Cristina Comencini ‘When The Night’

The milk will come, you just have to believe. It seems you have to believe in milk, and maybe I just didn’t believe strongly enough, and that’s why it didn’t come. F1BF3673-7EEB-4B3F-A6DB-69CFE34962D9My mother tried to reassure me. “It will come, don’t worry. I didn’t have milk, but you will be more fortunate.”

In this story, read for Italian lit month, Cristina Comencini contrasts the mental mistrust of Manfred, the rough mountain guide, and Marina, visiting from the city, for each other with their overwhelming physical attraction one for the other.

The story is told in two voices, first Manfred and then Marina as we first discover Marina through Manfred’s narration, a young woman come to stay in the mountains with her baby son in Manfred’s rental flat above his home. Manfred is bitter and has his misgivings about women in general and about Marina in particular, he hears a baby crying above him, a bang then silence, he reacts rushing uncannily quickly upstairs to find Marina crying in a corner and the young child who has “fallen” from the table and against Marina’s wishes he rushes them to the hospital. We learn from Marina of the difficulty she has coming to terms with having a baby in the opening quote.

Manfred is one of three sons, brought up in the mountains alone by his father, a rustic life taught to be frugal and untrusting of women, his elder brother has a restaurant high on the mountain slopes and his younger brother is a womaniser living in the same mountain town, as he says to Marina:

But I was honest: I told her what I was like, that I know nothing about women, and that my mother abandoned us when we were little. Ran off with an American. I never saw her again. I know she remarried and had more kids in America, because our father told us.

Manfred eventually decides not to report Marina to the police for his suspicion about her son’s injury and despite themselves they are slowly drawn together, after quarrelling in Manfred’s brothers restaurant one night, Marina gets a lift down the mountain and Manfred decides to walk, when she doesn’t hear him down stairs in his apartment she calls the rescue services who consequently find him injured and save his life in the mountains. Marina visits him in hospital ready to leave her husband for him and then abruptly leaves the mountains to go back home to her husband, we learn years later that the story turned here about Manfred’s youthful family trauma as she tells years later when she revisits the mountains hoping to see Manfred, after her son has grown up and left home:

How long should I wait? What if he doesn’t come? What would Marco and Sylvia think if they saw me? That’s not our mother sitting waiting for a man and how about Mario he’s never known that I might need him that for me none of this is natural, but I still want to dance, to flee, to inflict pain. I never made a promise to them, but I made a promise to him, don’t leave the boy.

Theirs is a tragic love, how does their second chance end? Well you’ll just have to read it to find out.

First published in Italian as ‘Quando la Notte’ by Feltrinelli in 2009
Translated into English by Marina Harss as “When the Night” and published by Other Press in 2011


Paolo Giordano ‘The Human Body’

—In the years following the mission, each of the guys set out to make his life unrecognizable, until the memories of that other life, that earlier existence,img_1064 were bathed in a false, artificial light and they themselves became convinced that none of what took place had actually happened, or at least not to them.

Paolo Giordano’s The Human Body was written using his experience as an embedded journalist in an Italian peace mission in Afghanistan. The title loses its double meaning in the translation being both a body and a military unit in the original Italian, this story investigates a military unit by following a number of individuals through the senselessness and boredom of their mission, their ill preparedness for the intense stress caused by a mission outside of their base that goes terribly wrong and how this incident transforms them, illustrated by the opening quote.

In particular we meet the squad leader René, a career soldier respected by his men and who when he is not on mission is a Gigolo with a string of middle aged paying customers, the loud mouthed Cederna and his young acolyte, the “virgin” Ietri, as well as Mitrano who is bullied by Cederna, Zampieri the only woman in the unit who has continually to prove herself and Torsu, who from the mission outset has health problems. When they arrive in Afghanistan they are joined by Egitto the garrison Doctor has decided to stay on for another mission, Paolo Giordano talks us through everyday bored military life as here in a discussion between Cederna and Ietri

—The embarrassing truth is that Ietri has never been with a woman, not in the sense that he considers complete. No one in the platoon knows this and it would be a disaster if they were to find out. The only one who knows is Cederna; he told him about it himself one evening at the pub when they were both smashed and in the mood for confiding. “Complete? You mean to say you’ve never fucked?” “Well, not . . . fully.” “A goddamn little virgin! Hey, I have a new name for you: verginella…. Listen up now—it’s important. The tool down there is like a rifle. A 5.56, with a metal stock and laser sighting.” Cederna shoulders an invisible weapon and aims it at his friend. “If you don’t remember to oil the barrel from time to time, it will end up jamming.” Ietri looks down at his mug of beer. He takes too big a swig, begins to cough. Jammed. He’s a guy who’s jammed. “Even Mitrano manages to shoot his wad every now and then,” Cederna says. “He pays.”

For their peacekeeping mission they are stationed in an inhospitable landscape, their base camp is on the top of a hill, isolated from the country they are there to help in order to provide its own safety:

—The truth is, as in all of the operations since the start of the conflict, the clearing of the area has only been partial, the secure zone extends for a radius of 2km around the base, some dangerous pockets of guérillas remain within this zone and outside of the zone it’s hell…***

After several moral sapping isolated months on the hill top, peacekeeping, they are forced to leave their base in convoy to escort some Afghan  lorry drivers who have had their lorries taken from them through the inhospitable zone which surrounds their hill. Paolo Giordano conveys to us just how easy a target they actually are, up to and including the moments of the tragedy.

A study of futility, the smallness of our individual lives and the impossibility of the peacekeeping mission in this inhospitable territory.

First Published in Italian as “Il corpo umamo” in 2012 by Arnoldo Mondadori.
Translated into French by Nathalie Bauer as ‘Le corps humain’ and published by Seuil in 2013
Translated into English by Anne Milano Appel as “The Human body”and published by Viking Penguin in 2014
*** My translation

Simonetta Gregio ‘La Dolce Vita’

Browsing through Lire Magazine’s September edition on the subject of french novels, I came across a write up of the latest novel by Simonetta Gregio ‘Les Nouveaux Monstres’ and mentioning her previous book La Dolce Vita, explaining that this novel begins with Eckberg and Mastroianni in the film La Dolce Vita, Tell me more