Francesca Melandri on Narrating Italy's Darkest and Least Reconciled Moments
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Francesca Melandri was born in Rome in 1964. She began her career as a screenwriter, and has worked on films and television series, as well as a number of prize winning documentaries. In 2010 she published her first novel, Eva Sleeps, set in the border regions of Northern Italy and Austria, a sweeping story about family, forgiveness, conflict and the search for truth. The novel, which won several literary prizes in 2010 and 2011, has been translated in German, Dutch, French, Ukrainian, Croatian and English. Her second novel, Più alto del mare, was published in 2012 and has also won several literary prizes and has been translated into most major European languages. We asked Melandri about the core themes of Eva Sleeps – identity, nationalism, and terrorism – and how the history of Italy influences her writing today.
Your novel, Eva Sleeps, explores the relationship between identity and nationalism. What inspired you to focus on those themes?
I see identity as the human topic par excellence. Possibly even more than love (sex) and death, which we share with other animals. As a concept, it summarizes the eternal question: "who am I?" – and also in its declination: "who are we?" – which is the foundation of every philosophy, literature, and political ideal. Even just defining it is difficult. Is identity a closed box, separating those who are in from those who are out? Or is it a process, an ever-changing flux?
Nationalism, with its often conflictual relationship with local, religious, and linguistic minorities, has been one of the mightiest forces shaping the history of Europe – and not just Europe – in the last centuries.
Having lived in South Tyrol for many years, with its complex history and multilingual population, both identity and nationalism were unavoidable topics for me. South Tyrol is a microcosm where one can observe, almost like in a Petri dish, the tension between the closed-box model of identity (also in its most degenerate form, racism) and a more flexible, inclusive one. By telling the little-known story of this rugged scrap of mountainous land and that of its inhabitants, I felt I could somehow tackle a much wider topic. That is, because nationalism, ethnic cleaning, and the oppression of linguistic or religious minorities are basically just specific, historical manifestations of the question of identity. In my novel, I examine the issue both from an individual, personal perspective, through the experience of individual characters; and at the collective level, as lived by a whole community or country – in this case, South Tyrol and Italy. What compelled me to write this novel was, however, not just an interest in history; the tensions and questions concerning identity are still very present and will certainly shape the future of the Western world.
Eva Sleeps also delves into the turbulent history of South Tyrol. As someone who has lived there, how do you feel the community has been affected by its traumatic past? Are there still contentions today between the German-speaking and Italian-speaking communities?
The way the local communities have been affected in the course of the long century since South Tyrol became part of Italy is the subject of the novel: how the specific history of their land, of their collective story, has shaped individual lives, choices, destinies. Nowadays, South Tyrol is a peaceful and very prosperous land. Terrorism had given way to a political compromise which is considered internationally a success story in conflict management. There still are some areas of contention, but they are not comparable to the extremely violent times when bombs shattered infrastructure and human bodies, and the State retaliated in brutal ways. I have the impression that a lot, if not most, of the tensions still existing between the two main language groups, Italian- and German- speakers, are provoked and manipulated for political gains by extremists on both sides, which is what nationalists and fundamentalists do everywhere in the world. The rising tide of populism which we see everywhere in the West, from Trump to European neo-fascist groups, in South Tyrol is taking advantage of these historical rifts.
It is my belief that collective entities – countries, for instance – are affected by trauma and denial just like individuals.
You initially found success as as screenwriter. How do you think that experience helped with the writing of your first novel?
Being a screenwriter for several decades certainly gave me a knowledge of the nuts-and-bolts of storytelling. Writing and being the head-writer for many tv-series taught me not to be scared of handling very complex narrative material, to take care of every single character, even the lesser ones, as a unique individual and not just as a pivot for the plot, to explore the creative potential of a well-designed structure. Possibly I learned the most valuable lesson of all, however, in the constant feedback from editors, producers and directors on what I – and the other writers – were doing. And by feedback I don't mean just praise. Getting used to always having everything I wrote reviewed competently and critically by other professionals taught me not to take criticism personally, to set the ego aside, and just be in service of the writing. You could say it was my writer's boot camp. And even now that I no longer take part of the collective process of filmmaking, and I sail solo while writing my novels, after completing each draft I still actively seek trusted readers who have the mandate to tell me everything, and I mean everything, they think. And only after listening to their feedback do I start revising.
You have referred to your novels as “The Trilogy of Fathers”, even though the stories don’t necessarily relate. Why is that?
The three novels I have written to date are the three parts of a single encompassing project, although they don't share characters, nor plot lines. In Italian, the word for home country – patria –shares the same Latin root as padre, father. The idea was to narrate some of our national history's darkest and least reconciled moments – the 'troubles' in South Tyrol (Eva Sleeps), the bloody years of terrorism in the seventies (Higher Than the Sea), and the long lasting effects of racism and colonialism (Blood Right, soon to be published in Italy) – through three father figures.
It is my belief that collective entities – countries, for instance – are affected by trauma and denial just like individuals. And just like in individual lives, all the pain, guilt, and distress that is not brought back to light, to consciousness, can keep seething and simmering in the darkness, producing unwanted effects. The common thread uniting these three novels is an interest in the effects that these collective traumas and denials have had and still have on specific lives, on specific characters. In other words, I wanted to give flesh and bones (and pain and love and laughter, etc.) to some of those undercurrents of our history on which, outside of scholarly publications, a national conversation is very difficult: they are too mired in misconceptions, false memories, outright lies, guilt, denial, and pain.
This process is not specific to Italy, of course. All countries in the world have always done a terrible job in taking responsibility for the darkest moments of their history – possibly the only notable exception is contemporary Germany. Most have allowed in their national narratives only the identification either with the heroes or with the victims, never with the perpetrators. But reality is always a lot more complex than that. Narratives intertwine; a doting, generous father can be a fascist; a loved son can turn into a terrorist; racism and attraction, even affection, can mingle in uneasy ways; losing one's identity can turn out to be a blessing in disguise. Just like personal narratives, collective history is a messy thing, and never a straight line. I wanted to have a go at tackling that messiness in the only way I know: by telling stories. These three books, their characters and their plot outline, were all conceived at the same time, almost ten years ago. What came out is therefore a trilogy, although each book can be read perfectly well on its own. From the beginning, I gave it the working title: Trilogy of the Fathers. Now that it is finished, the next book I write will be of a completely different sort.
What is your experience with being translated into so many different languages?
Well, the idea that my books have the opportunity to cross the language barrier and travel in the world is almost mind boggling, and very nice of course. My mother was a translator from English, she translated classics like Moby Dick and Tristram Shandy in Italian, so I grew up with a natural respect for the often unacknowledged labour of love of transporting a text from one language to another. I usually have a very good relationship with my translators. In the languages I can read, it is usually a pleasure to discover the clever ways in which they managed to keep the original meaning, style and – in some excellent instances – musicality. While of course in the languages I don't speak, all I can do is trust. But even then, I can get a glimpse of what translators are up to by the questions and clarifications they ask me as they advance through the text; sometimes, realizing what is not immediately understood by someone with a different mother tongue can be very illuminating. However, the bottom line is that a translated writer has to let go of the idea that foreign readers will have the exact same experience as the ones reading the original. Basically, I am just very grateful that my books are traveling around the world.
What are you reading at the moment?
I just finished the heartbreaking, beautiful The Return by Hisham Matar. I am now starting The Children Act by Ian McEwan. Plus I have at hand, as always, a collection of short of stories by Alice Munro – in these days it's Too Much Happiness; every now and then, I open the pages at random, just to enjoy her diamond-sharp prose. And a few travel guides; I am about to celebrate the trilogy's completion by staying away from the writing table for a while.