che non credo possano essere rese in alcun altro modo. Il linguaggio semplice, diretto e quasi scarno è una ventata di freschezza e rispecchia le situazioni ed emozioni descritte.

Il cambiamento di tono riflette la vicenda, che anche se per la maggior parte narrata dal punto di vista di Gigi bambino, è un flashback, e viene narrata con la consapevolezza di un adulto.

Se questo è un romanzo ‘letterario’, sono decisamente curiosa di leggere le storie noir di Eraldo Baldini.

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Event: Gianrico Carofiglio in London

Hersilia Press @ 2:43 pm

On 26 September I attended the presentation of Gianrico Carofiglio’s Temporary Perfections at Foyle’s bookshop, brilliantly organised by Bitter Lemon Press.

Carofiglio is a former anti-mafia judge and now a member of the Senate, and was in conversation with Marcel Berlin and Paul Blezard. His books have been translated into 24 languages including Swahili, which Gianrico confirmed, with a smile on his face, he carefully reads and checks all!

The discussion kicked off with a question about building a relation of trust between the translator and the author. Gianrico commented that translators have different ways of working: some contact him via email or phone, but some never contacted him, which surely makes it more difficult to iron out any doubts and problems a translator might have.

Gianrico is the only Italian exponent of the “legal thriller” (he remarked that he had once been introduced as “one of the most important legal thriller writers”, saying it’s not difficult when there’s only one of them!), where the protagonist is not a cop or a detective. Marcel Berlin remarked that Italian fiction is usually very noir: how come Gianrico decided to write in this genre? When he started to write his first book, Involuntary Witness, he didn’t know it was going to be a thriller, he just wrote the story. Gianrico says that the same book can be read in different ways or from different points of view, for example at an event one reader commented that she read the book as a love story: and this is still fine, because there are many stories woven into the book.

Marcel said that on average there is more political content in Italian books, however Gianrico says he doesn’t write about what he’s too close to: in fiction you shouldn’t decide in advance what politics you’re going to write about. According to Margaret Atwood [paraphrasing Virginia Woolf], writing is like being in a dark room where the writer finds his or her way around it until the process comes to an end at the exit of the room itself.

Gianrico, like many writers, reinforced the idea of writing fiction as a necessity and says: “I know I have a story when I have a situation”. Writing a novel is also making a deal with the reader, with a promise at the beginning, which is as important as the end. However, starting to write is actually very scary, and that’s why he started so late (in his forties), but the piece of advice he would have for novice writers is “begin tonight”, don’t find excuses.

Marcel then asked about Italian noir more in general, since in his opinion it’s quite concentrated on corruption, on ‘gangsterland’: for example, non-Italian authors of books set in Italy, like Donna Leon and Michael Dibdin, who write books that are more detective stories, are they well known in Italy? Gianrico says that Leon doesn’t want to be translated in Italian, while Dibdin is not very well known.

Gianrico also says that the duties of a writer are to be honest and reduce the necessary suspension of disbelief to a minimum, do appropriate research and be accurate. So he writes what he likes to write about: people and characters. Every character has a back story, Gianrico says his writing is character-centred rather than plot centred: he uses the plot to talk about things he’s interested in. He likes writing ‘subplots’, what’s happening on the side of the main story. He says “It’s fun to write biographies of characters”.

Marcel and Paul then want to know how his books are received by Italian lawyers and Gianrico says they love them: he runs legal writing workshops and he says people come because of his fiction, not because of his legal writing! He is also asked often how autobiographical Guerrieri is: he admits initially he was saying Guerrieri wasn’t then realised this was creating a bit of an aura around him and, again with a smile on his face, “became much more flexible.”

Finally, Gianrico is asked what kind of books he likes to read: Lawrence Block, the early RJ Ellory, not so many Italian writers. Grisham, Connolly, Thurow he finds very plot-driven and with not enough depth to their characters.

Does he intend to carry on writing books on Guerrieri, asks Marcel: yes, although his next book is not in the Guerrieri series. Gianrico likes the idea of an “open mega-novel” where each book is like a chapter, he writes a new novel when something happens and something is changing. He reminds the atendees of the Lao Tze quote at the beginning of Involuntary Witness “What the caterpillar thinks is the end of the world, the rest of the world calls a butterfly”: this is what he’s interested in writing about. And he shares with Guerrieri the motto of “never feel too comfortable”.

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