Saturday, January 28, 2012
Ripping my own book to shreds
The book narrows in on a tight-knit group of out-of-town university students rooming in the decaying Spanish Quarter, to tell the disastrous love story between two of them – Rebecca, a free-spirited American student of linguistics who has lived in Italy’s seat of the Camorra since adolescence, and Elio, a geology major with inseverable ties to the provincial farmland he hails from. It’s clearly doomed, but don’t accuse me of spoiling the ending for you: the fact that the relationship crumbles is already clear from a present-day email – from Elio – on the very first page.
So why turn the pages at all? For some inexplicable reason, the book is a real page-turner, not unlike an illustrated encyclopedia of skin diseases, but with more dialogue. The graphic demise of this love story is at times excruciatingly pleasurable. And if you do have that tendency to develop a sick fascination with gore, you’ll also enjoy the verbose descriptions of the Spanish Quarter with its bursting bags of trash, raccoon-sized rats and the occasional transvestite prostitute indecently mopping the kitchen.
I think you get my earlier point about protecting your innocence. Where is the Italy we have grown to love? Where is the sunshine? Where are the catcalls to the foreign women? Why are the men speaking in such full coherent sentences? And why do none of them have moustaches? Where are the cappuccinos, the vineyards, the Speedos? With the exception of the heart-warming descriptions of dappled sunlight on Elio’s family farmhouse and those lovingly detailing the traditional salami-making process, for most of the book you’d think you were in Kabul. If you’re anything like me, reading this saga will leave you feeling as ripped off as if someone had just bumped your strawberry gelato onto the grimy cobblestones.
It’s a dangerous read in more ways than one. This 474-page memoir, interspersed with post-breakup emails bursting with run-on sentences, weighs as much as a brick. I can attest to that personally, after my copy fell on my foot while I was reading it on the toilet. (And that’s not even far to fall.) No doubt the book could have done with a bit more editing. For example, did we really need to endure that professor’s lecture on Indo-European languages? In other places, however, there just isn’t enough information. I mean, what on earth is a “mixed tape”? And what does “tre caffé” mean, anyway? No one wants to have to pull out a bilingual dictionary while on the toilet. In places, Lost in the Spanish Quarter reads a bit more like Lost in Translation.
With all these glaring offences, it’s at times hard to remember that this third-person narrative is, after all, a true story. And frankly, there are times when it’s just a bit hard to believe. I mean, c’mon, an American who speaks flawless Italian? A blonde Sicilian? A washing machine being thrown off a balcony? A free college education? I dare say the author has used a bit of fiction to her advantage.
However, I’d be lying if I said there was nothing redeemable about this book. I’m a sucker for a good love story, even if it does end in depression and suicide. The first kiss gave me the chills, almost as much as Elio’s mother’s coldheartedness. His collapsed lung nearly broke my aorta. And the punctuation was stellar. But you’ve been warned: read this dark memoir at your own risk, and if you do, hold on tight to your gelato.