Milena Agus ‘While The Shark Is Sleeping’

This book is the first of my 2016 Italian lit target And the first book by Milena Agus.

Milena Agus is a Sardinian author who has imagebeen nominated for Italy’s Literary prizes (Strega, Campielo) with her second novel From the Land of the Moon **. This post is on her impressive first book, read in one sitting!

This story is about the Sevilla Mendoza family narrated by the 20 year old daughter, the line between real life and her story is blurred

“I write stories because when I don’t like this world here, I move into my own and I feel great. And there are a lot of things I don’t like about this world. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that it’s ugly and I much prefer my own. In my world, there’s also him. He already has a wife.”

There is a tragic sadness running through the story, something particular to Sardinia, epitomised by the story of the people of Sardinia and mirrored here by the inability of the characters to face facts, to withdraw not so much inland as into theirselves.

“History tells us that we Sardinians are no sailors, that we withdrew inland for fear of the Saracens when actually we could have built a fleet and confronted them instead of escaping into the mountains.”

The inward journey of the narrator is punctuated by the events concerning her immediate family, her parents who are shadow figures and who for very different reasons abandon her, her brother, their aunt, Zia, and their grandmother, Nonna. We feel the weight of the narrator’s flawed character and her family member’s maladictive search for love. Her mother commits suicide we think

“Then one day she decided to leave, in accordance with her idea of beauty. For a while she’d been saying she didn’t like the posts supporting the canopy on the terrace, that they were rusty and needed repainting. So, I reckon, one morning she set up the whole scene. She bought the paint and the anti-rust and flew away brush in hand. It was clear to everybody that she’d got dizzy and lost her balance. But why had she put on her favourite dress? Why was her hair freshly washed and perfumed and the house all in order? Was it because she didn’t want our family to look bad? Besides, she’d always been strangely interested in covert suicide.”

But then later again the blurring is evident when her lover, the vet, sees the events as a story she can control

“I decide to let my vet read my stories. He likes them a lot. Only he doesn’t understand why they always have to end badly. I often tell him that there’s going to be a death and then he gets angry.
‘Shit, darling, you’ve already killed off one, two is overdoing it. Two deaths are ridiculous in any story that’s not a tragedy.’”

There are various men in this story, all of them without exception live for themselves, they are outsiders, and mostly absent, the three women in the story, the narrator, the mother and the Zia are all sufferers in need of a love that is incompatible with the men. No punches are thrown describing the Zia’s and the the narrator’s sexual experiences and the narrator’s attempts at understanding them.

This is a lyrical novel and reminds me of an earlier Italian post ‘Live Bait’

I recommend this story.

First published in Italian as Mentre dorme il pescecane by Nottetempo in 2005
Translated into French by Françoise Brun as Quand le requin dort and published by Liana Levi in 2010
Translated into English by Brigid Maher as While the Shark is Sleeping and published by Telegram in 2014
** First published in Italian as Mal di pietre by Nottetempo in 2006

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