Italian Short Stories 2, Racconti Italiani
The origin of the birds, by Italo Calvino. It is difficult to find the books you need, here in Hong Kong, it is true. I didn’t find the right channels, maybe. And I don’t like to spend my time chatting in the social networks, even though they could be the right way to exchange info and books too, someone told me. The Bookdepository.co.uk is generally good for me, but their lead-time is too long; they use standard mail to deliver a parcel to HK, so it can take also twenty days. So I received “Wild Swans” by Jung Chang (that was in my list) only a few days ago, a book that I had already read in Italian. I never received “American is in the Heart”, by Bulosan Carlos, the last book in my list, and I’m losing my hope. By the way, I didn’t receive “A field guide for immersion writing,” by Robin Hemley.
I put “Wild Swans” on my night table and I started reading it, but I have to say that the emotion is not more the same. It was the first book about China’s long communist nightmare, an acclaimed masterpiece, and I liked it so much. But in the meantime – I don’t remember when I read it in Milan – I studied China history with new attention, reading as many books as possible, so now the story of those three generations of women is less catching for me.
I know that it is not the plot the reason why of a critical essay, but in any case I have to find an emotion. So the book is still there, but I shifted my re-reading.
Browsing the shelves of a bookstore, instead, I spotted a Penguin “Italian Short Stories”, and my curiosity rose because it was the first Italian book in English I could see after the start of my MFA. So, why not, why don’t criticize something Italian? I thought.
Actually, Svevo and Pasolini, Moravia and Calvino are really interesting in English. They show a new taste that derives just from my limited ability to interiorize and manage the new language, I imagined at the beginning. Different authors, in fact, very different in terms of style, of rhythm, and craft of writing, seemed to speak with the same voice, as if the filter was unique, and so the result. It was a false impression, I know, and I planned to repeat the same experiment in a year. But today, reading for example the first phrases of Calvino’s piece and then of Moravia’s, I don’t find a great difference.
Calvino, The origin of the birds: “The were days when we had stopped expecting surprises – recounted Qfwfq – it seemed clear now how things were going to turn out. Those who existed, existed; we had to sort out on our own which of us was going to develop further, who would remain where he was, who would not manage to survive. The choice was between a limited number of possibilities. But instead, one morning, I heard some singing outside which I had never heard before. Or rather (given that we didn’t yet know what singing was), I heard a noise that nobody had ever made before. I looked out. I saw an unknown animal singing on a branch. It had wings, feet, tail, claws, spurs, feathers, quills, talons, beak, teeth, crop, horns, crest, wattles, and a star in its forehead. It was a bird; you had already guessed; I hadn’t – they’d never been seen before…”
Moravia, Overtaking: “You can’t be passionately in love with two different things at the same time. At that time the love for my car, that I’d finally managed to buy, was distracting me from my love for Ines, the girl I was thinking of getting engaged to. That was enough to make Tullio, my best friend, poke his nose in between Ines and me and try to get her away from me. Friends? It’s best not to talk about them, well then you’ve got to realize that friendship is all very well, as long as there are no women around. Take a poultry-run for example: two cocks peck together, crow together, sleep together; let a young hen in her prime come along, one of those ones white all over with a red comb, and it’s a good by to peace: the two cocks quarrel and peck each other’s eyes out…”
Now, I know Calvino, I like his light pen, his lessons about lightness. In his vision, the new coming millennium would have been the millennium of lightness (ah, writers’ utopia!). I discovered a very smart review of Calvino’s novels, by Gore Vidal. About Calvino’s “Cosmicomics”, of which ‘The origin of the birds’ belongs, he wrote for example: “At Daybreak is the story of the creation of the universe as viewed by Qfwfq and his mysterious tribe consisting of a father, mother, sister, brother, Granny, as well as acquaintances–formless sentiencies who inhabit the universal dust that is in the verge of becoming the nebula which will contain our solar system. Where and who they are is, literally, obscure, since light has not yet been invented. So “there was nothing to do but wait, keep covered as best we could, doze, speak out now and then to make sure we were all still there; and, naturally, scratch ourselves; because–they can say what they like–all those particles spinning around had only one effect, a troublesome itching.” That itch starts to change things. Condensation begins. Also, confusing: Granny loses her cushion, “a little ellipsoid of galactic matter.” Things clot; nickel is formed; members of the tribe start flying off in all directions. Suddenly the condensation is complete, and light breaks. The sun is now in its place and the planets begin their orbits “and, above all, it was deathly hot.” And about the “Origin of the birds”, Gore Vidal wrote: “Now these stories can be told better with strip drawings than with a story composed of sentences one after the other. So the crafty Calvino by placing one sentence after another describes a strip cartoon and the effect is charming even though Qfwfq’s adventure among the birds is not really a strip cartoon but the description of a cartoon in words…”
In fact, they say, one of the main features of Calvino is his “literariness”. And they told that Calvino’s best short stories could have been written (rather better) by Borges. I agree. But reading the translation of The origin of the birds, I don’t find this lightness, this “literariness”, I don’t know. “The chapter of flying creature was reckoned to be closed by now. Hadn’t it been said over and over again that everything which could develop from the Reptiles had already developed? In the course of millions of years there was no form of living being which had not had the chance to appear, to populate the earth, and then – ninety-nine times out of a hundred – to decline and disappear. On this point we were all agreed: the species which remained were the only deserving ones, destined to give birth to descendants who were progressively more select and adapted to the environment…”
On the contrary, Moravia, especially in his “Roman Tales” and then in “More Roman Tales”, to which “Overtaking” belongs, has a very “popular” craft of writing, or rather: he uses popular and everyday expressions that don’t create an unadorned style, as many critics say, but an unaffected style – it’s different. Look for example at the phrase: “Tullio, my best friend, poke his nose in between Ines and me and try to get her away from me” that hasn’t the sound and the popular style of the original phrase in Italian: “… Tullio, l’amicone mio, si intrufolasse tra Ines e me e tentasse di soffiarmela…” Now, trying to understand, amicone isn’t ‘my best friend’, but someone between ‘friend’ and ‘who pretend to be friend’, or often a playful close person. Again: intrufolarsi, a popular verb, means ‘to slink into’ or ‘to slip in’ and it is different from ‘poke his nose in between Ines and me’. And the popular verb soffiare means ‘to pinch’, ‘to snap up’, different from ‘to get her away from me’. For the record the translator is some Brian Cainen, may God forgive him.
So, it is becoming clear that if you use a bad translation, the final effect would cancel all the features of your craft of writing, of your style, to bring the piece to a standard, basic language, to the lowest common multiple. “Tullio, my best friend, poke his nose in between Ines and me and try to get her away from me” is not Moravia’s style, it’s nothing.
Going back to Calvino, if you translate “It had wings, feet, tail, claws, spurs, feathers, quills, talons, beak, teeth, crop, horns, crest, wattles, and a star in its forehead. It was a bird,” you are not giving the same idea Calvino wants to convey describing the new being without the use of commas. In fact, the right phrase in Italian is: “Aveva ali zampe coda unghie speroni penne piume… etc”. Also in Italian we have and use commas, of course, and if Calvino doesn’t use them is because he wants a different meaning, rhythm, and thickness. If you put the commas you are making an enumeration; Calvino doesn’t use them, he is describing a whole (composed by many things, but a whole) that Qfwfq didn’t know. It is strange, incorrect, but maybe it could partially explain the word “literariness”.