Monday, March 26, 2012

I’m just like that Belgian writer

Di recente una mia amica mi ha regalato un libro autobiografico di cui aveva un doppione. “Non mi è piaciuto,” mi ha detto. “La scrittrice è odiosa.” Quindi ho cominciato a leggerlo quella sera stessa.

Recently a friend of mine gave me an autobiographical novel that she already had a copy of. “I didn’t like it,” she said. “The writer is obnoxious.” So I started reading it that very night.

Si chiamava Nè di Eva nè di Adamo di Amélie Nothomb, tradotto in italiano dal francese. Un libricino nero con in copertina una foto in primo piano della donna che – per pura invidia da scrittrice non ancora pubblicata – non vedevo l’ora di odiare. A mio dispetto, però, sono stata colpita da tutta una serie di strane coincidenze tra me e l’autrice.

It was called Tokyo Fiancée by Amélie Nothomb, translated into Italian from the French. A little black book with a close-up picture on the cover of the woman whom – purely out of envy as an unpublished writer – I couldn't wait to hate. However, despite myself, I was struck by a whole string of coincidences between me and the author.

Coincidenza #1: Prima di tutto, Amélie ha scritto un libro. Anch’io ho scritto un libro! Il suo è assai coinvolgente, un bocconcino che si fa leggere in tre sedute. Anche il mio libro prende e trascina il lettore, e a volte lo mena pure, e si farebbe leggere in tre sedute. Da venti ore l’una.

Coincidence #1: First of all, Amélie wrote a book. I’ve written a book too! Hers is really engrossing, a little morsel that you can read in three sittings. My book too grabs and pulls in the reader, sometimes even giving them a good beating, and could be read in three sittings. Of twenty hours each.

Coincidenza #2: Poi, lei ha scritto di un breve periodo della sua vita, quando aveva una ventina di anni, nel quale si era buttata a capofitto non solo in una storia d’amore senza grandi probabilità di successo, ma anche nella sua cultura adottiva – il Giappone – per scoprire quali pezzi della sua identità erano giapponesi e quali invece erano belghi. Anch’io racconto di queste cose nel mio manoscritto. Bisogna solo scambiare Giappone con Napoli, e belga con americana. Lasciamo stare che invece, per quanto riguarda la storia d’amore, è stata lei a mandare in frantumi il cuore poetico del suo amante giapponese, schiacciato sotto il piede come una cicca di sigaretta dopo averne succhiato tutte le forze vitali.

Coincidence #2: Furthermore, she wrote about a brief period of her life in her twenties, when she flung herself headlong not only into a love story without much likelihood of success, but also into her adoptive culture – Japan – to figure out which pieces of herself were Japanese and which were Belgian. That’s what I talk about in my manuscript too. You just need to swap Japan with Naples and Belgian with American. Never mind that as far as the love story in concerned, however, she was the one to shatter the heart of her poetic Japanese lover, squashed underfoot like a cigarette butt after sucking the life out of it.

Coincidenza #3: Come me, Amélie è affascinata dai vulcani. Per me è il Vesuvio, per lei invece Fujiyama, che ha scalato come una furibonda, lasciando nella polvere il suo amante che l’accompagnava. A notte fonda.

Coincidence #4: Like me, Amélie is fascinated with volcanoes. For me it’s Vesuvius, for her Mount Fuji, which she climbed like a madwoman, leaving behind in the dust her lover who had taken her there. In the middle of the night.

Coincidenza #4: Lei odia gli americani. Guarda caso, io sono americana. Disprezza pure tutte le altre nazionalità. Odia essere scambiata per una francese. Anch’io! Mi capita sempre.

Coincidence #4: She hates Americans. As chance would have it, I’m American. She also despises all other nationalities. She hates being taken for a French woman. Me too! It always happens to me.

Coincidenza #5: Amélie è aristocratica, figlia di un ambasciatore belga. E io, guarda un po’, sono originaria della provincia di Washington, D.C., dove ci sono molte, ma molte ambasciate.

Coincidence #5: Amélie is aristocratic, the daughter of an ambassador. Fancy that, I’m originally from the suburbs of Washington, D.C., where there are tons of embassies.

Coincidenza #6: Be’, è vero che io e Amélie non ci assomigliamo molto fisicamente. Però lei ha i capelli lisci e pure io. Abbiamo su per giù la stessa età. E poi neanch’io mi farei fotografare da così vicino senza un dito di fondotinta.

Coincidence #6: Ok, so it’s true that Amélie and I don’t look much alike. But she has straight hair and so do I. We're around the same age. And I wouldn’t have had such a close-up taken of me either without wearing foundation an inch thick.

Coincidenza #7: Se devo essere sincera, ho dato uno sguardo ad altre foto di Amélie Nothomb su internet e mi ha fatto un’antipatia come pochi altri nella mia vita. È una questione di pelle. Ma è la stessissima cosa che provo io quando mi guardo allo specchio.

Coincidence #7: To be perfectly honest, I had a look at some other pictures of Amélie Nothomb on the internet and she irritated me like few others in my life have. Just an instinctive thing. But it’s the exact same thing I feel when I look at myself in the mirror.

Allora, come vedi, sono tale e quale alla nota scrittrice Amélie Nothomb, tranne in un solo particolare. Come protagonista, lei in effetti era decisamente odiosa. Però il libro non mi sarebbe piaciuto altrimenti.

So as you can see, I’m exactly like the famous writer Amélie Nothomb, except for one thing. As a protagonist, she was in fact truly obnoxious. But I wouldn’t have liked the book otherwise.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Now that feels much better

There are parts of my unpublished autobiographical manuscript, Lost in the Spanish Quarter, which I’ve never been happy with. I think that’s normal in a 474-page encyclopedia like mine. All of those less-than-perfect passages are those where, for purely practical reasons, I was forced to fictionalize just a tad. I’m as bad a fiction writer as I am a liar. But finally yesterday, in a daylong writing marathon, I was able to fix them – or at least patch them up. And in one case, I was able to replace fiction with fact: that is, that time when my boyfriend traveled back to his hometown, leaving me to spend Christmas Eve at our Naples apartment all alone, I actually spent the entire festivity on the bathroom floor vomiting. Now that feels much better.

How does it make you feel?

Excerpt from Chapter 34 (p.222-224) of Lost in the Spanish Quarter, revised

Christmas. What was Christmas anyway, once the magic of childhood is removed from it? Without the popcorn and cranberry streamers hugging the tree and the homemade maple syrup Santa cookies, without the tofu cheesecake and It’s a Wonderful Life on Channel 5? In that sense, she was thousands of miles and light years away from Christmas anyway. What was left was a mere shell, a meaningless tradition that could easily be broken, as easy as drinking a cappuccino after midday.

What she didn’t need was pity. When Marlene had called out on her way out the door, “I will save some Panettone for you,” with those big unmistakably sympathetic eyes, Rebecca had sent her off with a brisk, “Now you stay warm on the motorcycle,” tightening the colorful scarf around Marlene’s neck. Marlene, full of pity for her!

She had never wanted to go to the farm for Christmas anyway. It would have been a tortuous way of making a point, of proving something to others. It would have felt like an artificial form of staking her claim, like jamming a flag into the surface of the moon when she’d much rather have been back on earth.

So when up from the dungeon rose the alluring sound of forks clinking on plate after plate and the lean smell of fried eel, Rebecca focused on Christmas Eve being just like any other night. Which of course it was. She opened the box with the new antiviral she was willing to try for her now ballooning coldsore, swallowing down the few two pills. She pulled the gas heater closer to the desk, warming her hands and browsing through her notes from Bonfantini’s recent lectures, which were just as mysterious as last year’s. Then she organized her index cards into viable sections and could begin to see her thesis take shape.

She lingered on one card where she’d scribbled a quote from a book: “The third person is historically the weakest form…[undergoing] a fierce decline.”

He, she, it, they. All of them were destined, not just in Italian but in many languages, to evolve, become simplified or even drop away. The Chinese didn’t distinguish between ‘he’ and ‘she’. English speakers were more and more inclined to opt for the sexless ‘they’ instead of the burdensome ‘he or she’.

And yet, what the quote failed to acknowledge was that the third person was indeed the most powerful of all. By adopting the words ‘she’ or ‘they’, a speaker was instantly and authoritatively saying this person is ‘the other’ – not ‘I’ or ‘we but someone unlike them, someone foreign to their tight-knit community…like edda.

Edda, she, the third person. Edda, So deliberately chosen, not a grammatical necessity but a choice. She’s too skinny, his mother had said. Edda, considerably more frigid than Voi, the southern Italian variety of the formal ‘you’. Edda, much like a woman’s first name, an old widow from a tiny village all dressed in black. Edda, so foreign and hard to pronounce, with its double ‘d’ so tight that it sounded almost like an ‘r’. Edda, erda, era. No, she couldn’t quite reproduce it with her tongue. It was one of those unreachable, mountainous sounds of the dialect…

There, it had happened again. Her mind had strayed to Vallesaccarda, to Elio’s mother, although it was the last place she now would have wanted to be. But now, as his mother’s pronoun lay naked and dissected before her, she was struck by a clarity even sharper than the cold objectivity of semiotics.

Had she really thought that Grazia was simply going to welcome her into their home for a good Catholic family meal? Rebecca tried to imagine the scene – Elio’s mother’s arms outstretched, her rib cage lifting like a bird about to take off, her kerchief fluttering, her lips bowing into a “Merry Christmas, my dear.”

Rebecca’s laughter echoed in the empty apartment. It was, indeed, an implausible and even tacky scene. A bad B movie. As if on cue, a wave of nausea thrust its way up her throat. But it could have been just the medicine.

Yes, it had been uncouth of Grazia not to invite her son’s girlfriend for Christmas, but there was something refreshingly honest about her rejection. His mother didn’t like her, that was crystal clear. But Rebecca didn’t like her either. Let’s not pretend anymore, she thought to herself, let’s not waste time with niceties. The truth was she and Grazia were never going to get along.

The nausea again: it was not imagined. To be on the safe side, she climbed the stairs towards the bathroom. She barely made it to the toilet bowl in time. There must have been something in the pills she was allergic to. Or had she taken them incorrectly? She drank sink water from her cupped hands and sank onto the tiles, trembling but relieved.

Grazia was delusional, though, if she thought Rebecca’s absence from the farm meant that she had gone for good. If she thought Rebecca would just give up on her son and fly back to America on a big beast called an airplane. That was never going to happen.

Again she had to lean over the toilet bowl, releasing nothing but the water she had drunk. Her throat burned, her stomach grumbled. There was nothing left to lose.

Surely it was a pitiful scene, her vomiting her guts out all alone in a cold bathroom on Christmas Eve. But instead of self-commiseration, a survival instinct kicked in. She felt emptied and new. Invincible. She knew in every trembling pore of her body that what she and Elio had was unbreakable, a bond stronger than blood and bones, a force greater than the two of them combined and mightier certainly than any other third person.

As if the universe were confirming their connection, in that moment the phone rang. It was Elio, overfed, under-rested and pierced with guilt at what he called his ‘weakness’. No, she replied, he hadn’t been weak. He had been right all along. His battle was hers and they were going to fight it together.

“It’s hell here without you, baby,” he said in an aching, almost desperate, voice. His words only made her resolve stronger.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Describing the indescribable


I’ve started rereading one of my favorite books in the world, Robert Harris’s Pompeii. I’m reading it for the third time partly because I have a terrible memory, so it reads fresh like the first time. But also, Pompeii ticks all the usual boxes for what makes a great read. It’s escapism to a faraway place in space and time (in this case, to a sweltering and sulphuric Roman town in August 79 A.D), where you get to experience life from someone else’s perspective (here, an engineer in charge of the aqueduct) while living through the real-life suspense of an impending disaster, in this case a volcanic eruption which would bury the seaside town and its inhabitants for nearly two thousand years.

Now that’s what I call a book.

Of course, I’m a bit biased because I lived next door to Pompeii for over a decade. But the book still wouldn’t knock my or anyone else’s socks off if it weren’t brilliantly written. That box is non-negotiable. Pompeii has perfect tempo, characterization, scene setting, dialogue, etc. But it also has those beautiful moments that make your heart do a little leap, followed by a sigh of relief as you think, “Ah, yes, that’s exactly what such and such is like! I’m so glad someone has finally put it into words.”

Here’s a simple example from the dog-eared page in front of me, part of a description of the sound water makes as it is channelled through pipes into a vast underground reservoir: it sounds like “subterranean thunder” or a “hammering lullaby”. Yes, that’s it! And to think that all these years I have been yearning for these exact words, and I didn’t even know it. Before I was poor, and now I am rich.

For innately metaphorical beings like us humans, somehow our experience of the world is only truly made real, and therefore consciously felt and remembered, if we can put a name to it. Naming is the salt of life, without which everything is bland and forgettable.

Naturally, as a wannabe writer, naming is my main mission. That was the challenge I set for myself when writing my Neapolitan memoir a few years back: to describe an experience that felt indescribable, in its beauty and its pain. So I asked myself, What does life in a Neapolitan ghetto look like, feel like, smell like and sound like? What is it like to live under the shadow of one of the world’s most unpredictable volcanoes? What does a first kiss really feel like? What does it feel like when your lover tells you for the first time that he loves you? What does it feel like when your heart is about to break?

I no longer have the luxury of time like I did when I wrote my memoir, before having a kid. So tonight I will limit myself to the simple challenge of trying to describe a taste for you, so that you can nod and say, “Yes, that’s it!” or perhaps just so that you too may endure it along with me.

Chinese herbs. They’re good for you.

If you’re lucky, your prescribed herbs will come compressed into a pill form and you won’t taste anything as they go down. But it’s more likely that you’ll have to boil the mixture of ginseng, turtle shell, orchid roots, cow gallstones and peony bark for an hour, or revive the dehydrated version with hot water. In either case, imagine digging deep as you bring to your lips a bubbling cauldron of black sludge.

Tastes and smells are notoriously difficult to describe, but here I go. My recent Chinese brew – in its dehydrated powder form – smells like an innocuous concoction of dried fruit, tobacco and bitter chocolate, with a hint of gravel dust billowing up under your feet on a hot and dry day, the kind that mysteriously works its way into the back of your mouth. However, resurrected with hot water and sculled down at record-breaking speed, this herbal formula tastes like the bottom of an ashtray mixed with organic disinfectant.

Another brew, which I haven’t yet had the pleasure of tasting, smells a bit like yeast rising in a sweetgrass basket being carried along the same gravel road on a hot and dry day.

Nothing compared to my most traumatic Chinese herb experience ever. This medicine required boiling for twenty minutes, which leached a disturbing steam throughout the kitchen. Sniffing its unsettling creamy odor with a hint of slimy mushroom, I was prepared for the worst. But I was not prepared for the brew to taste exactly like buffalo dung. Don’t ask me how I know this, since I’ve never eaten buffalo dung. I just know.

Afterwards I drank water, apple juice, stuffed my face with broken saltines, brushed my teeth twice. I scrubbed the contaminated cup and pan without daring to inhale. Even in the middle of the night I woke up in a sweat, my nostrils assailed by the stench of buffalo dung. It took me a moment to realize I was safe, that I’d just been having a nightmare.

Later, not knowing the actual name of this foul brew, I described its appearance and smell to my knowledgeable mom, who instantly said, “Oh, yes! That’s Dong Quai [pronounced Don-kee] Dung, it’s a traditional formula.”

Here, it turns out that my stoicism in drinking Don-kee Dung was far greater than my ability to describe the indescribable. You see, it was dung after all. But I got the animal all wrong.