The Record (Sherbrooke, Québec) April 4, 2005
If you were in Italy as a tourist in the 60s and are reluctant to relinquish romantic memories of your time there, then I suggest that you avoid My Husband, the recent translation of a collection of short stories by Dacia Maraini, one of Italys most renowned novelists, poets and playwrights. If, however, you are fascinated by the place and want to learn about its society and culture through its feminist fiction, then you will likely find yourself riveted by Vera Golinis translation of Mio marito.
The original Italian collection, with its bizarre, existentialist plots and disconcerting characters, all nearly grotesque in their supra-realness, was first published in 1968, a time of what Golini in her introduction calls the beginnings of intense social questioning and change in Western cultures. In Italy, the feminist movement during the late 1960s saw the introduction of an unprecedented number of laws destined to improve the lives of Italian women. Despite the legalization of abortion and divorce, however, and despite laws passed in 1977 guaranteeing equal pay for work of equal value, ten years later the majority of Italys women continued to suffer from economic and social exploitation within Italys traditional patriarchal system. As Maraini documents in an essay entitled Reflections on the Logical and Illogical Bodies of My Sexual Compatriots, published in 1987, there were at that time still twelve million women in Italy who do heavy labour, without schedules, without salary, without insurance, and above all, without the respect of those who demand this work and who make use of it. In My Husband, Maraini succeeds in rendering almost tangible not only the debilitating and humiliating effects on women of this exploitation but also the resiliency and the determination that it engenders.
Each of the seventeen stories is told from the first person point-of-view of sparsely described unnamed female narrators. Three consist of dated diary entries with several entries to a page. Each narrator embodies some emotional, physical or psychological consequence of systemic abuse. The men in Marainis story, not surprisingly, are secondary characters, but like the patriarchal system they comprise, they are omnipresent, self-centered, self-serving, sometimes gormless entities who exert enormous mind-numbing power over the women.
Typical of Marainis style, reminiscent of Eugene Ionesco, is Diary of a Married Couple, in which the female narrator represents stultified passion, youthful ardour stifled by husband-induced inertia. Their relationship, one month after their marriage, resembles a petrified tree. Her husband, a student in perpetual preparation for exams he never writes, compares love to trees: Love is like the trees blooming, Giulio tells her. Theres a proper time when trees become beautiful, smell great, and are full of flowers. Thats the time for love. After that, basta, enough. When she protests that people arent trees, he replies, Were like trees more than you know. The young wifes irregular diary entries seem to prove his point. Married on February 12th, by March 8th their sex life is almost zero. To escape the sweltering heat of May 16th, theygo sit in the Galleria Umberto or in the café because Giulio likes to have ice cream, sitting there surrounded by miniature trees . . . I get bored to death, but I keep quiet for his sake, she tells her diary. By November 22nd, Guilios cruel rejection of her and of any attention to hygiene makes the blue-eyed, healthy-cocked Candido, an impoverished artist, seem a better prospect. Six months later, Candido has left with Esther, Giulio is dead, his body found in Romes Tiber River by the Magliana, and the narrator is eyeing the actor Amadeus, who is young and slim, like a sardine, and has a great sex drive.
As the above summary will attest, the absurd content and style of Marainis stories defy the reviewing process. More importantly though, they challenge the conventions of the genre in order to reflect the social alienation, loss of values, and identity crises that inform the authors vision of mid-to-late twentieth century Italy. One would think that the effort needed to identify the purpose of Marainis stereotypical characterization, the truncated dialogues and sporadic diary entries would encourage outright rejection by the reader. Strangely, but not surprisingly, the opposite is true. From the husband, in the title story, who likes to play practical jokes on his wife, like serving her a dessert hed made with a dead mouse inside, and whose wise and intelligent advice leads to deadly consequences, to the dazed office worker in Dazed who forces herself to sleepwalk through life, to the sexually harassed factory worker who in the final diary mocks members of the workers union for the futility of their strike efforts, even as the machine she operates cuts off a finger and the acid fumes are making her deathly ill, Maraini succeeds in sustaining intense interest in much the same way as Ionesco does in, say, The Bald Soprano.
That said, and while I appreciated the biting black humour in these stories, the much-lauded absurdist, wickedly funny Ionesco-like humour that the publishers promise in their promotional material and on the dustjacket escaped me. Perhaps it is because I dont find oppression and exploitation funny, no matter how extraordinary the performance. Closer to the truth for me is the comparison the publisher and the translator make of Marainis writing with the lean style of Beckett. That, and her dexterity with dialogue, I can relate to and endorse.
Born in Fiesole, near Florence, Maraini now lives in Rome. She has over fifty books to her name, and has written screenplays for directors such as Pier Paolo Pasolini, Carlo di Palma, and Margarethe Von Trotta. The collection begins with a two-page translators note and finishes with an extensive afterword that reads like an academic thesis, complete with endnotes and a list of works cited. These were written and compiled by Golini, whose translation of Mio Marito is praised by Leonard G. Sbrocchi of the University of Ottawa for being expert . . . accurate, fluid and extremely easy to read. Golini is the President of the Canadian Society for Italian Studies and has been a professor of Italian studies at St. Jeromes University, Waterloo, Ontario since 1975.
In addition, the book includes two appendices. One is a list of interviews conducted with Maraini, an impressive six-page bibliography of her writing and of her filmography, and a three-page list entitled Awards and Translations of Marainis Prose. The second appendix is A Critical Bibliography of Marainis Prose Works. In short, this 181-page book is a one-stop study guide to Marainis oeuvre. Her novel, La lunga vita de Marianna Ucria (The Silent Duchess, Feminist Press, 1992) was a best-seller in Italy for close to two years and won the prestigious Supercampiello award. It has been published in fourteen languages. If all of that isnt enough to make a husband proud, then maybe its time to give him the boot.
Michelle Ariss (Books in Canada)
-- Books in Canada
About the Author
Dacia Maraini was born in Florence in 1936. Her father’s profession as an anthropologist and his antifascist stance led the family to emigrate to Japan where, during the war, they were confined for two years in concentration camps. In 1945 the family returned to Sicily and, when her parents separated in 1954, Dacia moved to Rome with her father.
Maraini’s first two novels, La vacanza (The Holiday) and L’età del malessere (The Age of Indifference), published when she was twenty-six and twenty-seven, were instant international successes: the latter received the editors’ international Formentor prize and was instantly translated into twelve languages. In 1990 Maraini sealed her international success with the publication of the novel La lunga vita di Marianna Ucrìa (The Silent Duchess, Feminist Press, 1992) which stayed on Italy’s bestseller list for almost two years and won the prestigious Premio Campiello (Italy’s equivalent of the us National Book Award). It was published to critical acclaim in fourteen languages.