Sea of Memory by Erri De Luca was originally published in 1999 (in English) by the independent publisher Ecco Press. It was re-released this month by Other Press as Me, You. (Note: it seems to be the same translation – from the Italian by Beth Archer Brombert).
Me, You begins as a 1950’s coming of age/summer love story. It is narrated by a 16-year old boy staying with his uncle in Naples. WWII is still a fresh memory. The narrator, whose real name we’re never told, is on the cusp of adulthood and curious about the war. His curiosity draws him to Nicola, a former soldier turned fisherman, who patiently answers his questions.
From the start it is apparent that this boy is uninterested in young people his own age. Instead he spends his time as part of the circle of young adults who congregate around his older cousin, Danielle. Through them he meets Caia – an orphan girl, beautiful, mature and mysterious. Unsurprisingly, he falls in love. Not a teen’s hormonal-fueled passion, but a chivalric and romantic love. As he learns more of Caia’s history, her Jewish heritage and the fate of her family, the recent past becomes intertwined with our narrator’s present.
There’s nothing typical about De Luca’s unnamed narrator (I have this overwhelming urge just to call him Bob to make this easier). His actions and thoughts are out of sync with a typical 16-year old boy. He seems too serious, too old for his years. And as this small novel – a novella really – progresses his behavior becomes increasingly strange and erratic. His interactions with Caia become awkward (apparent to the reader, if not to the characters).
This is because Me, You contains a plot twist. Someone from Caia’s past wanders into the narrative in an unexpected way. And as that person reveals himself the dialogue (in my opinion) becomes a tad overwrought. The couples’ exchanges take on an unnatural intensity. They’re too formal. And while the prose is beautiful – particularly in the descriptive passages – it is also densely lyrical bordering on claustrophobic.
I thought about that evening on land with Daniele and Caia not wishing to turn around and look at the island. On the sea I did not feel distance. A third of a moon rose, losing its red rind on the pavement of still water. A powerful smell of bait filled the air now that we were stopped. With my fist I splashed the baskets with water. The wood of the oars fit snugly into the palm of the hand, legs placed one in front, one behind, to support the body’s push on the oars: and so there I was conforming to custom, to the métier, to the hour of the night; there was a place for me in that vastness of the sea, a place to put feet and hands and do what was needed. Caia was solid ground, eternal woman in a century that held me by the throat out of love and rage, but not out there, not on the sea. There, I was in the commingled nights of the earth’s numberless summers, I was a coeval of the planet, one of its wakeful species.
Me, You progresses from a coming of age/summer love story into a ghost story. In many ways the author’s style suits this transition, but left me with mixed feelings. On one hand the book grows heavy as the narrative progresses until, in its final pages, it becomes almost unwieldy. Is that a bad thing? The last scene is a trap, our narrator left without an escape or options. Does the lyrical density I’ve already mentioned, the feeling of claustrophobia, highlight this? De Luca’s prose really is beautiful… but that dialogue!! I could go back and forth, pros vs. cons, all day long.
As you can see, I’m caught on the fence about this one.
Publisher: New York, Other Press (2011)
ISBN: 978 1 59051 479 5