MATERIALITY IN AND AFTER DEATH: ‘Bella mia’ by Donatella di Pietrantonio, trans. Franca Scurti Simpson

Donatella di Pietrantonio, Bella mia, translated by Franca Scurti Simpson (Calisi Press, 2016)

By Liliya Aleksandrova

Some years ago, when I was back in the Northwest of Bulgaria for a few months in between university terms, I woke up on the last floor of an old building from the tremors of an earthquake. It was far from the epicentre so it was not as strong as further south but it was the middle of the night and it felt incredibly sudden in its interruption of deep sleep. It was the first time I had ever felt something like that. For months afterwards, in countries far away, I occasionally imagined that the ground underneath was starting to move again or that the vibrations had somehow remained within my body. Until that night, I had always appreciated the possibility of an earthquake, but as with so many things, I never thought a day would come when my conscious self would have to deal with its actual occurrence. And yet, more than anything else from that time, the one thing that I will never forget was the look of fear that I saw, a minute or so after jumping out of bed, in the eyes of people that I had somehow always thought invincible. I can never unhear a “No” that was simultaneously pleading and denying what was happening. More than anything, I wanted to look away from this fragility because I did not know and had no time to search for a right way to be present for it, to make it disappear in a way that was not selfish. I did not want to be a mere spectator yet could not be anything else but.

In stepping away from my anecdotal experience and into the world of Bella mia, I dare to retain only this thought: of the futility of presence, a solitary witnessing. The earthquake of 2009 in L’Aquila, in the Abruzzo region of Italy, caused the death of more than 300 people. An estimated 60,000 were left homeless, and were either rehoused by the government or found other accommodation. Donatella di Pietrantonio’s novel Bella mia, nominated for the 2014 Strega Prize, now translated into English by Franca Scurti Simpson for her Calisi Press, follows the story of a woman who survived the destructive night of 6th April 2009. About three years after that, Caterina, whose name we learn only mid-way through the book, is navigating daily life in the aftermath of Olivia’s (her twin sister’s) death in the earthquake. Even though it is Caterina herself who narrates, she sounds detached, especially at the beginning. In her interactions with the other characters the reader catches glimpses of the manifestations of grief that cohabit Caterina’s space: the quiet nurturing of her mother and the outbursts of Marco, Olivia’s son, who lives with them now. While the former seeks solace in religion and the ritualised habit of visiting the cemetery, the latter alternates periods of silent sulkiness with moments of acting out.

The title which translates as “my beautiful” refers to a local song in dialect: “L’Aquila bella mè, te vojio revetè” – “L’Aquila, my beautiful, I want to see you once more”. The loveliness of a past dwelling is already posited as an unaddressed absence, lost forever in the reticent longing of this first cut phrase. The novel goes back and forth between the past and present: numerous paragraphs are devoted to Caterina’s and Olivia’s youth or the hours right before the earthquake, to then be followed by a sequence of chapters that are firmly rooted in the here and now. The writing style is mostly made up of curt sentences, with mundane events frequently recounted matter-of-factly, in both the original and the appropriately concise English translation. But when Caterina thinks of Olivia, the narrative startles with bursts of the improbable: Olivia appears so perfect to her sister that even animals follow her, birds are not afraid to rest in her hands. These numerous instances, scattered randomly across the novel, are the building blocks of the reader’s projection of both Olivia and of Caterina, the gatekeeper of past scenes. While making her pottery, Caterina starts to have problems with her paint as soon as the thought of Olivia intrudes:

“it clots and refuses to flow, shrinking into itself, or instead becomes too liquid and drips over the dried glaze”.

By contrast, life in the aftermath of the quake is anything but magical. The governmental negligence and incompetence that are the ever-present background to the tragedy of this family are most striking in their persistently remembered affronts: singers would be brought for the day to perform for the displaced people in the camps but would always go back to Rome in the evening, chased away by the fear of the aftershocks; a bottle of champagne awaits in the fridge of the new housing flats and Caterina instantly pours it down the sink. There is an airy weightlessness to the past that used to contain Olivia; now, a fleshiness, a bulky, unpleasant materiality in and after her death sets in. There is a focus on the unsightly: blemished skin, greasy, indigestible food. Even after brief respites of “the cake, the still-soft butter, cinnamon and lemon, grains of sugar forming on the surface,” a fresh crop of spots will implacably materialise on Marco’s face as a reminder that the human body is almost ugly in its breathing wetness, its locks of hair alive with sweat.

The juxtaposition of past beauty with present disappointment mirrors the duality of Caterina and Olivia which persists even after the death of one twin. The two were together already before they had to navigate dry land: they floated together in “the sweet ocean that was our mother.” In Italian, the phrase reads “l’oceane dolce della madre,” but in Scurti Simpson’s English translation they are not just within the mother, she is their whole ocean: they fill her up, swimmers, adrift. Perhaps the most obvious similarity to Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels is the reference to an earthquake, in Ferrante’s case the 1980 Irpinia earthquake that left thousands dead. The relationship between Lila and Lenú in Ferrante’s novels is at times close, at times distant, and always complicated – but they are not siblings. Both novels seem to use devices that may be deemed a bit too obvious – a violent earthquake to precipitate certain thoughts; the loss of a twin in a tragedy. But while in the first case the lengthy story of Lila and Lenú is so unusual and full of events that these may be shrugged off as too convenient (although here one could ask: and why should literature not concern itself exactly with the borders of exceptionality?), in the case of Caterina and Olivia the relationship to which the reader has access appears more than just a mere literary device, because it is less startling, subdued. The two sisters seem to have been much more intimate or rather trusting of each other than Ferrante’s heroines.  

This apparent closeness, however, is seen from the exclusive point of view of Caterina. Like in the Neapolitan Novels, the subjective perspective of the other – Lila, Olivia – remains impossible to truly inhabit because the figure’s construction is entirely under the control of the other member of the pair. Olivia is only accessible through the prism of Caterina’s memories or what she allows the reader to see of the grief of the other characters. In the Neapolitan Novels, the narrating is done by Lenú, who admits an agenda of her own at the very start, and even though the reader may sometimes forget this at his or her own risk, it is always there, declared. Antipathy or sympathy towards Lila is intricately connected by identification, allegiance or annoyance with Lenú. Lila is almost always there, infuriating in her inscrutability but alive and moving, offered to be read. In Bella mia, we cannot know for sure whether Caterina’s recounted memories of Olivia reflect all the nuance of feeling towards her dead sister, whether Olivia was as wonderful as she is mythical, whether Caterina might feel she needs to think precisely these thoughts. She never reflects on her own coping: she just tries to cope. At one point, she mentions her former school crush on Roberto –  Olivia’s ex-husband, Marco’s father. A shared moment is brought back, alive with fireflies and the smell of grass, but it is presented as an instance when Caterina felt entirely out of place between Olivia and Roberto. The occasional glimpses into the lives of people that Caterina meets include Teresa, a woman who used to love Olivia in their childhood, yet Olivia was apparently oblivious to the extent of those emotions. Already from the start, Caterina has had the idea of having been destined for a position of inferiority, that Olivia had stolen an abundance of light and space inside their mother’s body, which later resulted in “identical clothes in different sizes, mine always one smaller.” Occasionally, Scurti Simpson’s translation disrupts the relationship‘s complicated balance in the original Italian, replacing it with subtle new dimensions – when Olivia had returned to L’Aquila, she, according to Caterina

“[s]i riappropriava dei luoghi, delle relazioni sospese, del tempo rallentato”

and this reclaimed ownership, a wilful recuperation, becomes

“her way back to old places”

in English; in a flashback to Olivia as a schoolgirl, the more fearless and arrogant “spavalda” (“ una diva di dieci anni, eroica e spavalda”) turns to “smug” (“a ten-year-old diva, heroic and smug”), closer to the childlike and vulnerable. At one point Caterina refers to memories as “our small departed delights” but it is unclear whether these instances were truly delightful or just a stable point of reference; or rather a confusing volatility of both and none.

Caterina, caught up in her own pain, does not seem to ever know how to reach the pain of others – of Marco, of her mother, of the many suffering around her. Her grief is one that could be mistaken for self-punishment: she can barely force herself to eat, even though she tries, for the sake of others. She struggles in particular with dealing with Marco: she never wanted children, yet now she must live not only with this new responsibility but also with the constant reminder of guilt, both of having survived and of looking identical to Olivia, similar but incapable of ever being similar enough. Perhaps the greatest admission of Caterina’s incapability to deal not just with her own grief, but also with that of the people around her, is her escape on the day of her and Olivia’s joint birthday. The removal is selfish and shameful, a failure in not being there for others, but also necessary and justified. The day demands the invention of new, solitary rituals, performed with different artefacts. “Eramo tutti vivi, allora”: “We were all alive, then,” says Caterina at one point, and she means Olivia, but she might as well mean everyone, the many of the town and the region who did not survive, the many more dealing with the aftermath, all once alive in a connected web of experience now broken up in pieces.  Another time, she narrates:

“I noticed everything, and everything was distant, and nothing made sense.”

The translation also offers new perspectives on the aftermath: “Mi meraviglia la loro fedeltà al suolo traditore,” Caterina remarks with respect to the old people living in the housing projects and their persistence in tending to their gardens. In English, the sentence reads “I’m surprised by their loyalty to the treacherous earth”, the sense of astonishment replaced by the milder “surprise,” while the ground in turn expands to encompass a whole world, a figurative space belonging to no one in particular. The novel offers many examples of the inconsistencies that inhabit trauma and loss: wanting to be there for someone’s suffering, the impossibility to slip in the foreign pain, the relief but guilt, guilt but relief, and then finally one’s own hostility to all those kind or clumsy strangers who want to offer useless empathy themselves.

Cruelly, the short sentences make even the unexpected appear manageable. As Caterina falls over the shoes Marco has left lying around and hurts her finger, it is an injury that can be fixed, the event can be almost undone. Just like many accidents that come out of nowhere, it is a second of carelessness that ends in regret. This easy fixing and its self-evidence facilitated by Caterina’s detached narrating is an unkind precedent when she talks about the hours of the earthquake. The reader already knows its inescapable consequences, amongst them this woman’s narration. Fingers can be pointed and culprits named and punished, but the event, the loss itself, are blameless in their randomness and absurdity, which makes them all the more painful. Multiple harmless outcomes are thwarted by the single one that happened, and it is this that is acknowledged only once, briefly, a thought that can bring down lives but coexists with selling ceramics at a market. Bella mia, a 180-page novel set in the land of 99 castles and 99 fountains of yore, of narrow alleys now lying in a so-called “Red Zone”, creates a narrative of loss as a multi-faceted thing. It constructs the myths of the past, incessantly nourishes the pain of today, nudges the guilt of breaking through to moments of respite, accompanies the careful tiptoe into a rare moment of warmth. It watches, above all, and invites the reader to follow along, unable to do anything else.


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