Archive for May 15, 2012

A lost soul by Giovanni Arpino

May 15, 2012 19 comments

Un’ anima persa by Giovanni Arpino. 1966. French title: Une âme perdue. Not translated into English.

Il me semble que je ne pourrai aborder aucun autre secret, que rien d’autre ne m’arrivera, sinon la répétition plus ou moins identique de cette histoire, la seule que le monde des adultes a su m’offrir en guise d’apprentissage. It seems I will never be able to take another secret, that nothing will ever happen to me other than the repetition more of less identical of this story, the only one the world of adults gave me as a coming-of-age experience.

Tino is 17. It’s Turin, the first week of July in the 1960s. Tino is an orphan who usually lives in a boarding school. Now he’s staying at his aunt Galla’s house for a week because his taking his maturita. (Baccalauréat in French, A-Level in English). Tino is a good student, he’s not really worried about the exam. He’s a sensitive teenager though and aunt Galla’s house makes him nervous. This novella is the journal of this decisive week, the week he finishes high school, enters adulthood with forceps and without anaesthesia.

Indeed, Aunt Galla and her husband Uncle Serafino are an odd pair. She’s the typical 1960s housewife:

Tante Galla voue une véritable adoration à son mari. Elle ne l’appelle jamais par son prénom, mais par son titre d’ingénieur, elle le suit, le surveille, le regarde de bas en haut tel un gros chien fidèle, toujours prêt à lui faire fête, qui jappe et agite les breloques que son maître lui a attachées au cou. Aunt Galla worships her husband. She never calls him by his Christian name, only by his title, engineer. She follows him, hovers over him, watches him from down to top like a big faithful dog, always ready to greet him eagerly, a dog who yelps and shakes the charms her master hung on her neck.

I can easily imagine her waiting for him to come back from work, holding his slippers and the evening paper. She has no mind of her own, she sees life through the adoring eyes of the obedient wife. But Tino doesn’t share his aunt’s blinded admiration for Uncle Serafino:

Oncle Serafino ne m’a jamais semblé être un homme.Comment m’expliquer? On dirait un être humain encore inachevé, un acteur arraché à son masque, à ses fards, à ses déguisements. Ou alors un homme qui brûle secrètement de sortir de lui-même et qui n’exhibe sa personne, les fragments minuscules de son cocon mortel dans lequel on l’a enfermé, qu’au prix d’une douleur et d’une humiliation constante. To me, Uncle Serafino never seemed to be a man.How can I explain? He looks like an incomplete human being, an actor broken off from his mask, his make-up, his costumes. Or a human being who secretly burns to come out of himself and who only shows his self, the minuscule fragments of his mortal cocoon in which he has been locked at the price of a constant pain and steady humiliation.

Not keen on meeting Uncle Serafino, are you? From the start, the reader is caught in the strange atmosphere of the household. Tino knows that Serafino’s twin brother has been locked in a room in the top floor of the house for the last twenty-five years. He’s the professor and only Uncle Serafino takes care of him. He takes into account all his needs: he bathes him, buys him clothes, brings him food, distraction and even hires a prostitute every week. When Uncle Serafino is at work, Aunt Galla spies on her brother-in-law through the peep-hole. Tino is invited to have a look too and he almost feels sick. The scene is poignant and a bit chilling. I thought “That’s the sequel of The Metamorphosis, although the professor isn’t a beetle. But it’s what Gregor Samsa would be after twenty-five years locked in a room, hidden away from the outside world”.

The house plays a role in the story too. It’s well-described and I saw the painting by Henri Magritte, L’empire des lumières. A strange feeling comes from this house full of corridors, unused spared rooms filled with broken objects and detritus. One description also reminded me of the room Malte Laurids Brigge used to go to in his family house. It’s disturbing. The garden is unkempt, the veranda is rusted, plants have grown wild and hide the door from the garden to the street. It’s like a beast that swallows things and human beings and doesn’t gives them back. Aunt Galla seldom goes out and never receives anyone. Tino is tempted to lock himself in his room at night, especially now that he knows that the professor’s room is right above his. Poor sleepless Tino.

L’heure de dormir avait tourné comme un aliment aigre. Pour éviter le lit, pour réprimer toute régurgitation de peurs et de pensées, j’ai repris mes livres et ouvert une page ça et là.

Bed time had turned sour like damaged food. To avoid my bed, to repress any regurgitation of fears and thoughts, I grabbed my text books and opened a page here and there.

I thought Arpino’s style excellent. Like here, he has a way to make you feel Tino’s emotion and angst.

De nouveau, le silence.Je ferme les yeux. Mes paupières ne me protègent pas de la lumière, le sommeil chemine dans mon corps mais se dissipe une fois parvenu à la hauteur de mes tempes. Cependant, je suis si fatigué que la peur n’a plus de prise sur moi: on dirait qu’elle m’a abandonné; et puis, ce n’est plus cette peur qui m’assaillait le cœur et les nerfs, c’est une peur dilatée qui stagne dans l’air de la chambre, dans toutes les fissures de cette maison. And again, the silence.I close my eyes. My eyelids don’t protect me from the light, sleep walks along my body but dispels once it reaches my temples. However, I’m so tired that fear has no hold on me: it seems it abandoned me. And also, it’s no more this fear that assailed my heart and my nerves, it’s a dilated fear that stagnates in the air of the room, in all the cracks of this house.

It reminded me of The Stranger by Camus, the unsettling mixture of detachment and terrible circumstances. I haven’t read a lot of Italian literature but it seems to me that heat is always an important side character. Here it is too. It distorts Tino’s perception, it slows his mind, it disturbs his sleep and makes him tired and thus more vulnerable to events.

I won’t tell you the secret of this house but it’s lurking. It’s the story of a teenager who came to the big city full of expectation, willing to see the world and who faces disappointment and ugliness. There is no fairy tale, no gold, only lead. He is thrown to the other side of the mirror, to the world of adults, without clues and there is no coming back.

It’s only the fourth of Arpino‘s novels to be translated into French. It’s not available in English, sorry, but another of his books, Scent of a Woman was translated by Anne Milano Appel.

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