Hollow Heart by Viola di Grado, translated by Anthony Shugaar
A third of the way into Italian novelist Viola Di Grado's Hollow Heart, the narrator Dorotea Giglio says, "You see the dead. Or, at least you read them. You've become necroliterate." This, Di Grado's second novel, teaches the reader not only to read the language of the dead but also their ways as a species and a civilization. At 178 pages, it is truly a crash course in necroliteracy. Death, here, is a mirror image of life, its behind-the-bookshelf version. You thought suicide could help you get rid of the pain of living? Welcome to purgatory as reimagined by Di Grado. It's the self-same life, only infinitely more pitiable and interminable.
On July 23, 2011, Dorotea kills herself by slitting her wrists in the bathtub where she was born twenty-five years earlier. She feels she has every reason to do so: her father abandoned her when she was born, her boyfriend Lorenzo recently dumped her "in seven hundred characters, the maximum length allowed for a text message before the double rate kicks in," and her friends are insufferable. But she soon finds out that, like everything else in her life, death did not turn out the way she expected: "My soul, in fact, never reached its destination, the afterlife that all religions count on. My soul stayed right here like a foul residue stuck to the bottom of the pan." Dorotea goes on "living" in the same house as her mother, attends her own funeral, and watches TV like the rest of the humans. But without her body, she is impermeable to experience, and that, she finds out, is the only difference between her life and death: "Things seem the same, but the feelings have drained out of them: when I was little, the jelly that fell on the breakfast table stuck to my arms, the dust on the floor clung to the bottoms of my feet. But now everything keeps to itself."
Even though in the novel Di Grado uses many of the tropes commonly associated with death -- Dorotea can walk through doors, walls, and objects; she is able to see and talk with the other dead, and together they wait for their liberation on the Day of Judgement -- she continuously reinvents the language of death. Every metaphor, in its illuminated and unflinching truth, is her own and no one else's. Seeing flowers bloom above her grave, Dorotea says, "Now self-esteem is a matter of fertilizer." Dorotea's last name "Giglio" means "lily" in Italian, and people pick the flowers above her grave that her body feeds. She realizes that her role in the world of the living is now strictly limited to that of organic matter: "[T]here's no longer any part of me that people can pick: they can't even pick up on my witticisms and my ideas, since no one ever hears them anymore."
Hollow Heart, like Di Grado's first novel 70% Acrylic 30% Wool, doesn't have much by way of plot -- that's because these novels fold upon themselves in the most revolutionary and revelatory of ways. Nothing much happens between the beginning and the end, but what does is enough to shake your faith in everything you believed in. You don't read the novels so much for what happens as for Di Grado's masterful execution of acrobatics of language and meaning. Dorotea meditates on the contradiction that the dead can write but they can't read, not even their own words: "It's very sad: you write down your thoughts and before you know it they're no longer yours." Anyone who knows about Barthes's famous essay won't miss the allusion and come to recognize the many layers of meaning wrapped in Dorotea's statement. She continues:
I believe that branches, unlike letters, don't form words. I believe that the fact that the branches all derive from the same root does not imply that they have a semantic relationship. I believe that the leaves they cover themselves with in springtime mean nothing more than that: leaves.
Hollow Heart truly is what Barthes called a "readerly" work, one that liberates the reader from authorial authority and makes any number of interpretations possible. The novel is written in the form of a letter, from beyond the grave to the world of the living, and at a crucial point in the book not long before this revelation, Dorotea tells the reader: "You are a psychoanalyst." Yet, Di Grado is also aware of the dangers of too much interpretive freedom. Dorotea regrets losing her power of reflection and deduction after her death: "Misunderstandings are the gaping edges of whatever it is we call freedom: without my senses, I was so completely free that I could interpret everything in whatever way I chose, without the constraints of perception."
If death is the continuation of life, then it must be as ridiculous as, if not more than, life itself. If life is short and lonely, then death is interminably lonesome, and dead people, too, do silly things to socialize. Dorotea writes letters to her recently deceased acquaintances whom she didn't have much reason to speak with when alive:
Hi, I'm Dorotea Giglio (1986–2011). We did theater together in middle school. I was the one who was three years older than you, I had dark hair and freckles, you remember? I'm the one who, that time we went to Milan to see the show about Pirandello, on the bus, told you about when my cousin's duckling almost drowned after it got tangled up in a piece of twine and the other duckling saved it by peeping really loud. You said it was a crazy story. Do you remember that? I know we didn't talk much for the rest of the trip. And I know that we haven't been in touch in the fourteen years since. But I heard that you died of leukemia, and since I was in your neighborhood, having died myself just last year, I thought that maybe we could get together...
Di Grado sets up an intricate structure for her novels that determines the course of the narrator's stories -- in 70% Acrylic and 30% Wool it was the narrator Camelia's sinophilia, and in Hollow Heart it is Dorotea's obsession with biology. Her narrators are full of angst and neuroticism. They both have absent fathers and their relationships with their mothers are ambivalent at best. They are also unabashedly maladroit, untamed, and mistaken in love and desire.
First published in Italian in 2013, the novel has finally come to us in English in 2015. At the end of the novel, it is in the year 2015 that Dorotea sends her letter out for someone living to find and read. We have finally found that letter in the English-speaking world in Anthony Shugaar's seamless translation that preserves all the haunting qualities of Dorotea's voice, which is also very closely the voice of Di Grado. Only occasionally does the absence of a plot bog down the novel in spite of the originality awaiting the reader in every other paragraph. Hollow Heart is a ruthless and comical meditation on the subject of death in the twenty-first century by one of Italy's most experimental and fearless new voices.
Hollow Heart by Viola Di Grado, translated by Anthony Shugaar