Posts Tagged ‘Andrea Bajani’

If You Kept a Record of Sins

March 27, 2021

If You Kept a Record of Sins is the second of Andrea Bajani’s novels to be translated into English (on this occasion by Elizabeth Harris) after Every Promise in 2013. Both are stories of troubled relationships, in this case between a son and his mother. The novel opens with the son, Lorenzo, travelling from Italy to Romania to bury his mother. It is his first visit to the country where his mother went to live when he was still a child, leaving him with a man he called Dad but who was not actually his father. The novel is addressed throughout to his mother, perhaps communicating what he was unable to while she lived:

“You started leaving when I was young.”

His mother is an entrepreneur who invents a machine for losing weight and then travels the world with her business partner, Anselmi, in order to sell it. Tracking her journeys, Lorenzo creates what he calls “the world map of absences”. These absences grow longer and longer; on one occasion he mentions the letter he wrote for his mother’s return where he tells her how long the neighbour’s dog has been missing, each day adding one to the total:

“When you truly, finally came back, it was seventy-six days later, and there was a column of scratched-out numbers, the corrected number on top. And the neighbour’s dog had already come home.”

The story is both funny and sad, suggesting that he has come to accept her absence but is still hurt by it. It is clear from early in the novel that his mother loves business, and perhaps her business partner, more than her family. She has already broken with her own family over her first marriage which was “more like a business merger than a wedding.” Now her business merger is more like a wedding:

“You almost always talked together about work; you were full of smiles, your legs crossed, and him pouring wine in your glass.”

Eventually his mother decides to settle in Romania, for what we assume are capitalist reasons of opportunity and exploitation. Romania is viewed by the Italians there as a backward place. “They’re more than fifty years behind,” his mother tells him, “they’re stuck in the past.”  When Lorenzo arrives, Anselmi comments:

“These people – we yanked them right out of the Middle Ages.”

They see the people as less than human. Of his girlfriend, Monica, he says, “If she had a tail, she’d be wagging it.” Another Italian, Viarengo, who has a business making coffins, tells him that when he arrived the Romanian workers “just stood around, staring like monkeys in a tree.” Romania is compared to the Wild West, and the Italian businessmen see themselves as pioneers. They like Romania because, they say, Romanians will do anything for money. Men who are nothing in Italy are something in Romania. One of the first things Monica says to him is, “You Italians like Romanian pussy.”

“She said this the same way Anselmi would, his same words, his same inflections. His same solemn tone.”

In this way the novel can be read as a condemnation of the rampant capitalism which replaced Soviet communism in the Eastern Bloc. This is made clear in the comparison between Ceausescu’s palace, “immense, as if right here, the world came to a halt,” and Anselmi’s business:

“As if, again, the centre of the world was that warehouse, and not Romania, which only happened to be surrounding it.”

This aspect of the novel dovetails with Lorenzo’s personal story, as he discovers his mother was not happy in Romania. “She wanted to go back to Italy – she felt sick and betrayed,” Anselmi’s driver, Christian, tells him. He doesn’t recognise photos of her (“you were an exploded body”). He discovers that she had taken to drink and wouldn’t wash; “She let herself die,” Anselmi says, or as Viarengo puts it, addressing her photograph, “You let yourself rot.” This makes Lorenzo’s attempts to connect with her now she has agone all the more sad, as when he has a shower in her apartment:

“I washed with your sliver of soap, dried myself with your bathrobe, brushed my teeth with your toothbrush, still on the sink, like an old flag on an abandoned fortress.”

Bajani adeptly combines the personal with the political in a novel which reflects on capitalism and dislocation through the failed relationship of mother and son. Lorenzo’s mother’s pursuit of wealth not only creates a divide between them but eats away at her from the inside, leaving behind only a shell of the woman she once was. Even the ‘gift’ she leaves him, which she describes as an investment, becomes in the closing pages a symbol of separation. The gently elegiac tone of the novel with its regular four-page chapters, disguises a bleaker sadness beneath. It’s a haunting experience but one which is highly recommended.