Hollow Heart by Viola Di Grado, tr. Antony Shugaar

September 9, 2015 § 4 Comments

Title:  Hollow Heart

Author:  Viola Di Grado

Translator:  Antony Shugaar  / Italian

Publisher:  Europa Editions, New York (2015)

ISBN:  978 1 60945 271 1

“I’m not afraid of death because I don’t believe in it.
It’s just getting out of one car, and into another.”
― John Lennon

“The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where the one ends, and where the other begins?”
― Edgar Allan Poe

“When you look into the abyss, it’s not supposed to wave back.”
― Terry Pratchett

Dorotea Giglio (1986-2011) is the unlikely heroine of the Italian novel, Hollow Heart, released in English this past August by the increasingly chic publisher Europa Editions.  Unlikely because she’s already dead when the book (which functions as a sort of memoir of the afterlife) starts, having employed the perennial method of opening her wrists in a warm bath.  To female suicide what the double axel is to female figure skaters, the way she kills herself grounds by its very ubiquity what proves to be a mesmerizing and wholly original literary work about a young woman navigating death. And doing so with more dexterity than she ever showed in life. Probably not a coincidence.  The very things which she loses – the emotional and physical connections which define our humanity – are the things which caused her so much pain while alive.  Death, if nothing else, grants objectivity.

The bad news about the afterlife is that it’s rather bleak.  Viola Di Grado paints a black landscape where the dead exist as shadows, isolated from those they love, lonely, unable to experience the pleasures they took for granted while alive.  Of course, Dorotea’s existence (as we come to understand it) was rather bleak prior to her suicide. At least now she has some friends and perspective. She keeps a journal recording the decomposition of her body, which she visits frequently and lovingly. She continues to live with her mother and aunt – observing their grief, comforting and tormenting them as the whim strikes her.  She goes to an Amy Winehouse concert (after the singer’s death, of course) with another suicide named Euridice. She seeks out other ghosts, leaving touchingly wistful messages for recently deceased acquaintances.

Hi, I’m Dorotea Giglio (1986-2011). We did theater together in middle school. I was the one who was three years older than you, I had dark hair and freckles, you remember? I’m the one who that time we went to Milan to see the show about Pirandello, on the bus, told you about when my cousin’s duckling almost drowned after it got tangled up in a piece of twine and the other duckling saved it by peeping really loud. You said it was a crazy story. Do you remember that? I know we didn’t talk much for the rest of the trip. And I know that we haven’t been in touch in the fourteen years since. But I heard that you died of leukemia, and since I was in your neighborhood, having died myself just last year, I though that maybe we could get together…

I got your number from a girl who died of an overdose and used to do aerobics with you. I stopped by the hospital room where you stopped living, but you weren’t there. I thought you might be in the morgue, hanging ribbons and necklaces on you frozen body, but you weren’t there either. Nor at the cemetery; that’s where I spend a lot of my time these days. Would you call me at this number? I really hope to hear from you. Ciao, kisses.

Much of Hollow Heart is about Dorotea coming to terms with the life she gave up. The prose is beautiful – moving from the lyrical to the biological – sentences defiantly bright in the face of such a dark subject. “Down there my body feels no regrets: the regrets have stayed with me, and I have to fight them off on my own. My regrets shrill, they whine, they throw tantrums, they keep me from sleeping. They disobey me. They grow. My body has enxymes instead of regrets. They emerged from the lacerated lysosomes and set about destroying their own tissues. And so every one of my cells crumbled itself from within, alone, in silence.”  Life and viscera saturate page after page as Dorotea describes the insects who eat her flesh and then, moments later, is caught up in a memory of a plane ride she took while alive: “The clouds outside the airplane window looked like a motionless sea. A slab of dark waves, caught by surprise in the middle of a storm. Breakers suspended in that enchanted instant right before they crash down on the shore. You could see the entire arch of their bodies, the hook-shaped curve, soon thrust into the earth. A huge hand lifted to grab, as if full of yearning.” Di Grado’s writing is so lovely at times it makes you ache.

I’ve included more than the usual number of excerpts because the writing, as well as the originality of thought behind the character, are what make Hollow Heart worth reading – and, in fact, readable.  Violet Di Grado appears to have done her research, acknowledging the hereditary component of suicide.  She does not hesitate to make her readers uncomfortable or sad.  But in Dorotea she’s given us a character whose charm is only revealed after she sheds her depression with her corporeal form.  Once that happens an inquisitive, sweet, admittedly quirky young woman emerges.  You can’t help cheering her on, if only because she is so hopeful in a place where we’ve been told all hope should be abandoned.  Somehow managing to embrace the afterlife as she was never able to embrace the life that came before.


Something Old, Something New: Two Novels by Therese Bohman (a #WITMonth post)

August 12, 2015 § Leave a comment

The weekend before last an Indie Book Flea was held outside of the Brooklyn Public Library.  I was there with Lori from TNBBC because, let’s be honest, we’re geeks who live for that kind of thing.  There was a bunch of great publishers and chapbook presses there and I ended up buying from quite a few of them – Seven Stories, One Story, Ugly Duckling Presse, Double Cross Press – all of whom I plan to talk about in the weeks after WITMonth (aka – Women In Translation Month). But right now I want to talk about some really exciting news I heard at the Other Press table.

The Swedish author Therese Bohman, whose novel Drowned I reviewed in 2012 and which remains on my favorite-books-of-all-time shelf, has a new novel coming out in English in February, 2016.  The title is The Other Woman. Marlaine Delargy is again translating. Below is the description from the Penguin Random House website (Other Press is an imprint) –

From the author of Drowned, a passionate psychological drama where questions of power and sexuality are brought to a head.

She works at Norrköping Hospital, at the very bottom of the hierarchy: in the cafeteria, below the doctors, the nurses, and the nursing assistants. But she dreams of one day becoming a writer, of moving away and reinventing herself.

Carl Malmberg, an older, married doctor at the hospital, catches her eye. She begins an intense affair with him, though struggling with the knowledge that he may never be hers. At the same time, she realizes that their attraction to each other is governed by their differences in social status. As her doubts increase, the revelation of a secret no one could have predicted forces her to take her own destiny in hand.

The news had me picking up my copy of Drowned again and revisiting my old review from 2012. Everything I wrote then still holds true today (which is always a relief), though I did make a new connection I didn’t make back then.  Last year I read the Château d’Argol by Julien Gracq, tr. Louise Varése – an example of both Gothicism and German Romanticism.  Drowned, which also uses nature as symbolism and foreshadowing, shares many of the same techniques and themes – albeit written in a more straight forward prose style.

Click on the cover to read my review of Therese Bohman’s Drowned.



The Diving Pool: Three Novellas by Yoko Ogawa, tr. Stephen Snyder (a #WITMonth post)

August 8, 2015 § Leave a comment

Title:  The Diving Pool – Three Novellas
Author:  Yoko Ogawa
Translator:  Stephen Snyder
Publisher: Picador, New York (2008)
ISBN:  978 0 312 42683 5

The quality of mercy is not strain’d.

Diving PoolThe compassion Yoko Ogawa shows her protagonists, despite their flaws, consistently surprises me. These three early novellas – and novella seems a bit of a grandiose term for what are, essentially, three unrelated short stories – each feature a first person, female narrator. They are collected under the title: The Diving Pool, which is also the title of the first novella.  The three women, aging from early teens to mid-thirties, are not the most likeable of characters. In fact, much of what we learn about them seems designed to repulse us.

Ogawa has an affinity for the first person narrator. Like her 2013 book of short stories, Revenge: Eleven Dark TalesThe Diving Pool exclusively uses the “I” perspective.  The writing is disturbingly confessional in tone.  Taken together, these two characteristics make it tempting to classify Ogawa’s work as part of the Japanese I-Novel tradition.*  Ogawa’s protagonists disclose their darkest secrets to the reader.  They reveal shameful actions, though not always the motivations behind them. They are perhaps the most reliable of narrators in that they tell us things we don’t wish to hear.

The Diving Pool is, in my opinion, the strongest of the three novellas.  It’s also the most difficult to summarize. The narrator, a teenage girl, grows up neglected by her parents as they tend to the needs of the many foster children they have taken into their home – an orphanage called The Lighthouse.  Lonely and increasingly isolated, she develops a crush on one of her foster brothers and secretly spends her afternoons at the swimming pool watching him practice his diving. If this were another writer I’d say that the situation escalates, but “escalation” is too aggressive a word to apply to Ogawa.  The girl does a terrible thing; in truth has a history of doing terrible things.  The story is a perfect coalescing of the themes which obsess Ogawa – loneliness, isolation, everyday acts of desperation and cruelty.

Then, while she had her back turned, I slipped behind the kitchen door. After a few moments, the dirt on her hands began to bother her again and she dropped the shovel and bucket at her feet and stood staring at her palms. Finally, she turned for help toward the spot where I should have been sitting. As it dawned on her that I wasn’t there, that she’d been left alone, she began crying in earnest. Her sobs were violent, seemingly about to rupture inside her, and they were satisfying my cruel urge. I wanted her to cry even harder, and everything seemed perfectly arranged: no one would come to pick her up, I would be able to listen to my heart’s content, and she was too young to tell anyone afterward.

I stopped reading and put this book away for 6 months after finishing The Diving Pool.

Slightly less devastating, Dormitory features a woman in her early thirties who is waiting to join her husband in Sweden. He has found work there and has gone on ahead to settle their living arrangements. She spends her days alone, seldom leaving her home.  “My life, too, seemed to be drifting in circles, as if caught in the listless season…. I never went out to meet people and had no deadlines or projects of any sort. Formless days passed one after the other, as if swollen into an indistinguishable mass by the damp weather.” One day a younger cousin calls asking for her help finding a place to live.  He is beginning his first semester at university and knew from other family members that she’d been happy with the dormitory she’d stayed at while in school.  Six years have passed since she’d graduated, but she offered to contact the manager. “That was how I came to renew my ties with the dormitory.”

“There’s one thing I forgot to mention,” I said, finally bringing up the subject that had been on my mind all day. My cousin turned to look at me, waiting expectantly for me to continue. “The Manager is missing one leg and both arms.” There was a short silence.

“One leg and both arms,” he repeated at last.

“His left leg, to be precise.”

“What happened to him?

“I’m not sure. An accident, I suppose. There were rumors – that he’d been caught in some machine or was in a car wreck. No one could ever manage to ask him, but it must have been something awful.”

“That’s for sure,” my cousin said, looking down as he kicked a pebble.

“But he can do everything for himself – cook, get dressed, get around. He can use a can opener, a sewing machine, anything, so you won’t even notice after a while. When you’ve been around him, it somehow doesn’t seem to be very important. I just didn’t want you to be shocked when you meet him.”

“I see what you mean,” my cousin said, kicking another pebble.

WITMonth15Her cousin moves into the dormitory, in fact seems to be the only student staying there, and through him the narrator also renews her acquaintance with the dormitory manager.  A strange friendship forms between them, the narrator and Manager.  Through a series of visits a semblance of a plot begins to emerge – but Dormitory seems more of an exercise in atmosphere and sensory exploration.  Like many of Ogawa’s stories it is incredibly cinematic.  She layers sound, visual images, dialogue, even cuts in and out of scenes.  It’s easy to imagine Dormitory being made into a short, noir-style film… perhaps by a student film-maker.  The final image is profoundly haunting, – and this in a story filled with haunting imagery.

Pregnancy Diary, actually the second in order of appearance, is structured pretty much as the title implies.  A woman, living with her sister and her sister’s husband, begins keeping a diary to track her sister’s pregnancy. As the weeks progress it becomes increasingly clear that something is not right here… though I could never quite put my finger on what.

Unapologetically, Ogawa puts her damaged characters on the page and confronts us with their actions, using the first person perspective like a weapon to force our complicity.  By exposing these women so completely it would be easy to think she didn’t care, but there is a definite protectiveness to her portrayals.  She doesn’t hold them up for judgement, in fact I’d say it is just the opposite.  She treats them with gentleness and dignity – handling them more carefully than she does her readers.  There is also a visceral quality to her writing which reminds me of Naja Marie Aidt (who I’ll be reviewing next week) and other women writers I admire.  Physical cruelty, the emotionally abhorrent, the grotesque – Yoko Ogawa’s writing doesn’t shy away from the less attractive aspects of biology or human nature.


*As far as I know, and my understanding of the Japanese I-Novel has never been very good, the I- or True Novel genre requires an autobiographical narrative.  So in A True Novel by Minae Mizumura the author places herself into the story as a character and as part of the framing device. Ogawa, again as far as I know, never places herself into her narratives.  Though her narrators for the most part remain unnamed.




The Pope’s Daughter by Dario Fo (Antony Shugaar, translator)

July 27, 2015 § Leave a comment

Title:  The Pope’s Daughter
Author:  Dario Fo
Translator:  Antony Shugaar
Publisher:  Europa Editions, New York (2015)
ISBN:  978 1 60945 274 2

Dario Fo – playwright, comedian, Nobel Laureate  –  is an admirer of the 16th century form of street theater known as commedia dell’arte. These roving theatrical troupes employed masks, improvisation, wordplay and slapstick comedy to entertain the masses. The actors and actresses performed broad “types” (stereo- or arch-), which were popular in that time period.

For  The Pope’s Daughter Fo has translated the theatrical form into a novel. He encourages these somewhat archaic references by dividing the tale into episodic chapters with old-fashioned descriptive titles such as: “The puppet king who walks like a marionette” and “Out of enmity between women, sometimes a great friendship can spring”.  At the same time Fo imagines conversations, spins events like a contemporary satirist and displays a razor sharp eye for historical absurdities. The narrative voice (which we can only assume is the author’s own) always seems to be on the verge of laughter. It is a charming, farcical portrayal of the Borgias – with a preamble at the front, a bibliography at the back, and Fo’s drawings & paintings of the main characters scattered between.

“… The chronicles of the time, in fact, reported all sorts of social events, some of them held within the walls of the Vatican itself, with a matter-of-fact approach and without the slightest hint of scandal. But when the Borgias strode onto the stage of Rennaisance history, to the cheers of a horde of supporters, first and foremost among them their closest relations, then indeed the attention of the public, an audience both national and international, really became keen.”

What do we know about Lucrezia Borgia, her brothers and her father?  Quite a bit, actually.  She and her family were 15th century celebrities on the scale of Kardashians – subject to all the attention and public scrutiny that kind of celebrity brings.  There are the historical records.  But because they were so much in the public eye, positioned at the epicenter of all of Christendom really, we also have an almost embarrassing wealth of rumors, gossip & innuendos. Take the time to sift through the mess of information and an image forms of a smart, extraordinarily pretty woman who enjoyed all the privileges of status, wealth & education. A woman who made the sacrifices which were expected of well-born females of that time period.  Sacrifices which were necessary to maintain a life of privilege (three marriages to further her father’s & brother’s political ambitions) and luxury.

History has assigned her the alternating roles of virgin and whore, political victim and poisoner, incestuous seductress and cultured Renaissance Duchess.  That need to define Lucrezia through such a multitude of archetypes has obscured her many real accomplishments and achievements. Few portrayals focus on the known facts: that at age nineteen she acted as governor of the cities of  Spoleto & Foligno; or that she remains the only woman to have sat on the Papal throne and wielded the power of the office (which she did at the age of twenty-one while her father was away from Rome); or that after her father’s death, when her brother most needed help, she would raise and send him an army.  As Duchess of Ferrara she would be known throughout Italy as a Patroness of the Arts.  Byron admired her love letters. Where her father & brother failed in their quest for dynasty, Lucrezia succeeded – many European monarchs trace their lineage back to the Borgias through Lucrezia and her granddaughter Anna D’Este (who was also the granddaughter of the French King Louis XII).

Throughout her life Lucrezia Borgia demonstrated intelligence, humility and no small amount of political acumen – all  of which allowed her to survive the fall of the Borgia family’s fortunes.

This is the Lucrezia Dario Fo is set on portraying.  And to that end he has swept aside much of the unsubstantiated speculation (and cable tv melodrama) to present a very real woman who possesses the full range of human emotions.  Fo’s Lucrezia is in turns frustrated, angry, intelligent, desperate, loving, affectionate, wily, passionate and a little bit bawdy. He allows her to grow from a young girl to a matron. And, realizing that her story is always bound to the stories of her brother Cesare and father the Pope, he’s put them in his book as well. Not as sinister demons consumed only by ambition, but as men with a multitude of failings. Setting them all in a world that bears uncanny (but very intentional) similarities to the one we live in today.

The hardest thing for Alexander VI was getting past the stumbling block of the “morality” issue.  That is, how was he to modify, at least in appearance, his licentious need for forbidden copulation? For that matter, how on earth could anyone keep their distance from such an adorable creature as Giulia? An old saying goes: “If the hyenas are on your heels, then toss them the most savory morsel, say a newborn lamb. You’ll see, when they open their maws to savage their prey, there’s not a hyena or jackal on earth that will pay the slightest attention to anything else.”

And so the great reformation was gently lowered into the swamp of forgetfulness. Every so often someone with a good memory would ask: “When are we going to talk about the revolution again?”

And everyone, from the pontiff down to his cardinals, would reply: “Never fear, we haven’t forgotten. Just be patient and we’ll bring it back up again.”

Sure, and who believed them?

If I’ve given the impression that The Pope’s Daughter is a history book or even your typical historical novel then I’ve badly mis-represented it. Fo creates an atmosphere of old-fashioned theatricality which is unusual and at odds with the genre.  He relies heavily on dialogue, usually imagined but sometimes taken from actual letters, which he exaggerates to the point of pantomime.  He uses this dialogue to convey most of the historical plot points of his heroine’s story. For example, when Lucrezia is attended by the same doctor who was also there when she miscarried her first child she spends some time answering his questions and recounting what has befallen her over the intervening years.  Fo tells his story on a stage: sometimes employing a sardonic voice-over commentary as in the passage above…  or creating elaborate set pieces as in the passage below.

Lucrezia was in Rome. The scene opens in the very instant at which the thump of the doorknocker is heard at the bottom of the central staircase and the voice of a servant girl calls: “Milady, it is your lover who just knocked on the door!” And Lucrezia responded: “At last! What are you waiting for? Let him in?”

“He’s already entered, that’s him on the stairs!”

Alfonso appeared, she hurried toward him to throw her arms around him, and he pushed her away.

“Hey, what’s come over you? Why do you shove me away?!”

“Why don’t you ask your brother and your father, too!  You’re a fine gang of blackguards!”

“Blackguards? Why, are you drunk or are you just pretending to insult me?”

“Listen, you’re a woman of letters, do you like ballads and strambotti? Then why don’t you just try reading this!” And with those words, he pulled a sheaf of paper from inside his jacket. “Be my guest, it’s dedicated to you, or really, I should say, to us both. It’s funny as can be.”

Image taken from the Nobel Prize website biography of Dario Fo.

The scene above features the archly delivered, wooden style of dialogue (seemingly fully aware of the audience listening in) that appears throughout the book.  Similar stylistic choices – which in other books would be seen as weaknesses – make up a good part of The Pope’s Daughter ‘s charm.  Antony Shugaar has done an excellent job of reconciling modern language to an antiquated context.  Fo’s storytelling is self-conscious and referencial in a very calculated way. He plays off of the historical events (juicier than anything he might have made up) and theatrical forms, slyly grinning all the while.  My one criticism is that he doesn’t go far enough.  An often quoted description of Fo, made on his receiving the Nobel Prize, is that he is a writer “who emulates the jesters of the Middle Ages in scourging authority and upholding the dignity of the downtrodden”.  With that in mind, this first novel seems to be at odds with itself.  Instead of a jester who mocks authority secure in his knowledge that he does so with impunity, Fo is strangely restrained.  Some of the characters speeches stop just short of becoming pedantic/preachy.  I was expecting wordplay, pratfalls, send-ups… I suppose I was expecting a little more of the Spanish Inquisition. Fo is so much of a playwright that the absence of the visual, performance component in his work is inevitably felt.  The shadow of the author is standing in the wings of this novel, winking at the audience and holding a banana cream pie behind his back.

While it may not be for every reader, The Pope’s Daughter is sophisticated, clever, challenging and flawed – everything we have come to expect from a Nobel Laureate and in a first novel. With it Dario Fo has decided to rehabilitate the image of Lucrezia Borgia – though in his own, unique way.  His substitution of commedia dell’arte for the sinister gothicism we’ve come to associate with the name Borgia is both unexpected and refreshing.  His combining of contemporary social criticism and (yes) Monty Python-style lampooning is incredibly entertaining.  His history isn’t bad, either.  There’s much more to recommend than not, and it seems to me a delightful first introduction of this Italian artist to an English, novel-reading public.



Random Updates: What I’m Reading, WIT Month Cometh, Summer Holiday Reading & Two Translation Awards Get Together

July 14, 2015 § 7 Comments

I’m currently enjoying The Brotherhood of Book Hunters by Raphaël Jerusalmy – a swashbuckling Alexander Dumas kind of tale translated from the French by Howard Curtis.  It’s completely charming!  The two main characters remind me quite a bit of Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser.  Jerusalmy has taken what’s best about sword & sorcery fiction and moved it into a historical setting – 15th century France, Jerusalum & (perhaps, I haven’t gotten that far yet) Italy.  I’m not sure if he did it on purpose – this is where an introduction or translator’s note would be helpful – but the parallels are there all the same.

Have I mentioned lately how I wish more books included Introductions, Forwards, Afterwards & Translator’s Notes? Obviously not all at once – there wouldn’t be much room for an actual story – but any combination/variation of the above would be acceptable & is always appreciated.

August is Biblibio’s 2nd Annual Women In Translation Month  – I’m hoping to take a more active part this year and with that in mind I’ve been putting together a tentative list of books to read & review.  There was a link on Twitter this morning to the New  Yorker article “The True Glamour of Clarice Lispector” (am I the only one who is constantly thrown off by the similarity between “Lispector” and “Inspector”?)  It was written by Benjamin Moser – well, taken from an introduction Moser wrote to a New Directions collection of her work, to be exact.  Benjamin Moser also wrote a biography of Inspector Lispector (see!?).

I’m very interested in reading that biography, titled Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector, despite the fact that I still need to read anything by her. A deficiency I hope to correct soon. Thanks in a large part to New Directions the English translations of her work seem to be enjoying a well-deserved moment in the California sun. And from what I’ve heard about her books she seems to belong to The Club of Fierce Women Writers – members include Marie NDiaye, Naja Marie Aidt, Yoko Ogawa, Anne Garréta, & Therese Bohman (to name a few).  Women writers who aren’t afraid to leave it all on the page.

If you’re not already planning to take part in #WITM2015 follow this link to a great post listing FAQ’s & suggestions on ways to participate.  The only real requirement is to read women writers who’ve been translated into English.  And if you’d like some recommendations (or would like to leave some recommendations) feel free to use the comments section below.

More August News:  This year we’ve scheduled our Summer Holiday for the end of August and I’m already putting together a list of books to read poolside.  A solid seven days of uninterrupted reading time – bliss!  5 books seems to be a safe, and somewhat realistic, number.  Current contenders are:

  • War, So Much War by Mercè Rodoreda, tr. Maruxa Relaño & Martha Tennent
  • The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair by Joel Dicker, tr. Sam Taylor
  • Decoded by Mai Jia, tr. Olivia Milburn & Christopher Payne
  • A Clarice Lispector book & biography double-header
  • Hollow Heart by Viola Di Grado, tr. Antony Shugaar

Of course this list will change at least 12 times between now and then.  Not least because I don’t think the Viola De Grado book is going to last (i.e.- remain unread) until then.

By now everyone has heard that the Man Booker International Prize and the International Foreign Fiction Prize have joined forces… just when the Man Booker International Prize finally had a list that was actually interesting!  In my unsolicited opinion the whole thing seems like a step backwards for International & Translated Literature. The two prizes evaluated two entirely different things – the former celebrating an international author, the latter an individual book published within the same year.  Of course, now the translator will be recognized (obviously a good thing) .  And the Man Booker International Prize list is usually a huge disappointment.  But wasn’t it lovely seeing the likes of Mabanckou, Aira, Van Niekerk, Krasznahorkai, Condé & Ghosh all up for the same award in 2015?

Your thoughts?

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