Book review: Lost Between: Writings of Displacement

In 2010, the novelist Catherine Dunne, then chairperson of the Irish Writers’ Centre met the Italian writer Federica Sgaggio.

The two felt it would benefit Italian and Irish writers to meet and to share and promote their work. They gained support and sponsorship, and The Italo-Irish Literature Exchange was born.

Three exchanges have since taken place; the latest, in 2014, when seven Irish writers met their Italian counterparts in Sant’Agata de’Goti near Naples.

In Lost Between, we can read the writers’ work; a mixture of poems, short stories, and extracts from novels. The writing is of varying style and quality, but the pieces are linked by the theme of diversity.

It’s an interesting collection. Some of the stories intrigue. Nuala Ní Chonchúir’s The Donor, describing the meeting of a donor with the boy he has learned is his son is lovable. Taking up with the mother, even though he has nothing in common with her, he is desperate to see a likeness. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that he has no feelings whatsoever for the boy; and his aim, all along, it to make up for his general sense of dislocation.

Equally intriguing was Gaja Cenciarelli’s, Bounded in a Nutshell. The author manages to convey the clinical coldness of Dr Aloisi, as she goes about her work, with great efficiency and no apparent feeling.

Guilo Mozzi’s The Ship takes a broader canvas. The narrator, a writer, has been caring for his mother in her final illness. Surprising himself, he finds himself able to perform the most gruelling tasks, and to deal with his mother’s outbursts of delirium with deep-seated patience. His negotiating skills come into play too, as he keeps the part-time carer on side.

When his mother dies however, he’s had enough. Keeping away at the moment of death, he has no wish to see her body; yet you sense his sadness as the sick room returns to normal.

!I see almost every trace of her wiped out. Within a few days the wipeout will be complete,” he writes.

Most of the Italian pieces are translated by Cormac Ó Cuilleanáin. This works well, in general, but the more flowery writing of Fredrica Sgaggio suffers. In Mother Tongue, describing an interesting encounter in Dublin, many of the sentences sound erratic or overworked. This spoils the clever thrust of the story.

For example, “For a moment they were both frozen, caught out in the invisible thunder of each other’s thoughts,” would probably sound better in the original.

Honk Kong Fishbowl hasn’t been credited to a translator, and the story opens with some gorgeous imagery.

Examining nationality traits, the piece is narrated by a lively Italian waitress in a fast food restaurant. Describing a colleague, she says, “She waddles gracefully ... holding her breath like a pearl diver, and then pops out from some mysterious depth offering her catch of beers to just the right customer.”

Gianpaolo Trevisi’s, My Man and Me is a humorous look at corporate behaviour. Another gem is Fabio Bussotti’s Francesco, about a policeman who keeps a caring eye out for immigrant children in trouble.

Extracts from novels can be a tricky read; but Mia Gallagher’s Dublin November 1976 is intriguing. Even more successful was the wonderful William Wall’s Leaving the Island; a tragic tale of a childhood drowning; of culpability, denial, and a kind lie. Perfect as a standalone piece, the prose shines, and the story stays with you.

* Lost Between: Writings of Displacement, New Island, €11.99; Kindle, €7.92


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