Archive for August, 2019

A Girl Returned

August 30, 2019

Donatella Di Pietrantonio’s novel A Girl Returned, newly translated by Ann Goldstein, begins with our narrator, then a thirteen-year-old girl, returning to the family she has never known. The door is opened by her younger sister, Adriana, “keeping her sharp eyes on me,” her “dark look”

“…scorched the gilt buckles of my new shoes, moved up along the blue pleats of the dress, still rigid from the store.”

The difference between them is immediately obvious to Adriana, whose first instinct is to claim the dress once it outgrows her sister, who, in the meantime, is both angry and confused at her return – or, as she sees it, her abandonment by the ‘parents’ she has lived with all her life. “I want to live in my house, with you,” she tells her uncle, “If I did something wrong tell me, and I won’t do it again.” Her experience – of being taken from a poor family to live with wealthier, childless relatives – was not unheard of in Italy in the 1970s, and her return (the title, in both Italian and English, suggests she is treated as an object) allows Di Pietrantonio to examine the class divide which existed, and continues to exist to this day, in a striking and affecting manner.

Though A Girl Returned has been referred to as Di Pietrantonio’s English language debut, it is, in fact, her third novel to be translated, with both My Mother is a River and Bella Mia previously published by (very) small press, Calisi. These mark her out as a writer interested in situations of intense emotional impact, testing her characters’ resilience, just as the narrator, here, is tested. Her new family are not only much coarser than her adoptive parents, but neglectful in both care and affection. On her first night she discovers:

“My first parents didn’t recall until after dinner that there wasn’t a bed for me in the house.”

When her older brother, Vincenzo, is hit by her father, “only I was frightened, who had never seen violence close up.” When told to pluck a chicken, she replies, “I can’t, it scares me.” Her situation is made worse by the fact that she is offered no explanation as to why her aunt has returned her to her parents – something which allows the novel to work to some extent as a mystery – and, moreover, her aunt seems determined to have no contact with her at all. Even when she is finally able to return to her aunt’s house, she finds it empty:

“I rang the bell into the emptiness of the rooms and after a vain wait rang it over and over again, for a long time. I leaned my forehead against the bell and stood like that until the heat became unbearable.”

From the moment her uncle returns after having taken her to her “family that was mine against my will” (she thinks for a moment he has changed his mind) with a tub of ice cream, her adoptive family’s only contribution to her new life is entirely material – arranging for the narrator and Adriana to have bunk beds, for example. At first the narrator sees this as a sign that her aunt is still thinking of her: when she receives some money each week she “believed that I was receiving, along with the coins, the warmth of her palm.” Later, for example when her aunt visits while she is out, she is angry:

“A fierce rage was starting to swell in my stomach… Suddenly a destructive energy pervaded me, as if I’d had an injection whose effect was instantaneous.”

Her relations with her new family, however, are not entirely negative, although her attraction to her brother (“We weren’t used to being siblings and we didn’t believe it completely”) is both understandable and worrying at the same time. It is with Adriana that she finds the most affection, the physical closeness of sharing a bed (which continues even when the bunk beds are bought) slowly becoming an emotional closeness. Adriana looks out for her in the home, and when she starts school leaves her classroom to check on her:

“I wanted to see if my sister’s all right. She’s from the city.”

Conversely, the narrator takes Adriana out of her limited environment, widening her horizons, aware that “in the alien setting, she was defenceless.” Later she will come to worry about leaving her:

“Who would take out her baby teeth when I returned to the city?”

She also comes to love the family’s youngest child, Giuseppe, at one point being the only one who will comfort him:

“I don’t think I’d ever felt the pleasure of such intimacy with any creature.”

A Girl Returned, then, is not only a commentary on poverty, but a coming of age story, in which the narrator must unexpectedly develop independence and resilience. That she is largely successful (and because the novel is told from her point of view as an adult) is the reason why it is not a tale of misery despite moments of intense unhappiness. Comparisons with Elena Ferrante are perhaps inevitable but this is a lighter book, though in no way lacking in serious intent. Though it may not be Di Pietrantonio’s English language debut, hopefully it will win her the wider audience she deserves.

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I Who Have Never Known Men

August 17, 2019

Jacqueline Harpman was a Belgian author who wrote numerous novels between 1958 and 2006, only two of which have been translated into English: Orlando, which won the Prix Medicis in 1996, and I Who Have Never Known Men, published one year earlier, and translated by Ros Schwartz under the title The Mistress of Silence for Harvill Press in 1997. It has now been reissued with a new introduction by Sophie Macintosh, perhaps hoping to capitalise on the growing feminist dystopia market. Yet, though I Who Have Never Known Men is clearly open to a feminist reading, the questions it raises reverberate even wider, forcing the reader to ask what it means to be human.

The novel is narrated by the youngest of a group of forty woman incarcerated in a bunker for reasons none of them understand. “No one has the slightest idea what’s behind all this,” the narrator is told by one of the older women. There is a vague sense of some catastrophe which has led to their imprisonment but they “don’t even know if there was a war,” or how they arrived at the bunker in the first place; even their initial time in the bunker is described as “the hazy period in the early days of our captivity.” Their time in the bunker is regulated by guards who use whips to control the behaviour of the women – who are now so institutionalised that they are rarely subject to any violence – enforcing such rules as “we weren’t permitted to touch one another.”

The narrator is different from the other woman not only because she is the youngest (in fact they speculate that she is “almost certainly here by accident”) but because she retains a more active mind. Perhaps this is partly because she has, in other ways, been prevented from becoming a woman. She tells us:

“The others had been adult for a long time whereas I appeared to be prepubescent. But my development stopped there: I started to get hair under my arms and on my pubes, my breasts grew a little, and then everything came to a halt. I never had a period,”

Extracting knowledge from the other women, however, is difficult as they no longer see beyond what is necessary, and do not understand what the narrator later calls “the pleasure of knowing”. When she asks one of the women about “men and love” she is mystified:

“She couldn’t understand why someone would want knowledge that would be of no use to them.”

She begins to explore her sexuality by fantasizing about one of the younger guards, to the point where she is able to orgasm without physical stimulation – “an immense sensation swept through me, an overwhelming eruption” – but this is part of a wider attempt to gain control over her environment. At the same time she begins to count her heartbeat so that she can measure time.

At this point, however – about a third of the way into the novel – everything suddenly changes. There is a “terrifyingly loud noise” and within minutes the guards have disappeared:

“For the first time since we women had been imprisoned, we were alone in the bunker.”

The siren occurs at the same time the hatch to the cell is open and so the women are suddenly freed and able to leave the bunker, venturing outside to face a landscape so barren and desolate that they wonder if they are still on Earth:

“…all we could see was the stony plain where nothing moved except the scant grass gently swaying in the breeze.”

The rest of the novel follows the women’s journey across this landscape – “while we didn’t know where to go, we didn’t have any better reason for staying” – and what they discover, while the narrator contends with the knowledge that, as the youngest, she will likely be the last to die.

In these desperate circumstances, Harpman frequently raises the question of what it means to be human. In their captivity, the narrator comments:

“We have been deprived of everything that made us human, but we organise ourselves, I suppose in order to survive, or because, when you’re human, you can’t help it.”

Later, the decision to leave the bunker is taken as a result of a plea to the women’s humanity:

“We can’t settle here and live from the bunker like parasites. We must remain human beings.”

Despite this the narrator worries that her own life has left her less than human: “I must be lacking in certain experiences that make a person fully human.” Interestingly, it is only when she decides to write down her story (as she tells us at the beginning) that she feels her life, however limited, has the same value as that of any other person:

“After all, if I was a human being, my story was as important as that of King Lear or of Prince Hamlet that William Shakespeare had taken the trouble to relate in detail.”

In I Who Have Never Known Men Harpman creates circumstances which are both hopeless and incomprehensible. Even when the women are released they quickly realise, “we’d merely moved to a new prison.” It is only the resolutely human qualities of the narrator which give the reader any hope, and it is in the clash between the two that the novel’s power lies. A deservedly rediscovered classic.

The Yogini

August 5, 2019

“I am no one, fate is everything,” Homi, the central character in Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay’s The Yogini (translated by Arunava Sinha), tells us in a three-page prologue, ‘Returned to her senses for the first time’, opening Bandyopadhyay’s latest novel with the unsettling intensity typical of her previous works, Panty and Abandon:

“There is no such thing as free will here. No fundamental independence.”

Yet The Yogini initially strikes a different note despite falling in between the two previous translations from Tilted Axis Press in its original publication. The women in both Panty and Abandon begin with nothing, struggling for survival in difficult circumstances. Homi, on the other hand, has everything – a postgraduate degree in English, a job in the media, and a loving husband, Lalit. In fact the novel settles into something almost conventional, even going as far as to include a Jane Austenesque portrait of Homi’s mother, who complains of her other daughter, Homi’s half-sister, “She goes abroad on shopping sprees at the drop of a hat, but everything she buys is for herself,” and, when her husband falls seriously ill, worries that he will return home an invalid:

“The thing is, Lalit, I need my afternoon nap. How can I have a cripple disturbing me?”

Tensions also exist within Homi and Lalit’s relationship as Lalit accuses her of a more subtle form of selfishness, an emotional withholding:

“People like you only want to take, Khuku, you don’t know how to give.”

Only later does Homi realise what Lalit means when he ends a phone call abruptly after telling her he is staying with his family:

“…it occurred to Homi that the way he had treated her just them was exactly how she had treated him for the last year and a half.”

What prevents the first half of the novel being simply social satire is the appearance of a mysterious figure seen only by Homi:

“He looked fearsome, his matted locks and beard framing his face like a spider. His eyes blazed and his body gave off a mild stench.”

The hermit identifies himself as Homi’s ‘fate’, and Homi finds herself both repulsed and attracted, feelings which Bandyopadhyay characterises sexually. After their first meeting her body feels “violated” but later, when she is making love to Lalit, “she shocked herself with the realisation that she had subconsciously been seeking something else – a much larger head, one with matted locks and a necklace of beads round its neck.” Later still she finds her “body caught fire at his touch.” The idea of fate quickly becomes the dominant theme of the novel – Bandyopadhyay has said in interview, “Our real battle is with predilection and destiny.” It influences Homi’s view of herself and her behaviour, acting with Lalit “like a marionette” and “like a solider under orders.”

“She realised that the word ‘fate’ was gathering in her heart like unshed tears, gnawing away at her.”

The novel, and Homi’s, turning point occurs when she seeks out a palmist, who describes her as “someone whose life is influenced by no one else”;

“You consider no one close or distant, good or evil. You love no one, but nor do you respect or hate them.”

From this point on Homi’s life begins to change, at first gradually but later dramatically. Bandyopadhyay slowly dismantles the trappings of the conventional novel as Homi experiences what can only be described as a spiritual crisis which will lead us to an ending far from the romcom echoes of the opening.

Reading The Yogini I was unexpectedly reminded of the 19th century Scottish novel, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. This was not only because it, too, is very much concerned with fate (or predestination) versus free will, but because it also contains a character, Gil-Martin, who may be a supernatural manifestation or a delusion – something Homi considers when she first sees the hermit (“Homi had classified the previous night’s frightening incident as largely imagined.”) However, where Gil-Martin seems intent only on damning Wringham, it is feasible that the hermit is saving Homi. Though she seems to have lost everything by the end of the novel, she inadvertently admitted to Lalit in the opening pages that, “I don’t want this kind of life.”

‘Yogini’ is, of course, a female noun and cannot be applied to the hermit, real or imagined. It could refer to Bibirani, a spiritual teacher whom Homi meets towards the end of the novel, but it may be intended to describe Homi herself. It would, perhaps, explain why the hermit calls her ‘Empress’, and allows us to reinterpret her journey as one towards enlightenment where she is able to give herself to fate entirely:

“She had thought her fate was stalking her, but now she wondered whether it wasn’t the other way round.”

That this remains only one possible interpretation suggests the pleasurable complexity of this wonderful author.