from A Walk in the Shadows
PEN America is thrilled to showcase the work of recipients of the 2018 PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grants and the PEN Grant for the English Translation of Italian Literature, the latter of which grants $5,000 to promote the publication and reception of translated Italian literature in English.
The following is an excerpt from Jeanne Bonner‘s PEN Grant for the English Translation of Italian Literature-winning translation of A Walk in the Shadows by Italian writer Mariateresa Di Lascia.
Bonner writes: I stumbled upon Mariateresa Di Lascia’s novel A Walk in the Shadows in 2016, while researching a story for Literary Hub about Italian works by women authors that hadn’t been translated into English. I was flabbergasted to find Di Lascia’s 1995 work was among the titles, because her masterful coming-of-age opus won a Strega Prize (making her, coincidentally, one of only 10 women ever to win the prestigious Italian literary award in its 70-year history). I was immediately enchanted by the elegant turn of her prose, and the sensitivity with which she describes her characters—even the ones we may want to dislike. Di Lascia has been compared to Elsa Morante and Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, two of the most important authors of the Italian modern age. And that’s in part due to the intricate web of images she weaves in her ornate prose.
Arguably, Di Lascia is one of the authors who paved the way for Elena Ferrante, whose Neapolitan novels have become a global juggernaut. While the two authors’ writing styles differ, both have written about what inhabits women’s souls. Indeed, Di Lascia’s novel analyzes and exalts the interior lives of a group of women buffeted by their limited choices, their unruly desire for freedom and the price they pay for these desires (something anyone suffering from #Ferrantefever would understand).
Set in a small town in postwar Puglia, A Walk in the Shadows tells the story of Chiara D’Auria, from her birth, to an unwed mother, through middle age. The book serves as a retelling of the most salient moments of her life, retracing the years almost as if she were trying to figure out how her early promise peters out.
In this excerpt from the novel’s opening scene, we meet Chiara, depicted by Di Lascia as a slovenly, middle-aged semi-recluse, whose thoughts flit between what was, what could have been, and what is. She describes herself as “a creature who doesn’t know how to live, who’s barren and as sterile as death. Incapable of even doing the one thing that’s denied to no one: to give birth to a child.” As she begins to retrace the moments of her life, she says in the tale she is about to tell she seeks “the genesis of all of the deception.” It is that “genesis” that captured my attention and which I wished to bring to English-speaking readers.
from A Walk in the Shadows
In the house where I have stayed after everyone left and silence finally descended, I drag myself around lazily, covered in dust and wearing my old clothes. Piled high against the wall are boxes bursting with cloth that I bought at sweaty Friday flea markets. I’m now free not to miss any of those markets, and when I go, I have the whole morning to roam among the stands and ransack with both hands the colorful, dirty fabrics that someone, who will remain forever unknown to me, wore many years ago.
This morning, for example, I found several small, cotton blouses, white with pink flowers, like they don’t make anymore. I cheerfully begin filling the bath so I can brighten them up with detergent.
Many people tried to convince me to leave the house since it’s small and dark, and when I get asthma attacks, I risk my own death even with the windows open. But I pay no mind. It’s silly worrying over every little thing: death will come when death comes and no one can do anything about it. They’ll carry me away down these narrow stairs that you find in modern buildings, and they’ll have their hands full, discarding all the junk that sums up my life. When I was a little girl, they dressed me like a movie star, and I watched the world with my rag doll eyes and my long, full lashes like butterfly wings. No one realized that I was completely blind in my right eye because of a defect that befell me as a child. There was nothing anyone could do, not even the doctors I saw throughout my life.
With my blonde hair, and a head like a lion, I caught people’s attention when I walked. I was lost in my own thoughts, and cars had to stop sharply to avoid running me over.
I’ve lived in every city in this country and I didn’t allow myself to stop even once, pursued as I was by a thousand scary monsters I had dreamt up. I went street to street, and house to house like a pilgrim. I even switched cafés where I would have my morning coffee to shake them off my trail. The trail of my stories about the exiled princess living in this soul-less world, where my lungs struggled to breathe.
Perhaps I was born to do something great, but only a handful of people knew it: donna Peppina Curatore, my aunt, and Anita, my mother. My father, Francesco, must have yearned for my greatness, too, but only out of personal vanity.
Zia Peppina loved me more than anything else in the world, so she stole me away from my mother and constantly played me against her. When I was twelve, she decided that I should study at the university and become a “professorona.” Being out in the world didn’t excite me then because I knew humankind throbbed with strong, unchecked desires and passions that I didn’t understand and which I still can’t even imagine. In fact, they terrify me.
Now that old age is approaching and I’ve stopped bleeding early without explanation, my humble appearance and the wrinkles that are late in coming protect me even more than the slovenly clothing that covers my body. Dressed up like this, ageless and sexless, I can finally laugh off the world.
It wasn’t always this way.
At one time, the two women in my life battled each other, each wanting to have me for her own. Around town, people gossiped about me because of Anita, who wasn’t married and who conceived me with Francesco during the war years.
I hadn’t yet had my first asthma attack, so my lungs were such that I could produce a high C and hold the note so long that I made the crystals in the chandelier vibrate. I still sang after I got asthma, for many years, quitting only after the death of my beloved women, my aunt Peppina and my mother. I dreamt that they slept near me on two neat, white beds and that I would wake them with my singing. But they begged me to be quiet because they were tired and wanted to rest.
I don’t care to look at the book that interprets your dreams nor do I play the lottery as I’ve been advised to do by the old woman who comes every day at meal time (I always a cook a little bit of extra food for her). I believe the meaning of the dream was what I’d understood as soon as I awoke – when I was still worked up and sweaty from what I’d imagined.
In the evenings, I sit on the balcony off my bedroom, the one that had been my aunt’s, and I gaze out on the narrow solitary street where no trees ever want to grow. I try to breathe. I try not to be startled by the voices. I try to spurn the spirits that quickly cozy up to me, drawn by a force that originates within me but which remains a mystery to me.
Finally when there isn’t a spot left in the room or on the horizon where I can turn my gaze without these spirits cornering me with the urgency of their tales, I start crying, free of any grief or anger. I surrender finally to the memories, like a citadel falling to its attackers.
They’re all here: in this stuffy, dark house, I recognize all of them one by one, even those whom I’ve never seen even in a photograph. The friends of friends who are brought to life and who crowd the flowery, beige wallpaper, projecting their shadows like in a majestic movie theater.
“Chiara, your Aunt Peppina sent me…Chiara, I knew your mother…Chiara, do you recognize me? Chiara… Chiara… Chiara…”
The chatter rises like a chorus of cicadas in August; it takes only a moment for it to fill the whole room and I become a flower, a tree, a blade of grass. Or maybe I am the bare earth that they trampled on or the flowing water they drank.
The time has finally come again for my reverie, for my song as a second-rate mermaid without a tail, now that my two ladies have left their earthly bodies and know everything about me and my life.
And me along with them.
Part one: The Bold Years
EPIGRAPH: “I approach you, seeking to elicit an omen.”
Section title: An infant’s happy memories; Rosina, the nanny
The awkward creature who’s coming toward me in the frosted mirror in the entryway that separates the kitchen from the bathroom, and the bathroom from the room where the couch is – that creature is me.
Due to inattention or maybe recklessness, I happen to lift my eyes to look at her; the considerable substance of her flesh and the confused fashion of her clothing bewilder me as much as her misty stare. That strange little animal, with a frightened, sluggish air, is me, and the mirror, where it’s not frosted, preserves the creature’s awful power, undiminished. The vision looks at me with loathing, reflecting back the gypsy-like disorder of my little cesspit. Trembling, I escape, and it follows me as far as it can.
To recover, I steer myself into the sitting room, which is enveloped in the lifeless half- light imposed by the permanently-shut blinds.
On the back wall, covered as much as possible by old sheets, my most precious possessions tower over me, forming a magnificent fortress.
The couch provides a ready view of the colored mountain that rises before it. It’s really a daybed whose railings are permanently set to a single height, and which is too low to allow me to get some air without placing a large pillow beneath my back.
I plop myself down on it carelessly, kicking up a cloud of grey powder so thick it’s almost a solid. It falls on me lightly – and I realize, tonight I will have an asthma attack. Another reason to disregard the few errands that manage to override the mighty obstacles posited by my slothful ways, and which together assert themselves as the Inevitable Task Before Me. This is what I really fear, even though I’ve dismissed it with abiding cruelty.
Just the same, while I take care of one small chore, the thought of it resurfaces now and then from the secret places of my subconscious. And it rises up inside of me like a blind, savage pain, spreading out in search of the impetus, the voice that woke it.
Cornered like the prey of a pack of dogs, I expel all thought from my mind and start engaging in rituals that help push away the dreadful sensation that I can still do something to stop it. Frantically, I run my hand through my hair from my forehead to the nape of my neck, massaging repeatedly the part of my head where I believe the thought about the Inevitable has formed. Someone told me it’s a human invention, this idea, a tragic notion rising from the need to justify one’s existence in the face of the unavoidable outcome with which everything concludes: death, the eternal and only necessity.