ANNIE ERNAUX, UNA DONNA translated by Lorenzo Flabbi – L’Orma
“A Woman’s Story is a minimalist masterpiece. A few days after her mother’s death from Alzheimer’s in a hospital in the Paris suburbs, Annie Ernaux decides to write about her in the sparest, most honest way imaginable. She portrays her mother in all her wilfulness, self-discipline, violence and tenderness.The mother (never named) works day and night, determined to push her daughter into a life that is superior to her own. This splendid book, among others by Ernaux, is the proof that her mother’s ambitions were fulfilled. But it is not just the story of a poor family in rural Normandy during and after World War II. It is also a picture of an entire generation. As in her subsequent The Years, Ernaux, perhaps under the influence of the philosopher Bourdieu, renders a larger picture of the cultural effects of poverty on an entire population. This is a book anyone can enjoy, for its intimacy, its directness and its touching evocation of a deceased parent.”
2019 XIII EDITION FINALISTS
ANDRÉS BARBA, REPUBBLICA LUMINOSA translated by Pino Cacucci – La nave di Teseo
Novelist, essayist, poet, translator, a writer who experiments with forms of expression deeply rooted in Western culture but with the intent of renovating it, Andrés Barba offers us a wonderfully mysterious object, impossible to classify, which is many things at once: a hyper-realist fable “with a suspended moral”, a political morality tale, a puzzle from which too many pieces are wilfully left out, a pretend factual account addressing troubling issues.
A band of wild, disturbingly different children descends upon the sleepy San Cristobal, a sub-tropical town surrounded by a relentless jungle, in a setting that is both real and imaginary, like Garcia Marquez’s. Nobody knows who these children are, nor where they come from. They soon turn out to be “ingeniously malignant”; they speak a new magic language that gives things new, inventive names; they have no recognizable leader, they snatch bags, steal, establish a counter-town in the city’s sewers, they attack and destroy a supermarket as though they were following the orders of a biological software.
Their radical difference, which will provoke a ruthless reaction, ends up by revealing the frailty of the instruments we rely on to interpret events: inadequate and self-indulgent, incapable of going beyond the convenient stereotypes of what we consider rationality, and reading reality.
The objectivity of the reconstruction, written twenty years later by an anonymous social services employee, is fictitious and conveyed by the very strict writing structure, so controlled as to appear natural. Thus, what looks like a sociological investigation becomes a powerful metaphorical instruction manual on the nature of evil, on the false vision we have of childhood, but also on the fatal attraction we feel for anything that threatens us: “We are fascinated by that which excludes us,” writes the author. A sharp novel, penned with a firm hand, which makes Andrés Barba a writer of the kind that European literature needs most.
ELIF BATUMAN, L’IDIOTA translated by Martina Testa – Einaudi
It is 1995 and Selin is a freshman at Harvard. Emails are a novelty: you no longer have to wait weeks and then run down to your mailbox to collect a letter. And this disrupts – among other things – the rhythm of human relations.
It is with his anachronism that Elif Batuman begins The Idiot, undoubtedly one of the most amazingly original novels published in 2018, acclaimed in the United States and elsewhere as one of the most outstanding books of the year, which very nearly won her the Pulitzer prize. Batuman, who has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 2010, has written a book that is not properly a novel: like all books that truly leave their mark, it is an unidentified literary object, falling somewhere in between an autobiography, a memoir and a bildungsroman.
It contains all the favourite subjects of this American writer of Turkish origin, whom we had already met in The Possessed, a collection of irresistible essays on Russian writers. And the subjects are: the Russian language, second-generation immigrants, and a highly contagious propensity to laugh at oneself. To choose the clearly Dostoyevskian title The Idiot for what is a sort of autobiography, albeit fictionalized, is obviously going in the same direction.
Although technically her first novel, this book has the solidity of something written in a writer’s full maturity. Batuman succeeds in a miraculous feat that very few writers achieve: she has written a work of high-level literature, full of learned literary references, which reads like an amusing sit-com. Unlike a sit-com, though, the effects of this book will be lasting, just as the literary fame of this writer will undoubtedly last for a long time, since she is destined to leave her mark on literature for many years.
STEFAN MERRILL BLOCK, OLIVER LOVING translated by Massimo Ortelio – Neri Pozza
After his intense first novel The Story of Forgetting, Stefan Merrill Block gives us definitive evidence of his talent with a novel that grabs the reader and obliges him to address the nightmares and ethical dilemmas of our age. In a small West Texas town, the massacre perpetrated by a young Mexican immigrant at the school’s annual dance plunges seventeen-year-old Oliver Loving into a deep coma for ten years, breaks up a family, disrupts a community and triggers a wave of xenophobia. The young man who tried to avoid being noticed becomes a ghost hovering over the wounded town: a silent oracle, an obsession, a regret.
Block has written a novel about the effort that we need to put into hope, about the cruel cost of hope, and about time suspended, held in limbo by a coma: where the characters are forced to discover who they really are, in order to attempt a rebirth. A novel on the dramatic choices that chance, or destiny, forces upon us: shouldering the responsibilities of adult life, which seems to be the prerogative of women and which turns Oliver’s mother into a guardian of hope; or suppression of memory, or escape, which characterize the surrender of Oliver’s father and brother, but also of the girl he was in love with. Block maps our frailties with a masterful touch, using a compassion that is born of ruthlessness, and offers us cyphered instructions for a possible emancipation which can lead us back into humanity.
Block has succeeded in a double task: he provides a lucid x-ray of recent America and the gun violence that devastates her, and he bravely penetrates the heart of darkness of the family, the place where the main plot of all great novels always ultimately unfolds.
OLGA TOKARCZUK, I VAGABONDI translated by Barbara Delfino– Bompiani
“Mobility is reality,” says the nameless female narrator of Olga Tokarczuk’s memorable and beautiful novel Flights. In the original Polish, the novel was titled “Bieguni,” a word describing a group of Slavic wanderers who, like modern mystics, seek salvation in constant motion. To convey this never-ceasing mobility, Tokarczuk builds a story of stepping-stones, of glimpsed-at events and characters never told till the end, all these as if seen from the window of a speeding car. “My energy derives from movement — from the shuddering of buses, the rumble of planes, trains’ and ferries’ rocking,” the narrator informs us. In fact, the world is presented to us as a cabinet of curiosities, full of strange specimens, bizarre formations, freaks and marvels. Flights takes us on a magical journey through time and space, from the XVII century of the Dutch anatomist who discovered the Achilles tendon to our own bewildering time, passing through the XIX century of Chopin when, after his death, the composer’s sister carried his heart back to Warsaw as a sacred reliquary. Flights is a travel log, a philosophical journal, a commonplace book of anecdotes, a collection of poetic vignettes, a masterful work of fiction and fact that Walter Benjamin foresaw when he spoke of “Fragments of a vessel which are to be glued together must match one another in the smallest details, although they need not be like one another.”
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ENRICO TERRINONI with “ANTOLOGIA DI SPOON RIVER” by EDGAR LEE MASTERS - Feltrinelli