Posts Tagged ‘Viola di Grado’
I hope I never meet Viola Di Grado. Her latest novel, The Hollow Heart, has the authentic ring of autobiography. Pure imagination is incapable of inventing something this assured, this intense and vivid. It must be drawn from life.
And what a sick, doom-laden, psychotic life it is! The narrator, Dorotea Giglio, is a sensitive soul, quirky, morbid, self-obsessed and glum. But the most disconcerting thing about Dorothea is the fact that she is dead.
She is dead from the first sentence. She remains dead until the last.
You might wonder if there can be a plot in a novel when the main character, who is also the narrator, is dead throughout.
Well, let me assure you, this novel holds quite a few surprises. There is more than just a back story. Things happen to Dorotea after she dies.
First, things happen physically to her corpse. We are not spared the details. If you are squeamish you can skip the bits in italics but I don’t recommend this. The close-up scrutiny of her putrefying corpse is intrinsic to Dorotea’s story.
For although Dorotea has a scientific interest in bodily decay, she discovers there is more to death than this. There is spiritual change too. There is growth.
There is also an awful, chilling moment towards the end of the novel when you think something truly shocking and unforgivable is about to happen. I had my still pumping heart in my mouth.
I won’t spoil one of the best moments in the novel by telling you more about it. Suffice to say that Dorotea likes to tease.
She is playful with language too. “I died of optimism,” she laments. “I thought my suffering would end after I died.”
Suffering is only part of the process. Through suffering comes revelation. After revelation, something else. I’m not sure what to call it. Perhaps you could call it redemption but that sounds inappropriately religious. The novel is too subversive to fit into the tradition of religious doctrine suggested by the themes of suffering, revelation and redemption. It is a meditation on death that becomes a celebration of life. It celebrates, above all, a life rooted in the senses and expressed in words. Life holds possibilities the dead can only envy.
Because of this, the dead need psychiatric help. Your help.
As a disembodied ghost, Dorotea loses the ability to read. She can see the words on the page but she can no longer decipher their meaning. She can, however, write, and in writing she hopes to be rescued — rescued by you, the reader.
If that seems paradoxical, a greater paradox was that in reading her words I found myself rescued by Dorotea.
Yes, I think the word rescued is not too strong to describe what happened to me. It happened on a subconscious level. I didn’t realise the connection at first. But towards the end of the novel, having put it away in my bag and finished with it for the morning, I received a text from a friend whose father had just died. I didn’t know her father well but I suddenly had a strong conviction that I wanted to go to the funeral. Normally I avoid funerals. But this time I felt an irresistible compulsion to bond with my friend and pay respects to her father. What can I say? It was an epiphany. I felt different, very different inside.
It wasn’t until the next day when I pulled The Hollow Heart out of my bag again and found where I’d left off, that I realised that Dorotea had changed my attitude to the dead.
I am not going to attempt to put this feeling into words. I cannot begin to come near Viola Di Grado’s proficiency with language. I will just say that it was her words that brought about this change in me.
I no longer fear death. In fact I want to make friends with the dead. I long to embrace Dorotea as a sister.
Alas, I can’t say the same about Viola Di Grado. A writer this powerful is scary. I really hope to God I never meet her.
The trouble with language is that it doesn’t have any taste or smell or colour. You can’t feel it lick your face. It doesn’t prick you like a tattooist’s needle. It doesn’t make you bleed.
Unless, that is, you are Viola di Grado, an Italian Goth who can make a trip to the mall sound like something from Dante’s Inferno. She has a sick and morbid imagination. She writes with the otherworldly sensitivity of someone who should really be in a psychiatric ward. She is creative in ways you couldn’t possibly predict. And she has written a defiantly unromantic love story that had me in tears from page 18.
You could say that this book is about language. The narrator, Camelia, lives in Leeds, which in winter ‘unleashes a lethal wind full of the short sharp vowels of northern Englishmen.’ After quitting university she works as a translator for a manufacturer of washing machines. Her translations run around in her brain imbuing her actions with bizarre metaphorical banality even when she is doing something much more significant than either working or doing her laundry, such as quarrelling with her mother, remembering her father, or losing her virginity to the idiot brother of the man she loves. Her quarrels with her mother take place in a world without language. Their conversations are silent. They speak with looks. And all the while Camelia is learning Chinese with the unfathomable Wen, who spurns her love and eludes her attempt to have a real relationship based on clear and unambiguous communication. ‘Talk, you bastard!’ she tells him but when he does she forgets how to breathe.
To say that the author uses language expertly would be an understatement. In an inspired translation by Michael Reynolds, the novel blends English, Italian and Chinese to impart something that exists beyond words with a surreal, symbolic language all its own.
An unromantic swim in Scarborough becomes, in Camelia’s world, a traumatic metaphor for a life that has been devastated by her move to England, by her mother’s suffering, by her father’s death. She can be assaulted by colours, mauled by the sky, humiliated and beaten up by the rain. In her world bones can awaken, rocks can be brought brutally to life and mute houses can reverberate to ‘a veritable rapture of sounds riddled with meanings.’
The ending isn’t happy. The author despises happy endings. But it isn’t unhappy in the way I expected. It was chilling. Shocking. Life and death hung in the balance. But whose? The twists and turns were stomach churning. You may end up vomiting this book. Or you may, like me, end up loving it. It made me feel gratefully, blissfully alive.