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A Sunlit Page: The unbearable lightness of beginning

  • Published at 05:05 pm May 4th, 2017
  • Last updated at 09:52 pm May 4th, 2017
A Sunlit Page: The unbearable lightness of beginning
I could have called this column, with a reverential nod at Milan Kundera: The Ineffable Lightness of Reading and Writing. But a hundred other titles jostle equally in my caffeine-perked mind. From my table at the local Bar-Caffè in my piazza here in Rome, with the spring sunshine spilling its effulgence on the open pages of my book of the moment, (one among the dozen I’m reading concurrently!) the title for my column fairly leaps up, eager fore-paws in the air, yelping to be adopted. (Down boy! I’ve just uploaded you on my laptop!) So, welcome to this sunlit page. However, while initiating my column in this sun-splashed nook, the actual book whose pages are open on my lap, I’m afraid, is not the sunniest of tales. Nevertheless, The Guardian called it “a melancholic, but strangely beautiful read.” I concur, albeit with some reservations. But before I reveal the name of the book, I’ll add this caveat: The books I share with my readers in this column will not necessarily be only current and topical ones; rather, like the wines of Italy, they might be of an older vintage as well. As is the case with the book I have just finished reading, after years of promising myself to do so. It’s the young Italian writer, Paolo Giordano’s The Solitude of Prime Numbers, which when published in 2008, was considered a bravura debut performance, winning instant acclaim and accolades, both nationally and internationally. But the book leaves me dissatisfied, somehow; my spirit unmoved, neither uplifted by the story, nor fully engaged by the characters. It could be because I’m not reading it in the original Italian, but lazily in the English translation, which is so smooth and unobtrusive that it feels almost as if this Italian story were originally narrated in English. That should be a good thing; yet, why do I feel as if I were drinking a cappuccino with my nose blocked, that something has gone missing in the translation? Unless that was the intention of the writer, since many Italians of the new generation like to suppress their cultural otherness in an effort to be globalised citizens. Certainly, in this translated version of Giordano’s book, apart from the Italian names of the characters, the story could be happening anywhere in a neutral, western world.
So, I’m considering re-reading Giordano’s virtuoso first book, in the original Italian, to catch some nuance that might redeem for me the unrelenting anonymity of the world depicted, which highlights the painful silence of alienation and solitude at the core of the novel, without augmenting its richness and power to move.
Mattia, the mathematically gifted, but emotionally dysfunctional and painfully shy boy, with a scarring secret concerning his vanished twin sister, could be a socially alienated teenager of American, or any other provenance. The other main character is Alice, which in Italy would be pronounced Aleechey; but this Alice of the sparsely sketched world of the translated book might be English, like the famous heroine of the fiction and literary Wonderland of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, aka Lewis Caroll. Crippled after a childhood accident on a ski slope, this Alice longs to be adventurous but suffers from eating disorders. The author renders both her and Mattia’s school and family life as sterile and claustrophobic to reflect their subjective reality, achieving this by the narrowness of the perspective the readers are afforded. We are trapped inside the heads of the two lonely adolescents, who grope within their own minds and the insular circumstances they prefer to inhabit. We see only what the two prime loners reveal. There is little extra information about the external world, except for the barest minimum: ‘Piste closed’ (thus we know that these are Italian ski-slopes) or a ‘tiramisu’ (printed as it might be on an international menu, without the diacritical mark, unlike the proper Italian spelling as ‘Tiramisù’) and only once is there a reminder that the story is being narrated in a foreign language (“ ‘Hello?’ he said, speaking in Italian. ‘Pronto?’ ”). Otherwise, there are few references to locate this suffocating, featureless world in a recognisable Italian milieu. Of course, Italian readers would not need reminders of any cultural context, but I need to know first-hand whether, and to what extent, the blandness of the location was a deliberate choice of the writer, or of the translator. (Yet again, we encounter those eternal questions inherent in that oft-quoted Italian adage, Tradutore, traditore (translator, traitor): too faithful, or not faithful enough?) So, I’m considering re-reading Giordano’s virtuoso first book, in the original Italian, to catch some nuance that might redeem for me the unrelenting anonymity of the world depicted, which highlights the painful silence of alienation and solitude at the core of the novel, without augmenting its richness and power to move. A resonant passage for me, despite being typically clinical and non-emotional, is when Alice tries unsuccessfully to reach out and kiss Mattia on the cheek, sitting down closer to him than he normally allows: “The silence was almost unbearable; the empty space between their faces overflowing with expectation and embarrassment.” 6613956 I once read a book called The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon. It was an ingenious story, simultaneously sad and funny. The narrator, Christopher Boone, a teenager with a developmental disability (Asperger’s syndrome) is a mathematical genius, who understands facts and statistics but not human emotions. Mattia, the protagonist of La Solitudine dei Numeri Primi reminds me of that character. But whereas Haddon’s psychological tale, disguised as a whodunit, used the guileless narrator in the tradition of fictionalised child-observers of the larger adult world like, Adrian Mole (The Diary of Adrian Mole) or Scout Finch (To Kill a Mockingbird) to throw light not only on the special circumstances of his autistic subject, but also on the world at large, in an entertaining, heart-warming, and above all, moving story; Giordano’s myopic concentration on the inner life of his dual characters, suffering from trauma, guilt, and concomitant disorders and disabilities, is a bleak tale without any vision of hope or grace (except right at the end), which failed to touch me deeply, except in a cerebral way. The somewhat redemptive ending felt forced (as if by the editor), bringing relief but not conviction. Towards the end of the book, Mattia, now a young man living in another continent, is watching a sunset: “He waited for the last purple flame to go out on the horizon…His parents would have liked the dawn. Perhaps, one day, he would take them to see it … He would explain to them how it happens, how the wavelengths merge to form white light. He would talk to them about absorption and emission spectra and they would nod without understanding.” Like Mattia’s fictional parents, I readily nod; not without understanding or appreciation, but without any feelings, even as I acknowledge the luminescence dawning on the literary horizon for Paolo Giordano and his work. He was originally a PhD student of Particle Physics, and I salute his fictional foray into the analytical re-creation of the inner life and struggles of special-needs adolescents, which we the readers are allowed to view, from a cramped position of being up close, yet perhaps, too far. The book may not have won my heart, but it did win Italy’s most prestigious literary award, the Premio Strega in 2008. Giordano is, to date, the youngest winner of this award, having received it at the age of 26. My mind flies to another, older Premio Strega writer, older, from the post-second World War generation. His name was linked to my home for many years, when my husband and I lived in a residential area of Rome with streets named after famous Italian writers. Our apartment was on Viale Cesare Pavese. But that’s for next time, when we shall walk down my literary and literal memory- lane, and meet some renowned authors of the Italian language, while we drink coffee together and chat about books and writing.
Neeman Sobhan is an Italy-based Bangladeshi writer, poet and columnist. She teaches at the University of Rome, La Sapienza. Her published works include a collection of her columns, An Abiding City: Ruminations from Rome (UPL); an anthology of short stories, Piazza Bangladesh (Bengal Publications), and recently, a collection of poems, Calligraphy of Wet Leaves (Bengal Lights). She is presently working on her first novel, The Ninety-nine Names for Being.