You can tell that Viola di Grado has a unique voice from the first line of her novel, 70% ACRYLIC 30% WOOL: “One day it was still December.” If this line seems a little puzzling, the next one puts things in (ironic) perspective: “Especially in Leeds, where winter has been underway for such a long time that nobody is old enough to have seen what came before.” After having read this book, I hope I’ll never go to Leeds. Its constant grayness, cold rainy days, bland working class neighborhoods with dirty streets peppered with used condoms and vomit, which are depicted over and over throughout the novel, have made a lasting impression.
The narrator is a twenty-one-year-old girl who left Italy with her family when she was seven to move to Britain. The “Britishness” seeping from the novel is so overpowering that it’s easy to forget that the novel wasn’t originally written in English, but in Italian. Di Grado’s writing has an oddness that sounds, paradoxically, very English. It is odd in the way a surrealist painting is odd, and yet, one has a hard time thinking of the English version as a “translation.” This natural-sounding strangeness, for which we have to thank (at least in part) the translator, Michael Reynolds, is rooted in a vision of writing that comes from the fourth-century BCE Chinese Taoist philosopher, Zhuangzi, who, according to di Grado, believed that one had to “forget” language and not fall into the “fish-traps” of convention. In an email interview, di Grado explained: “One of the ways I did that was by operating a slight shift in meaning so that you recognize the word, but still feel like you need a sort of translation—that’s what many people told me about the language I use.” Intriguingly, Di Grado wrote her novel at the same age as her character, while living in Leeds as an exchange student in a big house she shared with twelve Russians!
In the middle of the night I would wake up and speak Italian. Since none of them spoke Italian, I’ll never know what I was saying. I think my core was trying to express itself, I think I felt caged. Living in a British environment made a difference: at some point, I would think a sentence in English and then translate it [into Italian], which is of course terrible, since being familiar with the language you’re writing in is essential.
There is no doubt that the most striking aspect of this novel is its style. But style here is not a mere ornament, as is often the case with many books focused on “craft.” Rather, the experience of language is at the core of the book—which is not to say that this is one of those books “about nothing.” The experience of language and of its absence—silence—are present here in many ways, beginning with the period of silent grieving after the narrator’s father’s death in a car accident. The narrator’s mother hasn’t spoken in months (or maybe years; we don’t know since it’s always “December”), and mother and daughter have developed a silent language: “She said the look, ‘Go ahead . . .’” The mother, who had been a beautiful, successful flute player, turns into a slob who spends her life unwashed and undressed until the day she begins a photography class in which she was enrolled by her daughter.
Camelia (the daughter-narrator) works as a freelance translator for an Italian washing machine company whose operating instructions often pop up within the narration, adding to the absurdity of it all. In the same interview, di Grado explained that she was interested in “the idea of applying the dumb, often surreal logic of these instruction manuals to life—one than is really messy. That’s what Camelia does, her life is a mess and this is one of her ways to clean it up through this distortion.” While Camelia is having sex with Jimmy, we can read these hilarious insertions: “During wash cycles the transparent porthole tends to heat up;” or: “Opening the porthole and placing clothes in . . .”
Jimmy is the mentally retarded brother of a young Chinese man, Wen, who works as a tailor in Camelia’s neighborhood and teaches her Chinese, a language that di Grado has studied herself. The reflections on various Chinese ideograms and the relationships between them are among the most intellectually stimulating parts of the novel, and they too are related to the narrator’s quest for a new language. In our interview, di Grado explained how studying Chinese and Japanese while writing a novel in Italian influenced her writing:
Learning languages that are so distant from mine has been essential for me to create a neutral space. These are ideographic languages, so by learning them I tried to treat Italian words as if they were ideographs—that is, words that have to be identified and recognized for their concept rather than from the immediacy of sound. I think ideographs have a more intimate connection with the world, and I wanted to give Italian words this intimacy, this power. It’s like taking their clothes off.
The relationship with Jimmy begins after Wen (who loves Camelia) refuses her sexual advances. In the end, the mystery of Wen’s refusal is solved, but a crime involving the mother’s new boyfriend (her photography instructor) gives the story an unexpected twist. The ending, as well as the protagonist’s sadomasochistic predispositions are reminiscent of Yoko Ogawa’s novels and female characters, who display the same paradoxical mixture of inner fragility and destructive tendencies toward themselves and the others. But the overall style of the novel, as well as di Grado’s style in real life (she is known for her extravagant fashion choices and her very dark lipstick) have an affinity with the Francophone Belgian writer, Amélie Nothomb, who, coincidentally, also knows Japanese. (As an aside, I should add that I saw Nothomb a few years ago at the Salon du livre in Paris, surrounded by body guards, wearing one of her huge hats, and having her hand kissed by a female admirer.) In our interview, Di Grado, who is an admirer of Nothomb, revealed that the Belgian writer has written her a generous letter about her novel.
Di Grado’s style, always ingenuous, moves between what could be called economically artful (“The blond woman in the film spoke rain and her mother . . . replied in rain”) and what to some may seem like hyper-hyperbolae (“Outside, the endless sadomasochism of the earth and sky, clouds lacerating innocent lawns with water”). Whatever the case, the style is a perfect match for the character’s inner turmoil. One of the novel’s greatest qualities is that the inner and outer worlds are a continuation of each other. The reader breaths the same air for the duration of the entire book, which makes it an emotionally challenging experience.
In a previous (video) interview, di Grado, elaborating on the fourth-century Chinese philosopher, had made the comment that literature is about destroying language and recreating it. It is a good description of what she does, and one of the best definitions of literary language I’ve come across. Not accidentally, Camelia is passionately destroying the “defective” garments she finds in the trash (thrown there by Wen) and then she pieces them together in new, unexpected configurations. Camelia seems to embody the author’s vision of language and the Japanese esthetic ideal of mono no ware, “born from the encounter of Buddhism and Shinto. It’s a literary ideal on which Heian period literature is based. It’s the sadness of things, the awareness that a thing’s closeness to death is the reason of its beauty.”
When asked about her writing process, di Grado compared the writer to a shaman:
“I think the writer is like a shaman. I begin with an image, an idea, and then, as the story unfolds, all the ideas come to me. My creative process is very chaotic and, like the shaman’s, it starts with a dream: I dream about the protagonist, and from that moment on I know the direction in some unconscious way. It’s like I know the direction inside the land of my unconscious in terms of where to go and where to pick things up.”
If creating means (symbolically) destroying the world in which we live and giving it a new shape, Viola di Grado is undoubtedly a true creator. I hope English-speaking readers will have access before long to her new books: a story about an egg ruling a country, inspired by Lewis Carroll’s egg Humpty Dumpty, and a novel (to be released in Italian this February) about a girl’s life after committing suicide.