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, 25 April 2018

"Ascolta la mia voce" by Susanna Tamaro (Rizzoli, 2006)

The narrator returns to the house where s/he grew up and to an initially unidentified "you" who s/he hates. It turns out to be the narrator's grandmother, whose daughter (the narrator's mother) died in a car-crash, leaving the grandmother to care for the 4 year-old. She's going a bit mad, seeing aliens and then having a persecution complex. An uprooted tree in the garden becomes an analogy for rootless people.

The grandmother (and dog) die on the same day. The narrator struggles to adjust, finds a diary written by her mother while she was at university in 1969. A lecturer got her pregnant and disappeared. She belonged to a woman's collective (so why did she so easily become infatuated by the lecturer?). She asked them to advise on what she should do. They agreed to look after the baby like lionesses if need be (because that's the natural way). She decided on an abortion, performed by the collective's contacts.

Later the narrator finds the bag that her mother had with her when she died. A photo of herself is in there, so are two letters. One is from the lecturer saying that he doesn't want kids (or a wife) and that love is deceptive - it's actually just a reproduction instinct. One can't love what one can't understand, and other people are too complex to be understood. He wants freedom. The narrator comes to realise that the lecturer is her estranged father. The second letter is a reply from her mother to the lecturer. She's 30 now. She says that she was pregnant by him before, but didn't tell him. Ah, so these letters concern the narrator while she was still a foetus.

Until she was 9, the narrator used to think that her father had been a Turkish prince. He's a minor academic so she tracks him down, arranges a meeting using as pretext academic interest. When he comes on to her, she tells him she's his daughter. She meets him weekly for 3 months, tells him that her mother died when she (the narrator) was 4. He suspects suicide. He says that having no parents frees the child of conditioning. His mother died young and he hasn't seen his father for years.

She leaves on a cheap boat for Haifa - she thinks she has an uncle there. The journey sparks memories of her family history (memories of photos, mostly). She finds uncle Gionata in a kibbutz. He conveniently monologues about belief, heredity, music, and whether the past matters. He, like the narrator's father, is a non-believer but his attitude to others is very different. Reincarnation crops up as a topic again. Her uncle tells her about his Jewish parents experiences of the holocaust. When he asks her what she believes in, she spends a restless night thinking about it. She believes in pain. Increasingly, she thinks she's the result of a random coupling. I'm surprised that she doesn't mention existentialism. He tells her that he used to think that when he planted a tree he knew what would happen to it as long as he cared for it, but his children reached a stage where they had to make their own decisions. Love of analogies seems a family trait. He thinks each tree has a unique personality, like people. He plays a game with the narrator, wondering what type of tree various people would be.

She goes sightseeing for a day, overhears a tourist telling his son "These are your roots!" She wonders what the sightseers of religious sites believe in. Then she returns to Italy after receiving a call from the police saying that her father had died. A letter to her was in his pocket. Suicide? Probably a heart-attack, but the letter mentions a previous attempt. Apparently (and surprisingly) he'd missed her. The narrator meets Miriam, a holocaust survivor and yet another monologist who wonders why God (and men) let the Holocaust happen, and whether individuals have much control of our own future let alone that of the human race.

At the end of the book the narrator decides to get a dog and study forestry (yes, forestry) at university. She goes to her father's flat and finds an envelope for her. Inside is a notebook that he'd recently been writing in. She sits down and starts to read ...

The narrator continues referring to "you" throughout the book, even after her grandmother's death, and likes using elaborate analogies, some a paragraph long, often comparing human behaviour to that of animals (birds, sea-anemones, etc). The narrator points out that non-humans don't ask themselves "Who am I? What's the meaning of life?". The comparison of humans with trees is the abiding theme, too much so.

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