Friday, March 27, 2015

With The Other Language, Francesca Marciano explores the obstacles that ultimately shape us

Francesca Marciano’s collection of nine stories, THE OTHER LANGUAGE, won third prize in this year’s Story Awards behind Elizabeth McCracken and Lorrie Moore. All three writers are in excellent company.

The epigraph for Mariano’s collection is from Derek Walcott: “To change your language you must change your life.” The characters in these stories change their language (and their countries) and thereby change their lives.

In the title story, Emma, a twelve year old Italian girl, and her siblings are taken to a small Greek village by their father. The children’s mother has died six months earlier and their father hopes that “having a real adventure” will take the children’s minds off their loss. Among the people they encounter in the Greek town are two English boys. Emma is very taken with the younger one, Jack, and “she felt a terrible regret for not having
been able to speak to the English boy when he had materialized that afternoon at the beach.” When they return to Rome, she begins English classes because “she needed to pry open the secret of the language she longed to master in view of her forthcoming – she hoped – encounter with the dark-haired English boy.” To do this, she plays the Beatles’ White Album and Joni Mitchell’s Blue incessantly.

When they return to the Greek village the following summer, the boys are there. “Emma doesn’t remember now how the magic happened. Who said what first, which words were exchanged? All she knows is that the memories of that summer turned into English because that’s what she heard herself speaking.”

In her twenties, after she has moved to America, she returns to Rome for a visit and encounters a street mime. It is Jack, who is now living in Italy. She avoids seeing him again although the encounter stays with her. When she tries to explain its significance the man she eventually marries, he doesn’t understand what she is trying to convey: “I guess what I mean is…in some ways I wouldn’t be who I am today if it wasn’t for those two. I wouldn’t even speak English. I doubt I would have married you,” she said.

“Emma doesn’t remember now how the magic happened. Who said what first, which words were exchanged? All she knows is that the memories of that summer turned into English because that’s what she heard herself speaking.”

Several of the other stories also concern people who have moved from one culture to a very different one. In “Big Island, Small Island,” an Italian woman goes to visit a former lover who has, years before, “disappeared” to a tiny “traditional” island in the Indian Ocean. She has a PhD and lives a comfortable, sophisticated, intellectual life. He lives in near poverty in a third world village. He has converted to Islam, married a very young wife (who speaks no English and is subservient to him, as is expected in the culture). He has become a part of the native culture. In “The Presence of Men,” a woman has purchased and restored a crumbling home in a small Italian village and has incurred the wrath of her neighbors because she has torn down the last communal oven in the village in order to increase the size of her own kitchen and courtyard. Over time, she and the villagers accept each other and she moves comfortably into the life of the community.

Similarly, in “The Club,” a newly widowed woman moves from her big house in Mombasa to a small cottage on the coast. She has never been a member of “The Club,” established by the British ex-pats, because while she is white and originally from Scotland, her physician husband was from Goa. She turns from her snobbish British neighbors to the kind and gentle attentions of an elderly Indian widower who presents her with flowers: “Such a nice, good family, the Khans, she thought. Just like the family she once had.”

Two of the stories are somewhat quirky love stories. In “Quantum Theory,” two people meet accidentally, survive a car crash, and then meet unexpectedly twice more over the decades that follow. There is tremendous chemistry between them despite their having no communication at all between meetings. What’s between them is physics, he says. “Like, you know, quantum theory.” “It’s the way we as a species came to be. Some billions of years ago, that’s how life started to happen on the planet. I don’t see anything wrong with that.”

In “Roman Romance,” Elsa has had an affair during her student days with an American farm boy trying to be a rock musician in Italy. After several years, he breaks up with her because he’s met a long-legged art student from Texas. He returns to the US and becomes a major rock star. His most famous song is about breaking up with an unnamed girl. Elsa knows it was written for the long-legged Texan but everyone thinks it’s about her. Now twenty years later, he is returning to Italy to give a concert – a concert which she will attend.

Photo by Laura Sciacovelli
As Michiko Kakutani wrote in the New York Times (3/31/14), “Ms. Marciano – a Rome-born novelist (Casa Rossa,” “Rules of the Wild”) and screenwriter, who has lived in Italy, Kenya and the United States – demonstrates an ability here to move fluidly back and forth in time, showing how the passage of years goads her characters into reassessments of the events that, in retrospect, were the hinge moments in their lives.”

Writing in the New York Times Book Review (6/6/14), Erica Wagner notes that Marciano’s novels “describe Afghanistan, Italy, Africa – and the negotiations men and women make not only between themselves but between cultures. In both cases, reality and imagination have a tendency to bump up hard against each other. The nine stories in “The Other Language” reiterate and refresh this preoccupation, one that becomes more pressing for all of us in an increasingly globalized world.”

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