Don’t Move by Margaret Mazzantini

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This is the second Premio Strega award-winning novel I have read in as many weeks. It will be tricky to review because it made me sad, and the first half was harder to work through than the other Italian books I read in one evening.

Part of the problem could be that the narrative comes to us from a man’s perspective, even though the novel is written by a woman. That shift is almost always hard for me to believe. How does she know what a male surgeon in oncology feels for an ugly woman with a high forehead? The portrayal of their love did not at first ring true to me, or perhaps I would feel it more authentic if we were to hear their story from the woman’s point of view instead of his.

Let me back up.

Don’t Move begins when a fifteen year old girl is suddenly struck by a car while riding her scooter to school. She is barely alive when she is rushed to the hospital, and it appears that she is suffering a brain hemorrhage. While the hospital staff is administering to her, a nurse discovers her name in a school notebook. This girl is the daughter of one of the chief surgeons. He is immediately summoned from an operation he is conducting, and while waiting for the outcome of her surgery, after phoning to inform her mother who has flown to England on business, he reviews his personal life which contains a deep secret.

Before his daughter was born, Timoteo began an affair with a woman whom he happened to see in a roadside bar when his car broke down on the way to his wife at their beach house. The woman wears too much make-up, is far too thin, has heels too high and a forehead too prominent. Yet rather than repulse Timoteo, he finds himself inescapably attracted to her. She is completely different from his educated and beautiful wife, who has a shapely figure and powerful career as a journalist.

The more we read of his lover, Italia, the more waif-like she seems. She was raped when she was twelve. She works any small job that she can find and lives in a small apartment with pathetic belongings scattered about; a poster of a monkey with a baby bottle, objects cluttering the surface of her dressers, a dog who is blind. Yet she is humble, eager to please him, and unwilling to believe that she is worthy of his love.

Through Timoteo’s attentions, though, she is drawn into their relationship with abandon. Her love for him becomes real, and tender, and heartbreaking because we sense deep down that in cannot last. It cannot compete against the place of his wife. Especially when she becomes pregnant.

And yet, unbelievably, their love does last. Timoteo knows he cannot leave his lover, knows that he must be by her side, even though he is a new father. He leaves his wife and newborn daughter in the maternity ward, and drives Italia south where he plans to set up a life with her.

Tragedy has a way of intervening. It sneaks in unannounced to those who are ill prepared, and robs us of our plans. Our dreams. What we have decided, futilely, that our future should be.

I wonder if all Italian novels are so visceral. Every one that I’ve read lately: Swimming to Elba, Quiet Chaos, I’m Not Scared, and now Don’t Move have been written with barely contained emotion telling stories of our deepest pain. They are powerful novels, a welcome respite from the Japanese who tend to portray a slice of life. Or, contain elements of magical realism which seem so at odds with the characters’ ordinary lives.

I’m continuing my foray into Italian literature with another Ammaniti novel, and a third Strega award winning novel titled The Solitude of Prime Numbers. I hope to have those finished by the time the IFFP long list is announced in March, for then it will be straight march ahead toward discovering whom we, the Shadow Jury, deem the winner. Until then, and probably after then, I cannot read enough Italian literature to appease this ravenous appetite.

 

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Quiet Chaos by Sandro Veronesi

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In my passion for translated literature first, and prize winning works next, I have picked up several books by Italian authors (shockingly obtained at our sub par library). Quiet Chaos won the Strega, Italy’s top literary prize, several years ago. It is a novel of many layers, which centers around an unexpected grief that Pietro Paladini must face in his life.

The novel begins with tremendous momentum, as if we were surfing in the Mediterranean Sea with Pietro and his brother, Carlo, caught up in waves of exhilaration and danger, racing and dueling, and then suddenly saving two women who appear to be drowning. No one on shore is willing to risk their lives to go after these two women, but Carlo and Pietro are brave. They are daring. And they venture forth, each one toward a woman who is in peril.

When the women are brought safely to shore, no one takes any notice of their rescuers at all. They return home, exhausted and unacknowledged, and there Pietro finds that Lara, his soon-to-be-wife, and mother of their ten year old daughter, has suddenly died. While he was rescuing another woman, his own woman has fallen amidst the prosciutto and melon balls that she was carrying before she experienced a heart aneurysm.

How to cope with such a tragedy? Pietro tells his daughter, Claudia, that he will wait outside of her school all day until she is let out. We expect him to do this the first day, yes, because it would be a comfort to look out of the window of your classroom after you have suddenly lost your mother to see your father still there. But, we do not expect him to do this every day for months.

Pietro’s world now becomes his car, the neighborhood in which his daughter goes to school, and all the people who inhabit this area or purposely drive to see him. For he will not leave the safe microcosm he has created for his daughter, but ultimately for himself. Into this world come his sister-in-law, Marta, who accuses him of never loving Lara. Into this world come the big important men of his company, the world biggest telecommunications group, who are involved in an enormously important merger. Into this world comes a little boy named Matteo, with Down Syndrome, who makes a friend of Pietro’s car. And ultimately, the woman whom Pietro has saved from drowning finds him there.

The novel turns from ridiculously funny one moment, to despairing the next. At times I was smiling over misunderstandings, amusing anecdotes about co-workers, or the fabulous spaghetti dinner in which an old man who has been watching Pietro invites him to partake. Yet at others, I felt I had been punched because of the violence, the darkness, the despair that Pietro feels in his very core.

Quiet Chaos is about dealing with doubt, grief, being a parent, and ultimately finding the strength to carry on. It is a book I will be thinking about for a long time.

Miss Gloria was explaining reversibility to us.

Reversibility. I’m impressed. And how did she explain it to you?

She explained that in math there are some operations that are reversible and others that are irreversible. And then she explained that the same things happen in life. And it’s a lot better to do reversible things, if you have the choice.