Friday 6 November 2009

'what happened to our dreams?'

by Pietro Grossi

Pushkin Press don't only bring neglected European writers from the past back into print or into English translation they also publish the works of current European writers so that we can sample what is current on the continent. Grossi's collection of three extended stories is described on the cover as 'a perfect book' by Il Sole 24 Ore, which is one of those quotes that sounds fantastic the first time you read it and then less and less like the all encompassing compliment it seemed with each successive glance. No matter, especially as the cover itself was so pleasant to glance at and more than appropriate given my current involvement in a show which is all about horses. Inside we learn that Grossi has been writing since the age of 8 and admires writers like Hemingway, Salinger and Faulkner. Those influences are felt pretty heavily and I hope I sound fair if I say that Grossi doesn't always emerge from under them. I don't want to be too damning on what is after all only his second book. We have become so drunk on the heavily publicised 'stunning debut' that new writers must find it hard to find the space to learn, to make mistakes and to grow.

The first story, Boxing, is as you might expect the one which brings Hemingway to mind. As you might hope from any story about pugilists we are introduced to two distinctive fighters, with very different back stories who then come together on that square of canvas to fight it out. I won't tell you the result of course but you only need to have watched Rocky to know that victory is relative. Our narrator is known amongst his peers as The Dancer, his fancy footwork and speed around the ring having marked him out as the best in his class despite never having fought competitively at all due to his mother's insistence that he train only (Grossi is in no hurry to disabuse us of our stereotyped ideas about Italian boys and their mothers). Having never been put to the test he has the confidence of a superhero, impervious to the fists of mere mortals. All that will be put to the test when he meets The Goat, a fighter who has earned his name in the ring by always 'moving forwards with his head down', is a deaf mute who learns the name of The Dancer by reading it on the lips of every other kid in the gym.

And this legend has been started by people who had all their five senses...think now about about a deaf person, think about someone who, in order to put together the same picture is forced to gather bits an pieces here and there, wherever he finds them. What are you left with then? You're left with that bloody name that jumps from mouth to mouth and bounces around your head like a stone; always preceded and followed by knowing and admiring looks, until you're going out of your mind.

When the showdown occurs Grossi does a good job of keeping the action engrossing but also of making it a story about more than just the big fight. If there is something that links all three stories in the collection (apart from them all having two male protagonists) it is the coming of age theme. For The Dancer especially it is about putting his reputation and comfortable life aside to stand on his own two feet, to test himself as much as his opponent.

I realised suddenly that we were the same breed: both outcasts, both uncool, two boys who were fighting for their lives, for that dirty square fragment of reality where things happened the way they were supposed to and everything fell into place. And suddenly part of me understood that neither of us could win, that both of us could only lose.

It is two brothers whom we follow in Horses, both gifted a mare by their father out of the blue one day and both following wildly differing trajectories as a result. Nathan and Daniel have to have them tamed first and their penury forces them into a Karate Kid style work-for-knowledge arrangement with a neighbour. When this is accomplished Nathan uses his as a means to get to the city and away from his family home. Daniel however becomes settled by his horse and finds his interest in them growing, acquiring another and looking to breed them both. Perhaps surprisingly it is the boy who remains at home who runs into conflict and an act of violence with life-long repercussions. It is difficult to know whether it is Grossi or his translator Howard Curtis who is to blame but it was during this story that I began to feel that I was reading the work of a writer still finding their feet. Cliched metaphors such as the 'white-hot dagger' of pain are bad enough but seem even clumsier when they become a 'red-hot dagger' over the page. However the story does successfully continue similar themes from Boxing and use a single event to show two very different characters learning something about themselves.

Finally The Monkey diverges from its two predecessors and sets up the scenario of Nico discovering that his friend Piero has begun acting like a monkey. It is the weakest story in the book mainly because it replays the same conversation a few times, as Nico explains to various people what his friend is doing, which is met each time with a fairly non-plussed and unenlightening response. It is an interesting idea which never approaches its potential.

I may not have been knocked out by Grossi on this one but I hope that he continues to be nurtured as a talent. He shows on more than one occasion the kind of insight and understanding into the relationships between boys as they grow into men that marked the work of William Maxwell in his own boxing related novel,The Folded Leaf.


John Self 6 November 2009 at 11:41  

I read this a few months ago and felt pretty ho-hum about it. I liked the first story and, like you, thought the last one pretty weak (not least because it not only failed to live up to its blurb - which is what had sold me on the book - but was almost the antithesis of it).

The translator Howard Curtis, by the way, is an occasional visitor to my blog - and if you do an Amazon search, you'll see he's extremely prolific. Knows a great deal about Simenon too.

William Rycroft 6 November 2009 at 11:49  

My apologies to Howard then should he ever read this!

Howard Curtis,  7 November 2009 at 21:39  

Apologies graciously accepted, William!

William Rycroft 8 November 2009 at 12:33  

Removing foot from mouth now.

Oh boy.

Howard Curtis,  10 November 2009 at 09:51  

I've now checked the original Italian against my translation, and I think you have a point. The words Grossi uses are "incandescente" and "rovente", which do indeed mean "white hot" and "red hot" respectively, but of course in Italian, they are not quite so repetitious. By translating those two words too literally, I created a somewhat infelicitious (and self-contradictory)repetition. I should have noticed it and didn't, and neither did my editor, so thanks for pointing it out. Bit that's how it is: in translation, as in original writing, things sometimes get through which only a perceptive reader like yourself notices.

William Rycroft 11 November 2009 at 00:20  

First of all Howard, thank you for taking the time to respond so fully to what was a bit of a flippant comment by me in my review. A good lesson in responsibility I think.

I always wish that I could have more to say about literature in translation, but without the languages let alone the ability to look at both texts I am often reduced to intuition and feel rather than scholarship. Perhaps I should just steer clear. As you say the original Italian words are so very different to each other, unlike their literal English translations. It's really interesting to have a tiny but significant insight into the work that you do and its difficulty. I have no idea how I would solve that problem, which of course is why I'm a reader first and foremost.

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