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lunedì 30 gennaio 2012

Voices of Sweden: Christine Falkenland

One of the most exciting things about moving to another Country is learning the local language, with all the wonderful possibilities this simple fact implies.

I may not like the cold in Sweden, and the long dark winter days (happy to be in Italy in this moment, btw! ;)) but I love the nature, breathing and living everywhere around you. I love Stockholm (though I can't stand it sometimes), and I absolutely love the Swedish language and all the little doors it opened up to me. One - my favourite one - is the door leading to that part of Swedish (and also Danish and Norwegian) literature that is unpublished in Italian or English. I guess most people think that Swedish literature is all about detective stuff, crime fiction, and the like, while there's a whole world of wonderful things that are simply and sadly unknown because they are not translated, if not into the neighbouring languages.

I feel very lucky to be able to access this special world, despite the obvious limits of my young knowledge of the Swedish language.

I will start to share impressions and thoughts on Scandinavian little-known writers, blended with fragments of memories and emotions. I will start with Christine Falkenland and her dark, disturbing, beautiful Själens begär.

Why? Because when my future partner and father of my daughter came to see me in Italy the first time, he had carried that book with him, in order to read it on the plane. And I already knew that it was one of his favourite books of all times. A small book, with an elegant and slightly gloomy photograph on the cover, and a very intriguing title: soul's desire.

No translation was available, and reading a whole book in Swedish was out of the question at that time. So for quite a long time this book represented some sort of unexplored territory, fascinating and inaccessible, containing precious information about my loved one. It was one of his favourite books, so I felt deeply attracted to it, I wanted it to be mine, too.

I bought my own copy in a second-hand shop, when I was beginning to feel a little more confident with the Swedish language.
I like to have my own copy of books, especially when I know I will write down notes on them. I read it voraciously. I often leaf through it, re-read some parts, partly as a language exercise, partly because I truly enjoy her beautiful writing and dark atmospheres.

Cora and Ernst are cousins, they used to be best friends as children and Ernst was even in love with Cora. But then, Cora's mother suddenly prevents her daughter to have a contact with Ernst. Many years later, Ernst receives an invitation from Cora to visit her at Berg, in the big house where she lives alone. Ernst, almost unconsciously, accepts. Memories from the past start to emerge and blend with his actual feelings towards Cora, constantly shifting between slight irritation and a dark, morbid attraction. The story unfolds on three different levels: it opens with the first-person narration of a priest whom Cora used to turn to. He speaks about a bird he had found in his garden the previous summer, hurt and half-rotten yet still alive. He tells us how the thought of that bird keeps haunting him, together with the thought of Cora. He doesn't say who she is or what happened to her, but we understand that something unpleasant is going to occur. The detailed description of the dying bird and the general dark atmosphere belong to a part of contemporary Swedish fiction, mainly written by women, that is characterized by a strong feeling for all aspects of nature, its being alive even through decaying processes, and also for the darkest aspects of the human mind, the border line connecting love and obsession, attraction and destruction.
The second level coincides with Ernst's arrival at Berg and the time he spends there with Cora, while the third level, graphically differentiated in the text through the use of italics, is Ernst's secret return to Cora's house, hidden in her attic and spying on her.
The book opens and closes with the priest's recollections, while the other two levels are fragmented and intermingled throughout the novel, exacerbating the anticipation of an unpleasant climax.
The reader sympathizes with Cora, who is unaware of her cousin's inner turmoil and appears dangerously fragile and exposed. We never see facts through her perspective and this turns her into a sort of unconscious sacrificial victim from the start.
I won't spoil this refined exploration of a twisted soul by revealing what happens. I wish many more people could read this gifted writer. Christine Falkenland creates dark, disturbing atmospheres through a careful attention to her vocabulary, mixing everyday words and expressions with obsolete ones so as to inscribe her characters in a timeless world, where the most secret "soul's desires" are exposed like open, bleeding wounds.

My first "real" encounter with Swedish literature, that is excluding Italian or English translations, was definitely an unforgettable one.

martedì 24 gennaio 2012

The Buddha in the Attic, by Julie Otsuka

Last week, my grandmother called me on the phone to tell me she had just read a review of what seemed to be a truly interesting book. It was the second novel of a Japanese-American writer, Julie Otsuka, and it had just been published here in Italy. I bought it the day before yesterday, read the first half during last night and the rest today, in the dentist's waiting room. I enjoyed every single page, every single word.

The story focuses on a particular aspect of Japanese emigration to the US in the 20's and follows the lives of a group of Japanese women, who were "picture brides",mail-ordered brides who crossed the ocean to reach San Francisco and marry men they had only known from photographs. The author based her novel on accurate historical research and read lots of memoirs and all sort of documents on the subject, and she transformed this material in a chorus of voices that is always "we" and "us", never personal yet extremely intimate. She creates a delicate amalgam of different experiences converging in one only voice. The language is simple but sentences beautifully carved, and they smoothly flow by like waves. A poetic, incantatory prose with an extraordinary evocative power.

The novel is divided into 8 sections tracing the lives of these extraordinary women from their difficult journey across the ocean, scared, excited, seasick, confused. It goes on to depict their meeting with their husbands, their first nights as new brides. The disappointments, the hardships, the small, precious, unexpected joys. Their experiences as hard labourers, mothers, wives. Their struggle to both settle in and maintain their heritage, and, finally, the arrival of war and its consequences.

A wonderful book in all ways. I loved the way the author brilliantly managed to maintain her blend of juxtaposed voices all through the novel, in very different contexts. I loved the way she could create a whole world already from the very first pages. I loved how she could make every single image into something recognizable, understandable, moving. I loved her mastery at imagining details that are small yet full of meaning. Very simply, I loved everything of this book.

The title refers to a small Buddha statue a woman forgets in her attic as she leaves her house to an unknown destination, towards the end of the book. But of course it echoes "The Madwoman in the Attic", a landmark in feminist literary criticism. As if to underline that this fragment of history, as countless more, belongs to women, at least from the perspective she chose to write from. It is a little disappointing that the Italian translation, good as it may be, changes the title, becoming "venivamo tutte per mare" (we all came through the sea). The original title is much more interesting and it underlines that this novel doesn't stand alone, because it's backed by other voices, other stories that were experienced and told by women.

domenica 1 gennaio 2012

Le premier cri

Selon une légende talmudique, lorsqu'un enfant naît, il possède encore le savoir ultime de ses vies antérieures. C'est alors qu'un ange apparaît et lui enjoint de tenir ce savoir secret. L'ange pose son doigt sur la lèvre de l'enfant et à cet instant précis, le bébé oublie tout pour entrer dans la vie. Du geste de l'ange, il reste une trace : le petit creux qui dessine un fossé entre notre lèvre supérieure et la base de notre nez... Alors seulement, il peut pousser son premier cri.

According to a legend from the Talmud, when a child is born it possesses the ultimate knowledge of its previous lives. But then an angel appears, forbidding the child to reveal this knowledge. The angel puts a finger on the child's lips and at that precise moment the child forgets everything in order to step into life. The angel's finger leaves a mark: the small hollow which traces a dimple between our upper lip and the base of the nose... Just then, the child can utter its first cry.

I have been planning a post about this amazing film for some weeks now. I found it hard to start, hard to find the words for something so beautiful and yet simple and natural like giving birth. Maybe it's because the images and voices in the film echo inside of me, calling to mind my personal experience and melting words and thoughts to a blurred turmoil of emotions, the most precious, reverberating everywhere in my flesh and blood. The moment I saw my daughter, heard her voice, smelled her, hugged her. The overwhelming joy, the biggest love ever conceivable, but also the fear and the weird sensation of truly "being a mammal".
So this post will probably sound like a downpour of feelings, I don't claim it to be a review.

Gilled de Maistre filmed a series of documentaries set in a maternity ward in Paris, and being in contact with mothers and their newborn babies suggested him that there's something extraordinarily universal about birth-giving, and he wanted to explore it across the world and its variety of cultures. There are many rituals and habits connected to the act of giving birth, and there are many ways of welcoming the new tiny life, yet the emotions involved seem to be the same, expressed both in the first look of the mother to her child and in the child's first cry.

For about two years, Gilles de Maistre and his collaborators met pregnant women all around the globe, listening to their stories. In the end, ten of them were picked, and the film presents them in their last days of pregnancy, caught in those hard moments of weariness and expectation, enthusiasm and fear. Some of them live in busy cities, others in the desert, others by the shores of the Ganga river. Some experience a fully hospitalized delivery, others have no other help than that of their own mother and of the other women of their group of nomads. The different experiences are interwoven, so that we follow more than one at a time, shifting from the most different ways of life, and death.A beautiful music accompanies us along the way.

Vanessa, the first future mother we encounter, lives with her partner and many friends in a house in Maine, and she is determined to have a natural delivery at home, with no medical help whatsoever, accepting all possible consequences, including death. In this way, she feels that she can fully live this unique step in her life, listening to the wisdom of nature and to the ancient knowledge of her body.

Mané, a Tuareg living in the Sahara desert, delivers a stillborn after a night in labour, lying in an improvised hut built on the sand for her. A Siberian nomad is taken to a small hospital by helicopter, where she undergoes a caesarean section. She returns to the her frozen, barren land with her baby girl packed and wrapped in various layers of blankets.

This film has a magnetic quality, you simply can't take your eyes off the screen, and your heart off the different stories. It's a wonderful film, showing with disarming simplicity the miracle of life in a blend of different stories and voices that feel so recognizable and close.

A truly unforgettable film I recommend to everyone.