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Giulia Po

“Ma cosa c’è di così bello dentro a un libro?” Cica è perplessa. “C’è tutto, bambina. C’è tutto” dice Carmelina. “Ciascuno di noi ha una vita soltanto. Tu sei piccola, ma passa veloce. Te lo posso giurare io, che mi sembra ieri che avevo vent’anni e mi dovevo sposare. Invece le persone che leggono i libri hanno tante vite, una per ogni libro. E tutte diverse. Puoi andare nella giungla, alla corte del re, in Cina. Puoi essere una ballerina, un capitano, un indiano. Quando leggi ti puoi pigliare la vita delle persone del libro, i loro amori, le loro feste, i loro vestiti, i loro cuori. Chi legge ha cento vite” (167).

“But what is so great in a book?” Cica is confused. “There is everything, little girl. Everything.” Carmelina replies. “Each of us has one life only. You are young, but time passes quickly. I can guarantee you, it seems yesterday that I was twenty and had to get married. But those who read books have many lives, one for each book. And they are all different. You can go to the jungle, a kingdom, China. You can be a ballerina, a captain, an Indian. When you read, you can take the life of those in the book, their love, their celebrations, their dresses, their hearts. Those who read have a hundred lives.” (167)

–       from Il negativo dell’amore  (The Negative of Love)

by Maria Paola Colombo

The lives we encounter in Maria Paola Colombo’s excellent debut novel Il negativo dell’amore (The Negative of Love) are those of Cica, a girl who lives in Novara, in the north of Italy, and Walker, a boy from Ostuni, in the southern Italian region of Puglia. They don’t know each other, and live very distinctive lives, but are both very sensitive and unique: Cica has survived her mother’s attempt to drown herself and the daughter (Cica’s nickname is the abbreviation of the word “cicatrice”, the scar that recently marks her back after the incident,); Walker has Down Syndrome (and gets his nickname from Walker Texas Ranger, the TV character that he worships to the point of wearing his ranger clothes even when he goes to a hot beach).

Colombo’s story was initially inspired by a suicide reported in a local newspaper, along with her desire to imagine a different ending to that real tragedy. Walker was envisioned as a character that could counterbalance Cica: he is a boy, he comes from a rich and loving family in the south, but he also has a chromosome that makes him different. The protagonists’ existence runs parallel almost until the very end of the book, and their encounter, after Cica and her father have moved to Ostuni, is more of a collision than a harmless presentation, when the boy and the girl unexpectedly bump into each other and save themselves from a car that is carelessly speeding.

Cica and Walker belong to two different worlds, but the construction of their emotional and genetic disabilities gave the author the space to investigate the individual’s search for happiness.  Cica and Walker are two vulnerable souls, but they are also very brave and willing to turn the negative of a black and white picture into a color photograph.  Colombo plays with the words of the title throughout the novel: the negative of love refers to the negative aspects that this feeling might cause, but she also uses the idea of the negative of a picture, which shows you the black and white image of our human bones. Cica’s scars mark her back with signs that symbolize the mother’s negativity, but also become a metaphor: a sort of black and white picture of the figure of the mother whom she misses and, by the end of the novel, understands better. Both Cica and Walker know about the black and white aspects of life; they both have emotional or genetic wounds that makes them weaker than others, but they never resign themselves to this fate, instead deciding to make their lives better, to give their life a full-color frame. Colombo’s optimism for the future is undeniable, but her novel isn’t built on a simple and easy positive message. The author, in fact, vividly depicts the frailty, and some of the problems of contemporary Italian society, with her entertaining and intense writing style.

The first two sections of the novel, North and South, respectively dedicated to each protagonist, immediately reveal the differences that characterize their lives. Cica is sent to a summer camp run by nuns near Misano Adriatico. After the tragic suicide of her mother, her father wants some time for himself to move to a new house in the same city of Novara; he wants to avoid the gossip of the neighbors and the difficulties of finding a new job. Cica is reticent and scared, especially of the water: “Cica non ha paura dell’acqua. Dell’acqua ha morte” (Cica is not afraid of the water; water is death”) (19), the narrator explains; she doesn’t swim in the sea, and cleverly hides in the toilet to stay away from the showers. In the south, Walker spends his summer days on the beach as well, but he is not alone: all of his family is there to watch him and his siblings play. The tourists’ mixed feelings of uneasiness and indifference on the beach emphasize the emblematic behavior of those who are unfamiliar with disability (when a lady on the beach, for instance, meets Walker’s eyes, “abbassa lei la faccia, con l’espressione di uno che ha visto qualcosa come una cacca di cane sul marciapiede” – “she looks down, with the expression of someone who has just seen a dog’s poop on the sidewalk” (41)), but this also stresses the effort of the parents who are trying to give Walker a life that is as normal as possible.

Cica finds some affection when she moves to the new house. At the cemetery where she believes her mother is buried she meets Tomba, the dog that will become her inseparable friend, while the new next door neighbor Carmelina, is the kind old woman who will be a new mother figure in Cica’s life, and will open her old son’s bedroom to give her a new space to play and read.

While Walker rides his horse named Fulmine (Lightning), falls in love, and starts looking for a job, Cica’s independence grows. There has never been room for love and affection in her life; her father has always been cold and distant, so worried about revealing his feelings and the truth about Cica’s mother that he has been hiding his sadness and depression in his daily routine at the office or behind the newspaper at the dinner table. When ten years later he decides to retire and moves to Ostuni, where his grandmother had left him a house, things won’t change; father and daughter still remain a separate dyad, but a final truth about the mother will be unveiled, together with the final revelation of Cica and Walker’s real names. It is a new beginning for the two protagonists that can finally be called by their real names.

The choice of the two settings, Novara and Ostuni, partially reflects the life experience of the writer who lived in the north of Italy, but also spent her adolescence in the south. The two cities, then, become symbols of her autobiographical emotional understanding of the north and the south of the peninsula: the cold soul of the north of Italy is represented by Cica’s mother’s inability to live, her father’s aloofness, and a pedophile who threatens her childhood for a second time, while the warm dimension of the south is embodied by Walker’s family, the parties, the first crushes among teenagers, the hot temperature that animates the characters. The strike and the occupation of the Liceo of Ostuni that Cica and Walker’s brother attend, then, stress the weak condition of the Italian school system, and a desire to change and improve that somehow clashes with the low level of education that characterize the students – Cica excluded.

The characterization of the split between the two geographical spaces through the idea of the cold north and the warm south is not a novelty, but Colombo’s narrative is not meant simply to reinforce common stereotypes. North and south emerge as a convincing construction of two coexistent and dissimilar spaces, and the creation of an original plot, innovative characters, and witty dialogues give the readers the chance to appreciate the unpredictable aspects of her work. Carmelina, the old lady who awakens Cica’s love for reading when she is a little girl in Novara, is a discrepancy in the two realms depicted by Colombo, but her figure also becomes super partes in her significant role of inspiring Cica’s desire to enter the world of books and culture. Her intervention seems to be at the origins of the protagonist’s scholastic success in Ostuni, and to respond to the narrator’s wish to see talented and well educated people guiding the Italian nation.

I spoke with Maria Paola Colombo just prior to the announcement that she had won the prestigious Flaiano Prize for Il negative dell’amore. We spoke about the novel, some of her life experiences, her ideas about north and south, and the writing process.

Maria Paola Colombo

GP: I read that you were born in the north of Italy, but that you also spent some of your adolescence in the south. Can you tell us about your movements throughout Italy?

 

MPC: I was born near Milano, half of my blood is from Brianza, a quarter is Venetian, and the last quarter is Sicilian. I lived in the north until the age of thirteen. Then my father decided to change our lives, and he took my mother and his five children to Ostuni. Ostuni is the land of my adolescence, with olive trees and a winterless countryside. The sea is nearby. I celebrated my eighteenth birthday in Piedmont. And since then I moved from one province to another, without passing the regional border. But in the future, I would like to live…well that is a different story…

Please, continue, where would you choose to live?

Maybe in a very small village in the mountain or near the sea, or maybe in a big city like Turin or Rome: a place that has its own greatness in terms of natural and human geography.

Were you able to experience any social and economic differences between north and south, or better stated, did you become aware of the “questione meridionale” (“the southern question”) that has characterized Italy since its Unification? Can you provide any examples?

 The answer is yes. It is such a wide and complex question. I can tell you that almost all of my classmates from the Liceo of Ostuni moved to the center or north of Italy to attend the university, and almost all of them found a job far away from their motherland, with their hearts full of nostalgia, but the awareness that they had no other option. The south is depriving itself of talented people and entrepreneurial capacity in a sad vicious circle.

North and South are the settings of your novel and the spaces in which the two protagonists, Cica and Walker, live or move. What made you choose both of these two different environments? Does it derive from your personal experience, or is there a deeper and more symbolic meaning behind your choice?

 

The two scenarios are definitely part of my personal story, but also part of my soul. Cica, the girl from the north, hurt by the lack of parental affection, stigmatizes the cold soul of the north of Italy; Walker, the boy from the south, expresses the colorful and intensely relational dimension of the south. Saying that north and south are respectively inhabited by cold and warm people is clearly a way to simplify things, but it becomes my way to portray a northern dimension that is more rational and self-centered and a southern dimension that is more impulsive and collectivist.

Cica is lonely, but also very independent and mature: what makes her so strong? The lack of a maternal figure? The distant paternal figure? Necessity?

 

Her biological instinct to survive. Cica is able to develop what in psychology is known as “negative capacity”: she manages to survive the uncertainties of her life, she finds solutions through logical understanding, but also and primarily on an emotional level. It is an ability that kids have, and only few adults manage to preserve.

In the novel, the strike and the occupation organized by the students of the Liceo in Puglia offer some considerations on social issues such as the school system and education. According to Geco (Walker’s brother) the malfunction of the school is marked by the lack of simple things such as the toilet paper. On the contrary, Cica believes it is idiotic to organize a strike because the toilet paper is missing. These types of excuses to skip school were very frequent in my Liceo in Modena as well, in the early 90’s. In your opinion, why do so many young people underestimate the importance of education?

 

The lack of a real collective and political (and I say political, not “politicized”) awareness in the adults that surround them. But things are changing. I see that the attention and the understanding of the role of school and education are growing among youth and within the schools. The gravity of the moment we are living is helping them to seriously think about their future and the future of their country.

Cica finds a very significant slogan to use during the strike/occupation of the school: “We’re going to wipe our asses with your promises because you didn’t even give us money for toilet paper” (200). She also reflects on the uselessness of a fake occupation that will not change their reality. But rebelling seems to her the right thing to do: “It starts from one. From me” (298), she affirms. Since you define yourself a “possibilist”, do you think that there will ever be “well educated, talented, coherent people” (298) who will work together for the improvement of our school system and the Italian society?

 

Yes. I believe in people. Not in the general concept of people, but in each individual. It is important to move the problem from a general and abstract dimension (society), which is unachievable, to a smaller, individual, daily reality. I know many committed people, and feel the strength of a collective desire to change, a desire to maximize their courage.

Disability is still an uncomfortable matter that is not frequently discussed, but you address this theme through Walker, the protagonist affected by Down Syndrome. Why did you choose to create such a character?

 

The first character that I imagined was Cica, with her hurt feelings. Walker was created as a counter alter: he has the warm and rich family that she is lacking, he has everything a kid needs, and something more: that gene that makes him different. Cica’s emotional disability and Walker’s genetic disability allowed me to focus on the individual possibility of happiness. When I wrote the novel, I also met many kids with Down Syndrome, and I was often surprised by their vital joy.

The initial black and white “negative” that symbolizes Cica’s life becomes a color picture near the end of the book. Cica’s mother was living her life with lots of difficulties, but Cica and Walker show that the possibilities of surviving the pain and living through the diversity are both achievable. What do you think about their behavior?

 

Cica and Walker embody the words of my heart. Their diversity represents, in reality, the little differences that each of us possess: we all are differently abled in our attempts to find our place in the world, each life has its own difficulties and limits. But the strong certainty that the sea might come after the next turn allows us to move forward and grow up without giving up.

When did you get interested in writing?

 

Writing is a dimension that has always belonged to me. It is a look before it becomes a gesture, and it is a way to read the world.

I know that you work in a bank. How does this activity affect your writing?

 

Initially it almost killed it. I entered the bank when I turned twenty: I was heartbroken, but it was a necessity. Then, little by little, I realized that a bank doesn’t simply work with numbers, but with people. In our times, money is a vehicle for all the important knots of everyone’s life: you fall in love and you go to the bank for a mortgage; you find a job and you open a bank account to set up direct deposit; you lose it and …  You know…I don’t talk about these stories, but my job is a continuous training in humanity.

What do you like to do when you’re not working or writing?

 

I read and read and read. I like spending time outside when it’s not raining too much. And I hug the people I love.

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Giulia Po earned a Ph.D in Comparative Literature with a specialization in Italian Literature from The Graduate Center of The City University of New York.  She teaches courses of Italian language and culture at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, and lives in Boston. Her monographic study of Clara Sereni’s work has been recently published by the Franco Cesati publishing house in Italy.

By Clara Sereni

Translated from Italian by Giulia Po and Monica Hanna

The velvet suit fits her well. Out of place, if it wasn’t for the jacket with the frogs and the Chinese-style collar: the only possible concession to her usual style, but not out of sync with what is expected from the mother of the bride. The purse with the embroidery and the silver handle is Aunt Clotilde’s, some of its threads torn by a century of history, and so much the worse for those who wouldn’t understand the preciousness of memory.  The expensive shoes that Diletta inspected carefully don’t look like her.

She couldn’t choose: she couldn’t, otherwise the conflict with her daughter would have been irremediable.

She applies her makeup with more care than usual, but not differently: almost invisible powder, some blush on her cheeks, eyeliner around the eyes; no chance of tears, since for her uneasiness seems more likely than emotion at this wedding.

Long gone are the days of their complicity and friendship, when Diletta used to call her by name and not just mom, when they played and sang nursery rhymes and poetry together; in the pictures strewn throughout the house they wear the same flower skirt hand sewn of the same fabric, made with love and to save money,  images that don’t go past her daughter’s adolescent years. Never afterward did they take part in a protest, attend a discussion, or go to a movie or a book presentation together. Diletta studied cello at the conservatory, her mother’s accordion was left in the closet, the music in the house entrusted to recorded tapes.

In the passing time, Diletta often had a frowning and teasing face, and her mother’s friends moved her to jealousy and irritation. She mocked their feminism, and it was very clear that she didn’t want to have anything to do with it in her own life. With the men that came to the house she was pretentious and charming, with her mother she was bitter first, and scornful after they had disappeared into the horizon.

Nadia thought that her daughter needed to cut the umbilical cord, she let her go and forced herself to wait for her to grow, hoping to find her again sooner or later next to her, an adult and a companion. Similar.

Today’s wedding gives the coup de grâce to her hopes: Diletta will get married in a very expensive white dress, a renowned makeup artist will do her make-up, the bridesmaids will carry the train of her dress, in that frame of trivial appearance that her mother has always opposed.

She would like to blame it all on the man Diletta is about to marry, but she knows that she can’t say that to herself: that man, rich, handsome, with a nice car and nice clothes, politically apathetic and sufficiently ignorant, is an integral part of the choices Diletta has made. From the Bible readings to the clothes to the baptism required to get married in church to the wedding registry filled with crystal and silverware. Step after step, until she became unrecognizable to her mother’s eyes.

The good thing – one needs to search for all the good on a day like this – is that the expensive shoes are high quality, comfortable although overly shiny; Nadia puts them on, and nothing can keep her home anymore, no turning back.

In the church full of flowers, the air feels stuffy: the perfume of the profusion of lilies is too strong, and the heat is up too high. Nonetheless she hugs the groom’s parents with a little bit of forced emotion: he is wearing a comical tuxedo, she is glowing with jewelry and fabric. Between the fringes and the drapes, she looks like a lamp. Nadia allows herself a little smile and a slight sense of superiority.

But when Diletta enters, with the halo of light at her back, and the music begins, holding arms with her best friend, she is beautiful. Moving. The groom’s mother dries a tear with a silk handkerchief gently removed from her rhinestone-encrusted clutch.

Moving? It looks like a movie, and this is what prevents Nadia from being moved. She would like to smile at her daughter, though, but Diletta never looks at her, maybe because she is too careful not to stumble in the many folds of her dress.

The ceremony starts, almost everybody makes the sign of the cross. Nadia’s hands remain still, crossed on her lap.

The service seems endless.

Flashbulbs go off and Nadia grows stiffer and stiffer. Stranger. Far away, because she would like to be miles and miles away from there.

The conclusion of the mass takes her by surprise, when the priest invites to exchange the sign of peace: many people around her take her hand, they shake it, and surprisingly those gestures warm her up, giving her vigor back. But then the ceremony continues, and it is so long that Nadia gets lost in contemplating the clothes, the faces, the church decorations disrespecting the severe architecture of the building. She stands up and sits down every time the others do, and now feels the cold from the marble floor.

It is still cold outside, while the rice falls plentifully on Diletta’s opulent dress, on her bare cleavage. She should have a small sweater, a shawl, Nadia thinks, and she feels an old sense of protection in her gut, just like when taking care of her daughter was a duty and a possibility.  Someone gives her a handful of rice and Nadia throws it, without conviction, with the awkwardness of a gesture that does not belong to her, and some grains fall into her shoes, irritating.

Diletta has given her precise instructions: she will go with the in-laws, in the car that will be waiting outside the church.

Black, very long: Nadia thinks it looks like a catafalque, or maybe this is part of the movie too; in any case the comfortable seats are a relief to the terrible tiredness that she is feeling.

The groom’s parents sitting next to her appear lively and excited. They can’t stop talking, congratulating themselves on the money spent, commenting on the results. For a moment Nadia envies their ability to get enthusiastic about little things, then some bitter words between wife and husband remind her that all that glitters is not gold.

The silent car moves through a large swath of the city. Nadia doesn’t know where they are going; Diletta wanted it to be a surprise, or maybe she didn’t tell her to avoid any criticism that she might have expressed.

The car keeps moving, leaving the suburbs behind as well: now they are on a highway. Nadia rolls the blue-tinted window down and gets caught in the smell of the countryside, of hay.

“Excuse me, dear, can you close the window? My hairdresser, you know…” says the daughter’s mother in-law, touching her complicated hairstyle fixed in a wall of hairspray. “Should I ask the driver to turn on the air conditioning?”

Nadia shakes her head slightly and, conciliatory, closes the window rapidly; never mind, this day will end too, she thinks, and then I will go back to my cold and my hot, to the smell and the flavors of my life.

The car has taken a white street, a lot of dust around and the daughter’s in-law gets upset, protests: “I told you, this fucking street needed to be sprayed down! The cars will all get dirty, how nice for the pictures!”

Her husband tries to calm her down, he covers one of her hands with his. “If it makes them happy, everybody will be happy” he says, while his wife peevishly displays her hand full of rings.

Nadia is afraid that she is going to see a castle, but when the car turns there is a country farmhouse: restored, with no frills, some old tires hanging from the trees for the kids to play on, an old red tractor that some guests have climbed, a long table outside already full of food and drinks.

The tablecloth is white, with no lace or embroidery. In a corner plastic glasses and plates that cause the mother in-law’s eyes to widen. She only calms down when her husband, taking advantage of a sudden breeze, wraps a fur stole around her shoulders.

Nadia greets the people she knows and others she has never seen before or doesn’t remember: words, jokes, the smell of the hay and wood, something is less hostile to her now. The bruschetta crunches joyfully between her teeth and the oil is very good. The red wine that someone poured with generosity in her plastic glass goes well with it.

The bride and groom are not there yet, probably busy with a complicated change of clothes. Nadia doesn’t want to think about the next dress that her daughter will wear, she is content with the omelets and the unexpected rustic cakes of the menu. She feels at ease, the young faces around her seem so normal, so similar to others she has loved.

A noise from the street, the married couple is arriving: all the guests gather to welcome them. Nadia is not in the first row, and fears what will come.

He gets out first, agile: he has replaced his pants with a pair of jeans, and the bold combination receives a loud applause.  Holding the door open, he bends to give his hand to Diletta, and helps her get out.

The applause mingles with whistles: Diletta is wearing a flower skirt and an Indian blouse, her curly hair moves freely on her neck and shoulders.

Even from afar, Nadia can see the silk and the designer clogs that she is wearing. Yet she is surprised by the ensemble, drawing a big question mark over a day that she thought she already had figured out.

Diletta cuts short with the compliments and the hugs, declaring that she is very hungry.

The tasting becomes eating, with big tureens that come one after the other from the kitchen, raised as trophies by girls whose cheeks have been reddened by the stoves and the pride.  The main courses arrive, hand made noodles and grilled meat, organic salads: the right quantity, the right number, avoiding any excess. The bread is warm from the oven, big loaves that the groom cuts near his chest, with an old gesture. And his tux jacket is dusted with flour.

The groom‘s parents get nervous, embarrassed. They can’t find their space, the mother frowns and her face becomes stranger and spiteful. Nadia instead has found her rhythm, her pace.

Slowly, the physical distance between Diletta and her mother shortens: some exchanges of glances, even a little smile. Nadia feels good, soothed by the food and the atmosphere, and she likes her daughter’s sparkling eyes, her soft gestures, her cheeks reddened by a calm, intense excitement. Sometimes the bride and the groom touch each other, they hug, out of love rather than to show off.

When the cake comes – a big multicolor fruit tart – the couple cuts it together, under the eyes of all the guests, the first slice is immediately laid on a plate. Diletta grabs a fork from the table, then pushes her way through the small crowd, towards her mother.

Nadia blushes, and not because everyone’s stares inevitably converge on her. The unexpected gift, the attention, give her courage: her shy fingers gently touch her daughter’s cheeks, and she doesn’t withdraw as always, quite the opposite, she lingers, she feels her warmth on her hand.

But then she leaves, everybody calling her. There are laughing toasts, loving toasts, teasing toasts. It seems that they are never going to end, when a group of musicians appears from the back of the farmhouse: a guitar, an accordion, and a tambourine. Popular music whose roots nobody seems to remember anymore.

Nadia claps her hand in time with the others, sings choruses, hazards countermelodies she thought she had forgotten. Her voice and Diletta’s meet, intertwine with competence.

The musicians vary from Tuscan octave rhymes to southern saltarellos, from working songs to the sweetest and angriest lullabies. Every now and then someone makes a request, and Nadia is surprised by the groom’s knowledge of songs she had never thought he would know: like the serenade he alone sings for Diletta, including “Lèvati bela, traite a l’inferiada,” which Nadia sang to her little daughter to get her to sleep.

When Diletta takes the tambourine in her hands, and ask the accordionist to play “Waltz for Siglinda,”  Nadia’s heart skips a beat: for her that is the waltz of ’68, with the romanticism and the hopes of those years, only a few know it, but for her it is the meaning of her life, tugged and wounded but still with a music inside that cannot be erased.

The musician shakes his head, he does not know it: he offers his instrument around for whoever wants to play in his place.

Then Diletta points to her mother, who unexpectedly feels a sort of emptiness within herself: scared by her rusty fingers and by contact with her daughter that is too big, too sudden.

The accordion passes from hand to hand. Nadia places her arms, and instinctively manages to face chords and try sonorities. And the fingers move on the keyboard by themselves: no matter that the arthritis makes them sore, and how many years have passed without practicing, the melody unravels from her vehement memory, as if something had held it for too long. The few hesitations seem to be enclosed within the sense of a past hard to metabolize because still present.

Everybody dances, carried away, and Diletta moves in time with the tambourine, in semicircles, which take her closer to her mother: standing, one in front of the other, their gestures in unison, with similar looks, in their eyes and in their hands, in a memory that can be shared.

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This translation is published with permission of the author and RCS Libri in Italy, which published “Valzer per Siglinda” (the  story in the original Italian) in Clara Sereni’s collection entitled Il lupo mercante.

Clara Sereni lives in Perugia, Italy.  She is an award-winning writer and translator, and a columnist forL’Unità and Il Manifesto. She is the author of many novels and short stories, and the editor of several books concerned with issues such as disability and mental illness. She is very active in the social arena, and is the President of “La città del Sole,” an organization in Umbria that welcomes families with disabilities. She also served as Deputy Mayor of the city of Perugia from 1995 to 1997. “Waltz for Siglinda” is one of the short stories from her latest book Il lupo mercante.

Giulia Po earned a Ph.D in Comparative Literature with a specialization in Italian Literature from The Graduate Center of The City University of New York.  She works as an Italian lecturer and lives in Boston. She has a monographic study of Clara Sereni’s work, which is forthcoming from the Franco Cesati publishing house in Italy.

Monica Hanna is co-editor of Global Graffiti.  She has published translations as well as critical work on contemporary literature in English, Spanish, and Italian.  She holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from The Graduate Center of The City University of New York and teaches literature in Annapolis.

A short story by Moira Adriana Pulino

Translated from Italian by Giulia Po

I am blindfolded, but the fabric is a little worn out and I discern something: a tea-colored room, with no windows, a door in the back corner with a tiny grid that drips a sallow light.  I don’t know if it is day or night. I am cold, and scared, or both, because I am trembling, naked, my hands tied with a nylon stocking behind my back. I could untie them, but I do not move a muscle and my attempts to become invisible are in vain. I smell like urine. My mouth is a desert. I make myself small, small, looking for the peeling paint on the wall to disappear into the cement. Suddenly, I hear some steps, those steps. I breathe with difficulty, and the door starts opening, and that rusty sound makes me scream and scream…

I wake, my heart a drum. A silent glance over my soft, banal bed, my body naked but clean and young, with no scars.

That dream has devoured what is left of my sleep; I take a shower and walk outside. The night seems a deep empty basket. It’s two o’clock in the morning.

Dear Soledad, it is Buenos Aires’s fault if I like to walk at night, or  at first light.  People don’t often walk here, at least not for pleasure. But even when we wander aimlessly, we find ourselves in very precise locations. Here I am again at the milonga. Every place in the world, you know, has a milonga, even if people don’t necessarily dance the tango; for some it is the waltz, while for others it might be rap. Places to forget your solitude.

"Free Parking - LA River" - Photo by John Nyboer

She is on the dance floor, her long legs moving. It is a warm night, she is not wearing stockings. But I tired of her stocking games a while ago. Or maybe I am just tired of her obtuseness.  It is true, women come here looking to meet someone, but they all are superficial, satisfied to grab the Argentinean, the good dancer, a trophy to take to the milonga.  And then? None of them has ever looked at me till now. None of them – I am sure – has seen me. In the end, there is always and only you, Soledad.

I burn through my night in embraces and circular trajectories. You come here to forget: a dream, pain, daily life. Even when you think you come for a different reason.

When the night ends, and the nightmare has quieted, I start walking again.

Someone offers me a ride, but I prefer talking with my feet and with you, Soledad.

Outside, the night is still full of empty spaces. Sitting on a step, a guy who is probably my age shoots up. I avert my eyes to protect the intimacy of his disgrace, another possible destiny. Rubén’s face, with his eyes half-closed from the smoke of his joint, appears like a ghost and I smile at him, remembering my first puff and his amusement  at my novice smoker’s cough.

Rubén’s memory brings me back at the time when I still dreamt of wolves and flying carpets. My father would teach me how to play chess at home, while mom would sing and sew on her rocking chair. Her death surprised us as an unexpected and genial move, while the absence of those slightly off-key songs filled our hearts with rhythmic silences. At the beginning we would turn the radio on, seeking an echo of her presence. But ultimately, we preferred the silences that allowed us to find those musical whispers surprisingly wrapped around the teacup, embroidered on the chessboard, or twisted in the toothbrush.

Dad was doing his best, but was only comfortable with me in front of the chessboard, and those mute games became our conversations.

Rubén’s mom saved us. She was alone as well, and maybe looking for a new life. And dad wasn’t so old, even if I thought he was ancient. Anyway, after mom’s death, I gained a brother. He was two years older than me and always seemed to know the right thing to do. He was never afraid. He took me around the neighborhood, and I would watch his joyrides as a silent little journalist.

It was Rubén, Soledad, who prevented you from kidnapping me, giving me an almost sunny childhood. We came up with dreams and stunts under the grapes of Don Rodrigo, who let us come and go in his backyard as we pleased.  He was lame and had hundreds of versions about what happened to his leg, though our favorite was the impossible one about how he had participated in the Conquest of the Desert against the Indians. When he would tell this variant, we would surround him, dancing as if we were part of a tribe, hurling what we thought were terrifying shrieks, anticipating his defeat. Afterwards, the prisoner, the torturers and the cripple leg made peace over a good snack.

Now all this seems like a beautiful dream, Soledad. Not like the strange dreams that I have had since I was a little boy and never told anybody about, not even my mom. In school, I became fascinated by the stories of men who resembled the ones in my visions: prisoners, warriors, men who suffer. Rubén, who didn’t enjoy history, could not understand my obsession with the past, something he considered a morbid fixation. He was interested in the present and, maybe, the future. And yet he has neither anymore.

Yesterday, I tried to escape you, but I met you at Adrián’s and Martina’s. We drank some yerba mate, passing the bombilla from mouth to mouth, delighting in that archaic ritual of bitter brotherhood. Being Argentinean means being spontaneous, in love with friendship and solidarity; and to fear torture, the legalized abuse of power, violence, detesting the cunning lying in wait in the corners of the everyday.

Like Adrián, many feel constricted, re-educated: they have learned to arrive on time, avoid the ironic jokes regularly misunderstood, speak a little bit more softly, not to touch others or ask “invasive” questions. But from their distance, they have minimized the worst defects of their lovers.  No, I have no patience for those who lament the distance. If I feel close to you, Soledad, it is not because I am far from my country.

Sure, it might take a century to receive a lunch invitation from someone here, but who prevents us from importing our best customs? Giving an unexpected hug, asking spontaneous and intrusive questions, breaking and filling with graffiti the wall of “good manners,” dispensing pills of irony! Here, Soledad, if you started an import-export business of customs and traditions, you could find yourself again.

The night accompanies my steps, and a dog, with his slow breath, shadows me and comes closer to sniff me. He might feel your presence, or I might not be of any interest to his nose, because he moves on almost immediately. A little farther away an old man digs through a trashcan while two young people kiss under the porch next door. At night, like in a dream, it seems to me that all the countries are similar.

My feet are tired, from the dancing, the long walk, and the thoughts that chase them. Three friends pass me laughing, and I look back to the time when I was like them. The memory that we feel is intimately ours, it is nothing but a foreign land that sometimes hosts us. Mine is made up of out-of-tune songs, chess, fragrant grapes, and you. But also the winds that the night brings me: men who boarded a boat, fastening their luggage with string and hope; men imprisoned and tortured by someone’s arrogance; men who went to war without knowing why, with their eyes on the front and their hearts at home; women who daily wait for someone to return. And the most recent ones: my father’s broken heart when the government had decided to keep his savings, Rubén’s illogical death when he did not want to give his new sneakers to someone with a gun and nothing to lose.

The city is awakening, the lamps are fading. The aroma of bread caresses me, almost as if to comfort me. But you hold me tight, Soledad, and in that aroma, I find Don Ramón’s snacks, and the cookies prepared by the goodness of my mother’s hands many years ago.

Thank goodness I am not like that poor devil who Borges made remember everything since birth, and maybe even earlier. An immense and unbearable burden. I only suffer from some memories and someone else’s nostalgia. Maybe it is because my dreams take me to different places, Soledad, and I am never home completely. Or maybe because I am part of the immigrants’ backwash brought by the sky and not the sea to discover the wonder of the places praised by our grandparents.  To find that even their memory was full of holes.

Many nights, I wake up sweaty and trembling, my skin saturated with remote visions. I suffer a little, but I cannot help wondering: if everybody dreamed about being someone else sometimes, in some other place, suffering injustice, making love, praying to another God, wouldn’t we all, travelers of the night, finally be citizens of the world? If everybody had that little pinch of nostalgia for others, maybe you would be the one to be forgotten, Soledad.

Breakfast at dawn. I go through an exercise in finding similarities, on a bustling street and in a bar that resembles the old “Britannico” in Buenos Aires as much as an elephant resembles a mouse. On the opposite side, the man who runs the newspaper kiosk unfolds his paper kingdom, positioning travel magazines to the left, glossy geography distant from the dusty images of memories. It is true, I sometimes miss the finite and empty horizon of the morning’s cleaned sidewalks or those chalked by kids for hopscotch, on which I would happily challenge my balance. But if I chased those past afternoons spent under the grapes, I know that I would not find them where I left them, even if I looked a hundred times. You are right, Soledad, you can’t go home again, and that is fine.

The geography of memory is nothing but a route with imperfect coordinates, a drawing that you can only watch: the closed window of Peter Pan. Though he knew how to fly, nonetheless.


Moira Adriana Pulino was born in Argentina and currently lives in Bologna, Italy, where she works as a translator.

Giulia Po earned a Ph.D in Comparative Literature with a specialization in Italian Literature from The Graduate Center of The City University of New York.  She works as an Italian lecturer and lives in Boston.


Story reproduced with the kind permission of the Eks&Tra Association.

The original story (in Italian) available here.


Giulia Po

In 1985, the Champions League final between Juventus and Liverpool was preceded by the tragic death of 39 people (32 of whom were supporters of the Italian team; hundreds of others were also injured) in the Heysel stadium in Brussels.  A group of Liverpool fans had broken through a chain link fence separating them from the fans of the opposing Turin team and, when the Juventus fans tried to escape, a wall collapsed, causing the disaster.  The section where the Juventus fans sat was originally reserved for neutral Belgium supporters, but tickets for a majority of those seats were randomly sold to Juventus fans who had purchased them independently, not as club members.

Stefano Valanzuolo, director of the Ravello Festival of music and arts, asked Walter Veltroni to write a theatrical monologue to commemorate the tragedy for the 2010 installation dedicated to the theme of madness. The writer responded with a text entitled Quando cade l’acrobata, entrano i clown.  Heysel, l’ultima partita (When the Acrobat Falls, Enter the Clowns: Heysel, the Last Game), published in April of this year by Einaudi.  Although the subject matter did not originate with Veltroni, the monologue is a creative and intense narrative about experiencing  soccer as a sport that can encompass both pure passion and ruinous rage.

For the monologue, Veltroni decided to use the intimate voice of a survivor of the disaster who, after ten years, finally feels the need to tell his wife his secret about the “last game” that soccer had offered him.  A few days before their wedding, in fact, he had lied to her, saying that he was going to London to celebrate his bachelor party; but his trip took a different path, geographically and symbolically: he instead went to Brussels, a decision which changed his life drastically.

In a quiet room of a Sicilian hotel, while celebrating his anniversary with his wife, he decides to talk about the tragic day.  The woman can’t hear his confession because she is asleep, but his words are his first effort to overcome many years of silence.  He stares at his sleeping wife, confessing his love, then turns his eyes to a calm sea that suddenly turns to dust: a vision of the violence he experienced in Heysel. In a continuous fluctuation between past and present, the monologue alternates between the personal and the collective, love and drama, as the survivor contemplates his lying to his wife and the day that has never stopped haunting him.

The acknowledgements page reports that the words of the title, “When the acrobat falls, enter the clowns,” were initially pronounced by the player Michel Platini in his attempt to justify his exhilaration after his penalty-kick goal earned Juventus its victory.  But one is left to wonder: who were the clowns in this scenario?  Was Platini a clown? And who was the acrobat?  Many have already pointed out the inappropriate choice of words used to describe the player’s joy following the tragedy.  But if his statement remains total nonsense, though his joy over the goal might be somehow understandable, the reasons for the author’s title become very clear: the narrative device of the “clown” is used to describe a distorted stadium that is like a “circus,” and “one of the saddest places on earth”:

Entrano le squadre in campo, che magnifica allegria.

Ci vorrebbe la musica della passerella di Otto e mezzo.

Quando cade l’acrobata, entrano in scena i clown.

È la verità, siamo al circo.

Uno dei luoghi più tristi della vita.

Uno dei posti al mondo dove nessuno è libero.

[The teams take the field, what magnificent joy.

The soundtrack of the catwalk in 8 ½ should be playing.

When the acrobat falls, enter the clowns.

It is true, we are at the circus.

One of the saddest places on earth.

One of the places in the world where nobody is free.]

The violence in the stadium turns the world upside down:

Uomini grandi che piangevano come bambini.

E bambini che aiutavano uomini grandi.

Il mondo a rovescio, come un pallone che non gira.

[Adults crying like children.

And children helping like adults.

The world upside down, as a ball that cannot roll.]

The protagonist of the monologue had always perceived the field as a space of freedom and joy, a space in which to share “la più semplice e innocente delle passioni” (“the most simple and innocent passion”):

Ci andavo da bambino.

E quando salivo i gradini e vedevo quell’immenso prato verde,

Per me quello era il simbolo della libertà.

La più piena, immensa della libertà.

Quella di correre in spazi aperti

[I used to go there when I was a kid.

And when I reached the top of the steps and saw the vast green field,

That was freedom to me.

The fullest, most immense of freedoms.

The freedom to run in open spaces].

When our narrator remembers his trip to Brussels, he speaks of himself as a “bambino grande” [“big kid”] finally able to realize his dream of going to see his favorite soccer team in the final game of the Champions League tournament.  He can still think that “la vita è anche gioco” (“life can also be a game”).

After the assault, everything changes: he is ”morto alla vita” (“dead to life”), his sleep is restless, he becomes scared, fragile, silent. There is no forgiveness for the violent, and the monologue never loses its focus on the “inferno” of gratuitous cruelty they created; the attacking Liverpool fans are described as “tanti, rumorosi,” “lupi di mare,” “un esercito pronto per la guerra” (“many, noisy,” “sea wolves,” “soldiers ready for war”), eager to conquer territory and transgress the borderline.  The Juventus fans become lambs against soldiers, gypsies against pirates, a poultry-house against a red tide, victims against executioners.

The narrator uses words of pain to describe his life, words of brutality to emphasize the madness of the aggressors (a clear response to the theme of madness as requested by the Festival’s commission), and words of love to describe the wife who, somehow, saves him from going insane.

I don’t think that Veltroni’s text is a masterpiece, but I enjoyed the lines dedicated to the love of the sport, that love that is sparked in childhood and reserved even for its adult fans: in other words, the metaphorical space that allows one to be a grown child.  I also appreciate the importance given to the act of speaking out and remembering, rejecting oblivion and silence, an especially important point in an Italy that is experiencing a period of historical revisionism.

The narrator states

Un mondo che non è capace di giocare è condannato all’infelicità.

E alla violenza.

Quella che ruba la vita e prende a bottigliate il futuro.

Un mondo senza parole, solo urla.

Un mondo di clown sguaiti.

Senza la meravigliosa leggerezza del volo di un acrobata.

[A world unable to play is condemned to unhappiness.

And violence.

One that steals life and hits the future with a bottle.

A world with no words, only screams.

A world of vulgar clowns.

Without the beautiful lightness of the acrobat’s flight.]

I want to believe that the world can still play.  If you happen to be in Ravello, you can go and see the monologue on July 8th (I am certain that the staging, a good actor and the music will make the presentation of this monologue much more successful than simply reading it).  Otherwise, you can see real acrobats fly on the soccer field on July 11th, for the final of this 2010 World Cup.

Walter Veltroni is the former Mayor of Rome, where he served from 2001 to 2008.  In 2007, he was elected as the first leader of the Democratic Party, which was defeated in the 2008 elections by Berlusconi’s coalition “Popolo della libertà” (People of Freedom).  Veltroni is also a journalist and a writer.  Between 1992 and 1996 he was editor-in-chief of L’unità (the newspaper of the Democratic Party of the Left).  He has written books on politics and social issues, music and soccer, biographies, fiction.  He loves soccer and Juventus.

Giulia Po earned a Ph.D in Comparative Literature with a specialization in Italian Literature from The Graduate Center of The City University of New York.  She works as an Italian lecturer and lives in Boston.  Over the next couple of weeks, she’ll be getting World Cup updates from her father (in Italy) who remains a “small grown child” when it comes to soccer.