Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

"C'e Ma Non Si" by Ali Smith (Feltrinelli, 2012)

The English title was "There but for the". The Italian title's a contraction of "il trucco c'è ma non si vede" ("it must be a trick but I can't see it") which, though not a direct translation, suits the book well and deliberately has "ma" (but) as the 2nd word. This is just the start of the challenges that the translator had to face. There are puns too - by the author ("Anna K." (anarchy) is a character, and Jen-Eric are a couple) and by the characters, some of whom are into jokes. When there's no Italian analogue available for the wordplay, the translator uses footnotes.

The book's in 4 long sections, each entitled with a word from the title. Parenthesised sections can last for pages. Explanations often appear long after the events they explain. Coincidences and connections abound.

  • In C'e we learn that a Miles, a guest at a party in Greenwich, London, has locked himself in the host's guest-room. In the jacket that he left downstairs the hosts find an e-mail address which they use to contact Anna Hardie, who's surprized that Miles has her address because they met about 30 years before as teenagers on a prize trip around Europe. She tries to tease Miles out.
  • Ma records the aforementioned dinner party which goes on a long time. There are facts, anecdotes, and asides, some leading to cul-de-sacs. There are embarrassing silences. That's followed by Mark's wander in the park where variations of "Mark è seduta, ora, sulla panchina circolare, non lontano dall'entrata del parco" are repeated as he communicates with his dead mother.
  • Non is from May Young's PoV. She's in a care home. Her thoughts drift. She's often unsure whether she's spoken some words or just thought them. The nurses think she's mute. When she finally speaks, the words come out wrong. Later we learn that she had yearly contact with Miles. At the end she escapes, driven to Greenwich.
  • Si is from Brooke's PoV as she walk around Greenwich. She's an absurdly precocious 9 or 10 year-old who was at the party and was in section one. By now, Miles has become a celeb. She's visited him in his room. Since then he's disappeared.

It's tempting to try to find themes. E.g.

  • The power of stories (it's useful to have some in store when going to dinner parties). The value of memory.
  • Language. The value of rhyme (musicals; communications with Mark's mother Faye - a famous artist who killed herself; an aid to memory; emotional security - associated with childhood). Iambic pentameter. Wordplay is explained to a child.
  • Communication - with the dead. Slipping notes under doors
  • What truth/reality is - memory, verification, history, the media, and the value of metaphors

Sometimes the book might be commenting about itself -

  • "Come sono adattabili gli esseri umani, senza neanche rendersene conto, scivolano ciecamente da uno stato all'altro. Una mattina è estate, quella dopo ti svegli ed è passato un anno; ora hai trent'anni, e un minuto dopo ne hai sessanta" (p.85). There's a lot of time-shifting in the book.
  • "ma la cosa che più mi piace della parola ma, ora che ci penso, è che ti fa cambiare sempre strada, ti porta sempre in posti interessanti" (p.149)

The style is flexible and capacious. Equally, whole chunks of the book could go (about the console, for example, or the guillotine, or Gracie Fields; the dinner party's too long; is section 3 a self-standing novella?) and other sections are only partially justified by the same subject being mentioned elsewhere, or by being interesting little QI snippets. The 9-10 year old could have more realistically been a gap-year, naive 19 year old student. All the word-play could have gone. Though I can see where she's coming from; I've used some of these devices too.

Other reviews

  • Mario Fortunato
  • Simone Rebora
  • il vizio di leggere
  • Nicholas Lezard Guardian) (This is a writer who has inhaled the masters of what was once called the avant garde in a way that writers from Britain rarely do ... In terms of technique, Smith is a master of what one reviewer has felicitously called "dropped stitches", deliberate gaps in the story, little scootings-off to the side, connections that don't quite connect and apparent non-connections that do. )
  • Alex Clark (Guardian)
  • Charles McGrath (New York Times) (quirky, intricately put together, sometimes overly clever but nevertheless airborne for some considerable stretches)
  • Nina Sankovitch (Huffington Post)

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