And so it is, more than a year later, that I finally find the inspiration to write this, months after reading the book. The urge comes relatively soon after another trip to Berlin, at the end of this February. There is something that calms me down in that city, maybe it’s the tangle of frayed memories that evoke that first trip abroad, the spark that lit up my restlessness. The transition from Cambridge back to London now made, less smoothly than expected, the settling into a routine and the daily rubbing of shoulders with strangers relearned, there is time for the ‘hundred indecisions’ which are part of my writing and reading.
I have the book open next to me, a copy that has made the journey from Berlin to Sofia to Montana to Cambridge to London where it finally has the attention of concentrated thought. There have been a number of journeys in between, a multitude of train rides, issues of the LRB consumed greedily, quite a few actual flights and then some fanciful displacements of the mind. Berlin of last March is ages ago, in a different life, a season of confusion and limbo. So let me step away from any previous style of writing. Let me draw the threads of disorder together.
This story begins with a closed bookshop and a cold unfolding March. It is set in Berlin, that city of grey, of friendship and rest, a pit stop for when London and coffee blur me up so the image in the mirror is strange. There was once this closed bookshop that only opened up its gates if you sought it out on the next day, second time’s the charm. There was once the me who used spontaneity as an anchor and who thought pursuing the random was calming, a shield against anxiety. In the clean bookshop with its dimmed lights and aspiring wooden floors, between the white shelves, there was the air of things being bared to the core, the shifting layers stripped away. Like a promise for something static and immutable that’s there for the taking, like the fulfilment of the happily ever after without the vague prolonged unknown that follows the last sentence…
And there was once this book.
The narrator of Erri de Luca’s Montedidio is a boy on the cusp of becoming a man. He lives with his father and sick mother in Montedidio, a neighbourhood of Naples. In that poor city, he helps out in the workshop of Master Errico, falls in love with Maria who lives nearby, learns to metamorphose his body through the boomerang his father gives him. An unremarkable story, perhaps, but it’s the language that makes it one that’s worth tasting. The pleasure here is woven into words and story, and how the sentences shape feeling as the pages progress.
This version is the German translation; of course, reading it in the original Italian, the most beautiful sounds that my ears can imagine, would have been more fitting. Especially since Neapolitan dialect crops up so often. The narrator explains how the dialect, unlike Italian itself, doesn’t have two words for ‘sleep’ and ‘dream’ – instead of ‘sonno’ and ‘sogno’, there is only ‘suonno’. Italian, on the other hand, is (an)other language – ‘eine ruhige Sprache, die brav in den Büchern bleibt’ (‘a calm language that dutifully stays in the books’).
It is a novel about growing up, but at times it feels more like growing old, maybe because it has to happen so fast – the painful attempts of getting used to movement and change. Muscles grow and the fabric of clothes stretches, the violence of tissue can be felt in the skin thickened from boomerang practice. The narrator does not actually throw the boomerang, he just repeats the movements, cultivates the strength, all the while stuck in the nowhere place between child and adult.
In this grown-up world, poverty is the ghost lurking behind many things. On a rare outing together, the father laughs at the boy’s burnt trousers, then quickly stops as he remembers that it is his sick wife who will have to mend them. The day is ‘un muorzo’, says Master Errico, a bite – it is eaten fast. The food is almost always modest – bread, tomatoes, some coffee, and so is the day. All the daylight needs to be bitten and chewed out of it, so that it does not go to waste.
And just as it often contains the painfully real, the novel also harbours the foreign and the strange. Don Rafaniello, the cobbler who works in the same workshop, has arrived out of nowhere, with his red hair, green eyes and the always present, always understated ghost of trauma tagging along. An ageless man, he sings in a foreign language and when he smiles, ‘die Falten und Sonnensprossen bewegen sich, es sieht aus wie das Meer, wenn es drauf regnet’ (‘the wrinkles and freckles move, it looks like the sea when the rain falls on it‘). Don Rafaniello is waiting for the wings to sprout from his hunchback so that he can fly to Jerusalem, an incredible journey he prepares for throughout the book.
The disillusionment of youth, a disenchantment with the world is not that unusual a story. But what words do with such stories is always different, always interesting. Here the language shifts between light and heavy. The heavy is the passing of time and the resignation that comes with it, the pain of the body dealing with the accumulating hours, the mind struggling to catch up. The light is the open-air rooftop, the old house where ghosts wander in the staircase, searching for the salt of sweat, for the closeness of bloodwarmth. Air currents caress gently, barely. Sunlight floats, skims eyelashes. Rain feels like laughter. There was once a weightless life.
There was, once, a weightless life.