3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
The book begins with a map of the River Po from Piacenza to its delta between Venice and Ravenna on the Adriatic coast. Superimposed on it is a network of small roads, including some major cities but also tiny hamlets that can barely be found in an atlas. By the time you reach the end of these thirty very brief stories, first published in 1985, you feel as if you had walked with the author every step of the way, sitting in bars or farmhouse kitchens, and listening to the tales that he faithfully records here. It is a warm, rather old-fashioned approach in an age of electronic communication, yet the stories themselves mostly speak of disconnection, distance, and futility.
One of the early stories, for instance, follows a woman on her daily commute through pristine but empty residential communities where nothing seems to happen other than time passing. In the final tale, a group of youths, fleeing with the body of one of their friends killed in a dance-hall brawl, drive into the wastes of the Po delta, steal a boat from an abandoned military site, and continue out to sea. Two teenagers from dysfunctional families spend their weekends in Milan following random people; eventually led by an unseeing woman into an impenetrable fog in a barren field, they begin to realize that life will continue to be like this.
"A pharmacist's son went abroad to study. On his father's death, he came home to practice, becoming the pharmacist in a small place near Viadana in the province of Mantua."* This opening is typical of most of the stories: the facts laid out baldly as in a fable, none of the characters given proper names. By returning to an almost antique form, the stories examine the art of storytelling itself. But Celati does not have much to say for his profession. Suffering the ruin of his business, the foreign-educated pharmacist devotes himself to writing happy endings to the classics of tragic literature. A captured Italian officer, spending years of idleness in a prison camp in India, spends the rest of his days writing unpublishable novels about a life he has never lived, in a language learned from his reading of authors long since dead. Conversely, a student moves to France determined to become a writer; separately and together, he and his girlfriend get involved in a series of adventures, but his experiences take away all desire to write about them.
Language is an issue also. The rather beautiful opening story has an Italian radio ham communicating with another on a lonely island off the coast of Scotland, in an English that the Italian can barely understand. A man from a small village moves westward to seek work, reaching Genoa, then Nice, then Dijon; just able to get along but unable to fully understand, he assumes that he is merely moving from one dialect area to another; only when he returns to Dijon after an absence of two years and finds his own son speaking French, does he realize that there are different languages in the world. A scientist possessing the technical language to pursue a career as an international consultant, but not what is necessary to become part of the culture around him, feels at home only in airports.
Celati's message may be bleak, but the book is haunting and fascinating. Some of the stories are surreal (a truck driver in the African desert seduced by the sound of an unseen women's orchestra), Kafkaesque (an exceptionally brutal boot camp for young soccer players), or bizarre (a Genesis story as told by a patient in a mental asylum). Some are surprisingly contemporary (a woman who flees to the Norwegian mountains to escape global warming). Some are funny, as in the 19th-century peasant woman who falls sick on moving to the city because she can no longer see the sunset, until it becomes clear that she had been looking in the wrong direction! A few are even warm, as in the burnt-out writer who flees from Hollywood only to find new confidence in the conventional courtesies of his Kansas hosts. Although Celati writes so tellingly of anomie, his real subject is the human connection that could so easily be lost if we leave it too late.
*Since I read the book in Italian, this translation is mine.