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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.