October 2011

Christopher Merkel

Unamerican

Recommendations from the South

On a recent Sunday, at a café on a river in the south of Spain, I found myself in conversation with two women, an Italian who had spent her teenage years and early twenties living in London, and a Moroccan with a Czech mother who had lived most of her adult life in Prague and in Brussels. Both women were friends of a friend whom I had caught at the café just in time to say goodbye to her before she returned home in another city, bound from there back to the United States for an extended visit in another few days. Near midnight, the two women and I had come around to a conversation about the social habits of the natives of southern Spain, specifically as they pertained to strangers, both indigenous and alien. That conversation then turned to one on general southern European hospitality, which left me for the most part behind as I listened to the two women go back and forth with their opinions on the differences between the north and the south, both within Europe at large and within its different regions and countries. The Italian woman had spent most of her time in Italy in the north, but had also traveled extensively throughout the rest of the country. And she insisted, not only on the magnanimity of southern Italian hospitality, but also on its sincerity (which she contrasted with what she described as her more enigmatic experience in southern Spain, her home of three years). 

And I was charmed, as an American in such a situation is wont to be charmed, even if (or especially since) I didn't have as much depth of experience to lend to the discussion as my companions. Earlier, however, our conversation had touched on books -- specifically, the Moroccan woman had asked me for recommendations -- and it seemed a good opportunity to interject anecdotally (my personal wont) on the subject of two books I had recently read by southern Italian born author Erri De Luca. And anyway, our table seemed like it might welcome a diversion, as the Moroccan woman had made it clear that she didn't share the surety of her friend's convictions. 

Neither the Italian woman nor the Moroccan were familiar with De Luca, nor had I been before reading Me, You and The Day Before Happiness, both slim volumes I read in quick succession. De Luca's narrator in Me, You is an adolescent boy spending a summer on an Italian island off the coast of Naples in the 1950s. During the day, he fishes with his uncle and another local fisherman named Nicola. His cousin Daniele sometimes accompanies them, but more often it's at night that the narrator, who remains unnamed throughout the book, spends time with his cousin and his friends playing music and carousing on the beach. It's in the company of that group, and after a day of fishing during which the narrator is badly bitten by a moray eel, that he meets Caia, a Yugoslavian orphan who is vacationing on the island with a friend of hers from a boarding school in Switzerland. And it's probably more correct to say that the narrator never goes by his given name throughout Me, You, because he is given a name by Caia, with whom he falls in love and enters into a mystical (platonic but very Freudian) relationship through which he learns about her past. 

For the narrator, the "secret" of Caia's Jewishness and the killing of her family by the Nazis is not only an intimacy that he shares with his summer passion, but also a visceral awakening to a greater Italian and European history. During World War II, Nicola, a reluctant member of the Nazi allied Italian army, had been stationed in Sarajevo where he experienced firsthand the helplessness and fear that typified life under Axis occupation. Nicola the civilian fisherman is stoic and taciturn, but it's he who first explains the significance of Caia's name -- that the initial k sound should be pronounced with a heavy h -- and that there were many girls with that name in Sarajevo, where he, an enemy soldier, had been asked by Jewish women to save their children. And from the sharing of that knowledge, Me, You sets its narrator on an emotionally charged (as only adolescents can charge their emotions) journey of discovering self and other in which he's forced to individually face the problem of the perpetuation of historical violence -- and also enters into a relationship with a beautiful Jewish girl orphaned by the second world war. 

How was I different from the other city boys vacationing on the island? They were hospitable by nature, by indolent custom, not out of any genuine wish to meet new people or get to know them. Caia was just a funny name for us. The accident of fate that sent a fisherman from the south to make war in Yugoslavia provided the most basic fact. She came from a people who had been eliminated house by house, her parents killed. Her life depended on being saved, unlike ours, exposed at worst to the ills of the south. Perhaps she was one of the children placed in the arms of a stranger who carried her to safety. 

And so the quiet idyll of the narrator's summer on the sea and at the beach comes violently crashing into the monolith of history. While reading Me, You I was repeatedly reminded of another book, Mathias Énard's Zone, in which a Frenchman of Croatian descent, an (almost) ex-spy who fought in the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, produces a stream of consciousness history of violence around the Mediterranean (the Zone) on his way to sell a briefcase of carefully curated personal histories to the Vatican. Although De Luca's simple and straightforward narrative mode couldn't be further stylistically from the five-hundred-page sentence that comprises Zone, both De Luca's and Énard's books evoke the same sense of the ineluctability of a shared historical experience -- at least for the people in the old world of the West. The initial naivety of the narrator of Me, You may be the antithesis of the near omniscience of the narrator of Zone, but even on his island the boy can't help finding evidence of his involvement in a larger and less Arcadian narrative once he starts looking. 

De Luca's The Day Before Happiness is also a coming of age story underscored by the tumults of World War II and international migration. What begins as a charmingly folksy Neapolitan slice of life develops over the course of a love affair (this one consummated) into a narrative of resistance and of the transmission of history and culture across generations. (The decision by Other Press to publish its new translation of The Day Before Happiness simultaneously with a re-release of Me, You was a logical and vital one, especially for a market perhaps under acquainted with the author.) 

The orphan of The Day Before Happiness is its narrator, who begins his story by recounting his tutelage under Don Gaetano, the superintendent of an apartment building and also an orphan -- and a skilled card player and a mind reader as well. As Don Gaetano introduces the narrator to the world of sex, he also acquaints him with the history of the city, including, most significantly, its fight to resist German occupation following the Italian surrender to the Allies in 1943. And Don Gaetano also shares his experience of harboring a Jewish man in the storeroom of the apartment building during that same year. 

Although it includes lots of talk of blood and war, some knife fighting (equally bloody), and the plot of its central love story isn't dissimilar to the story of the untamable titular character of the opera Carmen (including the knife fighting, "The knife and men of the South go together"), The Day Before Happiness, translated by Michael F. Moore, maintains a quiet tone and an even pace, its sentences generally short and simply declarative. And for that, even during the warring and knife fighting, the book sustains a sometimes incongruously calming poetic lull. And the same is true for Me, You, which was translated by Beth Archer Brombert, even as it builds to its final cataclysm. In fact, the style of both books in translation are remarkably similar for having been executed by two different translators and across a span of more than a decade. Or it's possible that there's just not much room for taking liberties with generally short and simple declarative sentences. Still, both succeed in producing a noteworthy poetic effect. And that includes what both books are lent by the inclusion of some words and phrases in dialect in Italian, inclusions which I initially questioned as possibly gimmicky or interruptive, but which became more clearly necessary for descriptive effect as I read. And what's more, they were words that I expect would have set themselves apart in an Italian text anyway -- and without them the dialogues including the man with the bad ears in The Day Before Happiness would have been much less entertaining. 

Whether Erri De Luca, born in Naples in 1950, experienced any of the specific growing pains (or their violent after effects) that he describes in Me, You or The Day Before Happiness, he does certainly have a solid sense of himself as he relates to the city of his birth and of himself in that city in the south of Italy as it relates to the histories of the rest of the country and beyond (at least as far as the stretch of the European zone). Whether De Luca considers himself significantly "southern" (southern European or southern Italian or otherwise) I can't say, but the two books of his I read were full of the steadfast and simple charm that are wont to charm an American in his fancies on that topic, while still being steadfastly aware of the larger histories that are always playing out in the backgrounds of whatever it is that charms us in a momentary idyll.   

Back at our table at that café on the river, those two women and I hadn't broached any subject nearly so involved or so heavy as the welcoming (or understanding) or not of a character like Caia or the man that Don Gaetano harbored in that storeroom (or at least the two women hadn't as I'd been listening), and because of that I hadn't ventured to interject with too long of an anecdote. In fact, I think I might only have posed a couple of questions, one about the author and then another, intentionally witless, about the location of Naples -- its being in the south seemed like a good segue for reintroducing myself to the discussion. And, it might actually have been at that point that the Moroccan woman asked me for a recommendation. Midnight had passed into the morning at that point, and now, at this point, I don't remember. 

But there was an old man at the café, an old man who heard us speaking English and came over to our table to try his. He'd been enjoying himself since the early hours of the evening and engaged us particularly warmly. Something about his friends all over the world and something about soccer. Who knows if he would have been so warm had he seen any of us on the street the next morning. And I don't know whether that would have been any indication of a particularly southern pattern, or what I should expect were I in the north, but really, it was pleasant, so I didn't care. It was a night for poetry. On my way back across the bridge to bed, a passage from The Day Before Happiness

The city is beautiful at night. There's a danger but also freedom. The sleepless wander about: artists, murderers, gamblers. The taverns, fry-shacks, and cafes stay open. Those who make their living at night say hello, get to know each other. People indulge their vices. The light of day accuses, the dark of night absolves. Out come the transformed, men dressed as women, because nature bids them to and no one harasses them. No one asks them to account. Out come the crippled, the blind, the lame, who in the daylight are rejected. It's a pocket pulled inside out, night in the city. 

One hopes that old man's endeavor was proof enough that north, south or wherever, "At night the city is a civil place."