Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Limbo, Melania Mazzucco - Literature as a slap in the face

LimboMelania Mazzucco is the best contemporary Italian writer I know. She is an author "with balls", writing with the ferocity of Edward Bunker and the raw depth of McCarthy. Make no mistake: behind the elegant style, the masterful architecture, the perfect ear for each voice and the accuracy of the details, there is a wild beast that pushes to the maximum to get right into our most intimate essence of being human. The truth in her novels is outlined with a vivid and brutal force, although beautifully controlled by a master of her craft.

No bullshit. No judgements. Just life. Reality. Naked humanity.

I don't read her novels for the topics they cover anymore: in fact, I do not care to read about a gay couple adopting a child (the theme of her latest novel). But I already know that I will read that book anyway, because now I am addicted to that voice, so powerful and brutal. There are not many like it in the international literary scene.

Let me try to explain: whereas an average writer manages to immerse the reader into a character's thoughts and soul, leaving the reader with a certain feeling of comfort, a certain sense that what you are reading is helping you escape your reality, and it has not much to do with yourself and your life, Mazzucco will slap you in the face, yell "Wake up!", grab your hair and drag you into the character, and when you feel like you've touched the bottom, she will make you dig even deeper, to feel the the character's humanity under every aspect, including the physical one, her body, her armpits, her hair, her biological functions. Until the individuality built in the novel becomes almost more vibrant and palpable than the real-life people who are close to you, your family.

In other words, while reading this author you will often have moments when you find yourself saying: "Oh shit, this is me. It's talking to me here".

What I'm talking about is literature. Real literature, vs any light-weight novel that is out there.

This is a novel about an Italian woman who enlists in the army, fights in Afghanistan as a sergeant, is wounded and lives his rehabilitation in Ladispoli as in a limbo, neither alive nor dead. There she meets a man who finds himself in limbo too, albeit quite a different one. It's clear that the ways of writing this novel and make it a horrible, illegible brick are endless. Indeed, we can say that the plot does not do much to attract your interest when summarized in this way. 

But unlike a novel that I would not consider literature, in "Limbo" the language and the narrative form are not tools used to embellish reality or to make it more pleasant, nicer, or more tolerable. 

Melania Mazzucco loves raw: raw reality, raw characters.

Language is essential, focussed, practical. It becomes a tool that the author uses to sharpen the senses of the reader and encourage you to see reality with eyes open wide, throwing beams of bright light onto corners of life that are in the dark or that we keep ourselves in the dark for fear of looking at what's there.

I believe there is nothing better or more useful that literature can do. To be a slap in the face. Wake up the reader, even if only for an hour or two.

Here's what I mean when I say "vivid" and "brutal": Mazzucco's approach to writing is that of a fighter in a ring: fearless. As a writer, she is not afraid of anything. There is no beautification, no makeup, no eye shadow or blush. There is, however, a constant attention to the poetry of the real things - and to the poetry of language (or you would you watch a documentary or you would read a report instead).

Examples: "The waves continue to graze the sand." The description of a sunrise rising, viewed from the bottom of a canyon in Afghanistan: "There was a smell of cordite and smoke. The sun was drawing a yellow patch on the mountain's highest tooth. The light was walking fast on the rocks, the shadow regressed ".

Clearly, in the hands of a writer of this caliber, any narrative line becomes a corollary to what is the true heart of the novel. Sure, it is very interesting to read of an Italian female soldier in Afghanistan, butit is not the story what's most important. It's the voice. The author's personality. It's this, I think, that Alberto Asor Rosa means when he says that "Melania Mazzucco's books are life itself." It is no daring hyperbole. It's true: these are not regular novels, they are a voice that gets into your bones, and that makes you look at yourself as you really are.

I read Alberto Asor Rosa's review in the newspaper La Repubblica, and his comment that "the political-historical judgment runs behind the compact facade of the book, we can guess." I completely disagree with that. What is the political stance? Pacifism? Feminism? No no no, there's none of that within the core of this novel. Indeed, part of the strength of this book is its total lack of judgment on the part of the novel itself, while various judgments are given by the characters. On this point, therefore, I do not agree with Asor Rosa (aka Novel Levon or Radar Radar). 

I firmly believe in Sturgeon's Law, for which "90% of everything is crap", especially when applied to the world of modern publishing world. Such wonderful and important novels are likely to be mixed, on the shelves of a bookstore, with all the crap that is printed and sold these days. Limbo is in the 1% of that remaining 10%. Trust me.

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