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.

Saturday, 20 December 2014

"Sei come sei" by Melania G.Mazzucco (Einaudi, 2013)

Eva, a schoolgirl, waiting on a station platform on a school trip, runs away when she thinks she's pushed a classmate, Loris, under a train. Is he dead? She catches a train to where she thinks her father is - a village in the mountains. She's good at lying, not giving herself away. She's become a little girl in a big world of men, learning fast - "Il loro disinteresse l'ha sempre umiliata, e solo adesso comprende che l'invisibilità é un privilegio" (p.33). We learn that she was brought up by a male couple, one of whom, Christian, a university lecturer, had died 3 years before in a car accident.

It's getting late by the time Eva arrives on a bus. At first no-one there seems to know who she means when she describes Giose and his house - she's unsure of the details. After all, she's only 11 and hasn't seen him for a while. Then they realise who the father is - "Quello del Cigno Nero! esclama, con un risolino sardonico" (p.40). He lets her stay for a night but then feel duty-bound to drive her back, despite the bad weather. First however he drops into his mother, then Aurelia (Christian's ex-wife; Eva suggests that Giose and Aurelia have a marriage of convenience) then, at Eva's request, the hospital where Loris is recovering from a broken leg. Eva is forgiven. "Vuoi essere la prima? chiede [Loris]. Intende: a firmare il gesso. Ma lei capirà che non si tratta solo di questo ... scrive il suo nome - EVA - a lettere cubitali, le piú grandi che può, là dove chiunque potrà vederlo" (p.235).

That narrative is punctuated by chapters that take us ever further back in time (the adoption, how they met, etc), providing 2 viewpoints of events and people. For example, Giose's introduction to Christian's family is recounted long after we've met them in less flattering conditions.

There are some leit-motifs

  • Ethics of adoption by gay couples; surrogacy - is the Italian law behind the times? Is surrogacy akin to prostitution? Giose once sold has body to buy a guitar, and went on to be a cult musician. No regrets.
  • Familial power and control - When Christian died, his family took over the care of Eva (over whom Giose had no legal responsibility, despite years of co-habitation) then moved to Belgium, making visits even harder. They claimed that Eva needed stability, and seeing her father would be too upsetting. Eva didn't understand the legal complications. She says to her father "Mi hai abbandonato, come Ezechiele. Ma io non sono un cane.
    Giose tenta di spiegarle che non ha abbandonato Ezechiele: voleva lasciarlo a lei, ma Michele e Sabrina non sopportano gli animali
    " (p.85). Later in the book (but earlier chronologically) Giose resents Aurelia's advice on how to stop baby Eva crying - he's told that he should show the baby who's boss as if she were a dog.
  • Art/history analogies - Giose came to like the idea of fatherhood while looking at an old painting - "Un figlio che magari non sarebbe stato suo - come Gesú non era di Giuseppe" (p.124). Christian was interested in religious chronology - why wasn't there a year zero? Giose told Eva that "Tuo padre era affascinato dall'arte di calcolare il tempo ... Una volta non c'erano gli orologi, sai, gli uomini erano cacciatori di ombre" (p.158) ... "ho capito che non mi stava parlando di equinozi e solstizi, del foro gnomonico e dalla longitudine, ma di sé" (p.159)

The deferred father-child bonding gives readers a chance to learn about the main characters -

  • Eva copes remarkably well for an 11 year old, given the social and psychological challenges that beset her (she has her first period during the book too!). She causes social awkwardness at times by stridently supporting gay couples, but that needn't be a sign of immaturity. She has trouble integrating - at her new school "si è sentita un'intrusa. O peggio, come una valigia che passava nella macchina a raggi X dell'aeroporto" (p.165). Her attempt to make herself ill at the end (she eats peanuts though she's allergic to them - Giose makes her vomit over him), designed so that she could live with Giose, wouldn't be unexpected from a 14 year old.
  • We see how Giose changed from an uneducated New Wave performer to a calculating, stay-at-home parent, then a recluse. His re-launched career was an expensive flop, not least because a member of the tiny audience claimed damages off him. Giose had thrown something at him (echoes of Eva's petulance). It turns out that "Sei come sei" ("you are what you are") is the title of his volume of song lyrics. He'd begun planning to build a restaurant, il cigno nero, in his grounds - "Christian gli aveva raccontato che il cigno nero è monogamo e fedele, ma sessualmente indesico, e può sceglersi come compagno anche un maschio. Ciò non gli impedisce di avere una prole" (p.95) but realised it was unrealistic.

I liked the time-based structure (one thread going forwards, the other back) and many of the incidental details ("In altri tempi quella tristezza gli avrebbe ispirato una canzone, adesso invece si limitava a contare i capelli che la mattina sorprendeva sul cuscino", p.117). I was less sure about the time taken explaining surrogate agencies, etc. As well as Eva's age, there are several schematic devices that feel like literary conveniences (which isn't necessarily a bad thing of course, but they weaken the realism)

  • Loris is conveniently the opposite of Eva - he's dyslexic, quiet, with an absent father.
  • In the "Concezione" section the details of the painting seemed so convenient.
  • At the end, "la signora Forte capisce che Loris mente" (p.231) for reasons that don't convince, and she forgives too easily.

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