This Is the Garden opens with an excerpt from a poem by Claudio Damiani –
This is the garden; when you look it’s far
too bright and burns your eyes
and so you turn away, although you know
that everything is real, everything you see
is real, and through time life unwinds
and is complete . . .
Those words sum up this collection of short stories by Giulio Mozzi. Some are very good, some less so. All involve the reader in situations that are uncomfortable (almost painful): a letter from a thief to the woman whose purse he’s stolen; an author at a book signing addressing the audience; an apprentice who dreams of being promoted. Stories that create the kind of emotional response that takes the reader to a place they don’t necessarily want to be are the kinds of stories I’m usually drawn to. But this collection had me feeling look-warm. Not excited. Not disappointed. I kept waiting to be moved and wasn’t.
Yet, there is still a lot left to admire.
The Apprentice puts us in the head of a young apprentice who wants nothing more than to be promoted from running errands to working on the factory floor. He’s incredibly earnest and intelligent, character traits that separate him from the men he aspires to join. From the very first paragraph we know what the boy doesn’t, for the simple reason that we possess the life experience he doesn’t. And Mozzi’s ability to impart that time of life when naivety is transitioning into a faltering understanding of how the world operates is special. He nails it. Too often young narrators are really only adults looking back on their younger selves. But Mozzi’s apprentice is grounded firmly in the moment.
F. is firmly grounded in its protagonist’s present, following the final hours of a magistrate in witness protection. His keeper has arranged a meeting with the beloved magistrate’s wife (also under witness protection, but inexplicably kept in a separate location from her husband). The crime and threats and reasons for the couple’s voluntarily separation only lightly touched on. Instead F. focuses on the magistrate’s daily reality, detailing his day almost second-by-second, up until the very last second of the magistrate’s life.
Another favorite is Glass. The story is only a few pages long – the shortest in the collection. In that short space you get the sense of a troubled man finding his way back from something – again, never specified – which has unbalanced his life. He meticulously describes his yard to the reader: repairs done to the porch; the wall shared with a neighbor.
I especially like the dividing wall between our yard and the neighbor’s to the right. It’s just a dividing wall, and that’s probably why it was thrown up without much thought, back when they build the house, after the war. It must have been a brownish-orange once, like the house, but the paint seeped into the mortar, leaving only some dirty-gray stains and a touch of blue. The sun never hits the wall: it’s damp, blotchy, shaded and streaked with dark-green and silver moss. In some places, you can see swellings, blisters – popped blisters. In other places, the mortar’s flaking off or crumbling. The layer beneath is yellowish, dusty. Years ago, the wall was covered in Virginia creeper…
… and so on. The glass of the title is a metaphor and the overall effect of that, and this compulsive cataloguing by the narrator, is haunting.
A borderline OCD attention to detail, creation of lists and step-by-step reenactments of events appear in all of Mozzi’s stories. If This Is a Garden were a painting it would fall within the purview of the hyper-realists.
These eight stories are evenly divided between first and third person narrators. But those told from the third person perspective are more intimate and those were the stories that drew me in. When I stop to think about it, it makes more sense that a third person, omnipotent, narrator would feel more honest and objective. All first person narrators are unreliable by definition. They channel the world through a single, biased perspective; describing it as they believe it to be. A third person narrator presents it as it exists in the author’s/creator’s mind. And maybe that is another reason I preferred the latter examples. Because the third person more accurately represents Mozzi’s prose, his writer-ly voice when he’s not attempting to inhabit a character. And it provides the translator, Elizabeth Harris, with greater artistic freedom. The happy result is passages such as this: ‘The boys spent a long time talking about this silent answer, what it could mean. Some boys started belittling Yanez, almost mocked him. Suddenly his race mattered. Others said, “The Tiger’s Claw has broken,” and they were sad. It took a few years – time for the village boys to become village men – before most of them realized what Yanez’s answer meant.’
Publisher: Open Letter, Rochester (2014)
ISBN: 978 1 934824 75 7
2 thoughts on “This Is the Garden by Giulio Mozzi, translated from Italian by Elizabeth Harris”
Hi. Thanks for the review! Some interesting ideas, although I don’t think there’s any more “artistic freedom” when translating third over first…in fact, depending on how spoken a work is, if I’m translating first-person, I might really push for the spoken voice, which at times requires me to push away from the Italian even more…but, really, there are great freedoms and great constraints in both first and third…one of my great joys in translating, narrative voice…
Hi Elizabeth –
Thank you for stopping by and commenting. I wonder if “artistic freedom” was the right phrase to use? I just feel that the spoken voice has inherent constraints, if only because of the way people talk. Speech has to sound natural and the words the character is speaking have to be believable/authentic to that character. Whereas in third person narrative there’s more room to play around with the sentences – use metaphors and/or rhythms that aren’t as common in everyday speech. I would think that third person allows the writer (and translator) to be more of a stylist.
Of course, I could just be thinking too much in general. It wouldn’t be the first time. 🙂