November 2012

Sessily Watt


The Bird that Swallowed Its Cage: The Selected Writings of Curzio Malaparte adapted and translated by Walter Murch

Whether this review begins with Curzio Malaparte, the Italian writer whose life ricocheted through the roiling changes of the first half of the twentieth century, or with Walter Murch, the film editor and translator who was first entranced by Malaparte's writing in 1986, the outcome is the same: this slim volume entitled The Bird that Swallowed Its Cage, a selection of Malaparte's work translated and adapted into English by Murch. All translations are a collaboration between author and translator, communicating over the distances of time and language, but Murch's translations reflect that collaboration more than most, since he has adapted sections of Malaparte's prose into blank and free verse.

This change wasn't made on a whim. In his "Notes on the Translations," Murch draws a connection between verse and Malaparte's dense lines, repetitions, cross-sensory metaphors, and "fabulous" imagery. He talks of opening up space in the text, allowing it to "aerate," and restoring some of the musicality of Italian that is lost in English prose. Nonetheless, though these fourteen stories reflect Malaparte's experiences in both world wars, in fascist Italy, and in communist China and the USSR, they also reflect Murch's sensibility. It's refreshing to see this natural part of translation placed on the surface, in the line itself.

The effect on the reading experience is most evident where both prose and verse are used, such as in "Murderer," "Partisans, 1944," and "The Gun Gone Mad." The shifts in the line emphasize shifts in focus. In the translation notes, Murch explains that both translation and film editing require decisions about rhythm and when to bring the film shot or line of verse to an end, each such decision contributing to the arc of the story. As an Academy Award-winning film editor, it's no surprise that Murch has a good ear for where those ends should fall, though it might be a bit more surprising that a skill in film would transition so well to a skill in laying words on a page. Yet it does. In "Murderer," for example, the description of a grenade explosion and the relationship between the narrator and the young lieutenant fatally injured by the explosion is given in prose, followed by a series of lines in verse that pause in the scene:

We were surrounded by the dead: hundreds of them in the forest around us. Most were Italian, but there were a few Germans: they had advanced this far before we had finally pushed them back. Their dead lay alongside ours.

II. It began to rain.

The rain on the oak leaves
made a soft music, like women whispering.
Every so often, it would intensify
as it darted here and there through the trees,
rising and then fading away.

The same lines in prose would likely not contain the same focus, as the reader's eye would flit over them and onward.

While these shifts between prose and verse feel masterful, a few of the stories drag in their commitment to verse. These are also often the stories that are not specifically about war, fascism, violence, or death, though they may engage with the themes metaphorically. For example, "The Visit of the Angel" and "Woman by the Edge of the Sea" feel interminable in verse, a feeling exacerbated by Malaparte reaching for a vague emotional resonance rooted in abstract generalities, such as the secret of a woman's heart. These two originally appeared in Fughe in Prigione, which was published while he was in exile on the island of Lipari, raising the question of whether Malaparte was a writer driven more by observation than introspection. When he is at the height of his powers, in "Murderer" or in "El Traidor," the strength of his work comes from the insightful observations about the horror, chaos, and, yes, absurd and heartbreaking ridiculousness of war, totalitarianism, and fascism. "El Traidor," for example, takes the form of a farce, as the narrator, who is in Finland, continually telegraphs the Spanish diplomat about captured Soviet soldiers who are Spaniards who fled Spain when Franco came to power. Each time the Spanish diplomat is angry with the narrator for telegraphing him, but always comes and always tries to help, and the narrator always telegraphs him without a second thought, the two of them navigating the contradictions of the soldiers' insistence on being communist atheists and also Spanish, and the insistence of Franco's Spain that all Spaniards are Catholics.

That first-person narrator, another characteristic of Malaparte's writing, raises interesting questions when read in the United States, in the context of outrage over James Frey and criticism of David Sedaris, both of which seem to present a desire for strict separation between fiction and nonfiction. Murch addresses these questions in an entry following the biographical and translation notes, entitled "The Mysterious Malapartian 'I.'" He points out that Malaparte uses the "I" throughout all of these pieces, giving them a "sheen of first-person, 'I was there' journalism," but Malaparte's name is never referenced. This allows the 'I' to morph between personal experience and those fictional details that are based on personal experience, or that shape the story to reflect what Murch calls "the deeper truths of subjectivity masquerading as objectivity." This relationship between subjectivity and objectivity, and the reader's expectations thereof, are already complicated by Malaparte straddling fiction and nonfiction, and further complicated by the translation adding poetry, and its attendant expectations, to the mix. It's unsurprising there are no definite answers about what in here is truth, what is based on truth, and what has been shaped to support the truth that surrounds it.

If the "I" can't be pinned down, The Bird that Swallowed Its Cage is conversely clear about place, which contributes to the journalistic feel. Malaparte traveled the world on his own, and as a journalist and soldier, and the selected pieces take place in Finland; Russia; China; Scotland; and Tuscany, Italy, where he grew up and which is the focus or backdrop for four of the included stories.

Wherever he went, he encountered violence and death, rising up in the Tuscan wind in "Six Winds," hovering in the background of "The Little Hand," rising up in the separation of adolescence in "Two Sisters," walking beside him in "Sleepwalking," and fully on display in "Murderer." And Malaparte was intimately aware of how violence and death refuse logic or explanation, and that what we fear is not always what is most dangerous. He observes in "Sleepwalking" that "the living are afraid of the dead," but learns in "The Little Hand":

that we might trust the dead more than the living,
that we might have more to fear from the hands of the living
than the hands of the dead.

The Bird that Swallowed Its Cage: The Selected Writings of Curzio Malaparte adapted and translated by Walter Murch
ISBN: 978-1619020610
144 pages