Me, You by Erri de Luca

December 10, 2017 Leave a comment Go to comments

Me, You by Erri de Luca (1998) French title: Tu, mio. Translated from the Italian by Danièle Valin.

C’était l’été, et même si nous vivions des années difficiles, des années d’après-guerre, ces mois sur l’île étaient une zone franche. Des libertés impensables étaient permises et les caractères de chacun pouvaient se révéler, s’affirmer. Nous sommes devenus des adultes après ce temps-là, nous sommes le fruit d’une île plutôt que d’une terre ferme. It was the summer and even if we were going through difficult years, post-war years, these months on the island were a free zone. Unbelievable liberties were allowed, our personalities could blossom and strengthen. We became adults after this time. We are more the product of an island than of dry land.

My clumsy translation.

When Me, You by Erri de Luca opens, we’re on a fisherman’s boat with our narrator. He’s sixteen and he’s spending the summer on an island near Naples, where he lives the rest of the year. We’re in the 1950s, it’s post-war Italy. The narrator spends his time fishing with his uncle and a local fisherman, Nicola. His free time is spent with his cousin Daniele. Daniele is older than him and the narrator tags along when Daniele meets his group of friends. This is how our narrator meets Caia, a mysterious young woman. He has a big crush on her and observes her from afar. On her side, she’s drawn to this silent adolescent. Unrequited young love and teenage fascination for the other sex could be the aim of this story. But it’s not. It explores these new emotions teenagers experience at sixteen but the post-war context brings a new depth to the story.

Caia is Jewish and the narrator soon understands that she escaped the worst but that her family was murdered by the Nazis during the war. The horrors of the Shoah bring a shadow over this sunny summer.

WWII also invites itself in the narrator’s summer through Nicola, the fisherman. He went to war in Yugoslavia and the narrator makes him talk about his war time. Nicola reluctantly unveils bits of his years in service. Ugliness seeps into the narrator’s sheltered life.

That summer, our narrator tries to confront two witnesses of the war, an unintentional participant and a victim. He wants to understand. The island is also a touristy place and when he sees German tourists, he wonders about their actions during the war. Who are these tourists under their summer clothes? Former active supporters of the Nazi regime or people who just tried to survive?

Our narrator questions the immediate past and wonders: what have the people of the different camps become? You, Me explores the coming of age of a teenager and the scars left by war in a country. We always think about war time, how awful it must have been and so on. This explores what happens when people from opposite camps have to live together, how victims try to survive, how demobilized soldiers slip into peace time routine.

As always, Erri de Luca masters deep questioning about the human condition with gentleness. He’s never bitter but never naïve either. And his style is sumptuous and poetic.

Le soleil est une main de surface, un papier de verre, qui, l’été, dégrossit la terre, la nivelle, la lisse, sèche et maigre à fleur de poussière. Il fait la même chose avec les corps. The sun is a smoother of surfaces, a kind of sandpaper that during the summer smooths down the earth, evens it out, polishes it, leaving it thin and dry, a film of dust. With the body it does the same thing.

Translation by Beth Archer Brombert.

I think part of the poetry is lost in translation here. In French, the sun is compared to a hand that smoothes the landscape with sandpaper and the hand has disappeared in the English translation. The “à fleur de poussière” is also more poetic and evocative than the “film of dust” used in English. The French gives the impression that the sun is a giant manual worker who shapes the landscape with the expertise and love of a skilled artisan.

Camouflaged in a coming-of-age story is the frightening question of how to live together after the ugliness and crimes of WWII. It shows mankind’s ability to move on after this awful war and how nobody really wanted to face the events. The criminals want to live under the radar. The victims want to move on but may be confronted to their torturers. The soldiers have to go back to civilian life. It’s as if everyone had gone out of the usual envelope of their self and now they have to put this outgrowth back into the initial self. And of course, it won’t fit. Our narrator is perceptive and guesses these struggles. He wants these outgrowths to express themselves before being tamed into their newly found normalcy.

This is a 140 pages novella and yet Erri de Luca managed to resurrect life on this Mediterranean island in the 1950s, to describe teenage angst and the discovery of love and to explore the aftermath of WWII in people’s everyday life.

Highly recommended, just as one of his other books, Three Horses.

PS: I wonder why the Italian title Tu, mio became Me, You in English instead of the literal You, Me.

  1. December 11, 2017 at 1:13 am

    Great review! You got me really curious about this book.
    My Italian isn’t that good, so I may well be wrong, but I think ‘mio’ means my or mine. Maybe they changed it because ‘Me, You’ sounds better…

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    • December 11, 2017 at 10:12 pm

      Erri de Luca is a great writer.

      About the title. I understand the Italian, it’s very close to the French. You can’t imagine how much I struggled with the French autocorrect that kept changing mio into moi each time I wrote it.
      I just don’t understand the need to put the title differently in English..

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  2. December 11, 2017 at 12:12 pm

    It sounds lovely… and on the same topic as a film I’ve just watched: Lore, based one of the novellas in The Darkest Room by Rachel Seiffert. That immediate postwar period must have been hell…

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    • December 11, 2017 at 10:13 pm

      Lovely isn’t the word I’d use since part if it is rather dark but telling more would spoil it.
      I wonder how people moved on in French villages after the war.

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      • December 12, 2017 at 12:38 am

        Yes, that’s a story that needs to be told. It was covered in the last series of Un Village Français but not in the same sophisticated way as the rest of the series about when it was under Occupation.

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        • December 15, 2017 at 9:30 am

          I haven’t seen this series but I’ve heard very good things about it.
          It seems that people just kept silent, probably to move on and preserve social peace. I’m not judging, I’ve never been in their place.

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  3. December 12, 2017 at 10:14 am

    It does sound very good. I really like this author’s prose style, the poetic quality you touch upon in this review – it’s very effective.

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    • December 15, 2017 at 9:34 am

      He’s an excellent writer, no doubt about it. I don’t know how to describe him. Pensive? Reflective?

      He sounds like someone who takes modern life with caution and reminds us not to forget basic pleasures, like good food, enjoying nature and the people around you.

      Have you read any book by him?

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      • December 15, 2017 at 10:13 am

        That’s it exactly. Someone who places a high value on the simple pleasures in life. I’ve read Three Horse, which I liked a great deal – particularly in terms of the style.

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        • December 17, 2017 at 9:18 pm

          He’s an interesting voice, someone who indirectly reminds you to slow down, look around you and count your blessings.

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  4. December 14, 2017 at 7:46 pm

    Agreed that it sounds good, slightly concerned by the English translation choices. You, me actually sounds more natural to me than Me, you for example.

    I haven’t read Three Horses yet anyway so I’d try that first I think in any event.

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    • December 15, 2017 at 9:41 am

      I can’t judge the English translation on the title or a few paragraphs. (I took this translation from the first pages available to readers on Amazon) The difference between the French and the English struck me, though. And since it’s translated from the Italian, I suspect that the French translation is closer to the original text than the English one.

      Perhaps you could read it in Italian? I can’t say that Three Horses is better than Tu, mio. The two novellas are different but related in the sense that the author has the same preoccupations.

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