Reading a detailed chronicle of the decomposition of a human corpse might sound like a grim undertaking. And in an obvious way, it is. But Viola Di Grado’s charming prose romps through chthonic worlds of nibbling insects, ammoniac seepage and shattering depression, using language that is both glib and scrumptious. She is a maximalist; her books don’t tiptoe subtly around obliquely concealed themes. She writes about death and depression without pulling any punches. This could sound like a tormented teenager’s self-obsessed ravings or a dull necrophiliac litany, but Di Grado has an almost supernatural ability to know when enough is enough, and she again and again delivers sharp, gorgeous demonstrations that she can do bizarre and lovely things with words.
At the age of twenty-seven, Viola Di Grado already has a daunting display of feathers in her cap. At twenty-three, she won Italy’s prestigious Premio Campiello Opera Prima for her first novel, 70% Acrylic 30% Wool, which later went on to be shortlisted for the Strega. She was a finalist for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. And, following the publication of her second novel, Hollow Heart, there is talk of a nomination for the Man Booker International in 2016. She’s often compared to Amélie Nothomb and Angela Carter, and her two novels have been ushered into successful English translations by Europa Editions. “Ferrante Fever” is sweeping through the international literary world initiating a upsurge of interest in Italian literature and Di Grado is there at the very front of the scene.
Di Grado’s first novel, 70% Acrylic 30% Wool, is the deceptively simple story of a young woman grieving the death of her father who died in flagrante delicto with an “English journalist.” The narrator, Camelia, has been miserably transplanted from Italy to Leeds, and she bemoans the city, its Englishness and its gray, gray weather. A typical description of the city: “Leeds is like one of those sadistic pet owners that waves a piece of meat in front of his dog and then gobbles it down himself.” The sun peeks out briefly and you race outdoors, but “… the sun has already disappeared, leaving the sky opaque and off-white, the color of a raw chicken thigh.” Camelia mopes aimlessly around the city, drops out of university and locks herself indoors with her wraith-like mother, who has stopped eating, bathing and speaking. Camelia feels her foreignness and her misery and laments her entire existence in paragraphs that are so gloomy and unrelenting they border on farce. Her desperate desire to see sunlight (a very real psychological need, as anyone who has spent time in the British Isles knows) grows increasingly entertaining the more she harps on about the unending grey: “It must have been seven in the morning but it was dark outside, like any self-respecting hour of the day in Leeds. They discriminate against daylight hours here, ghettoizing them behind curtains.” Camelia yearns for her sunny homeland, but very vaguely, because she is generally too unhappy to desire anything at all.
70% Acrylic 30% Wool, translated by Michael Reynolds, is itself filled with translations, lists of translations and variations on translations. After dropping out of university where she was studying Chinese, Camelia stumbles upon work translating how-to manuals for an Italian washing machine company. These notoriously bizarre industrial texts echo throughout her narrative: “Do not force the porthole open for any reason,” or “Before placing the clothes insides, check that there are no animals inside the barrel.” Camelia’s mother has not spoken a word since her husband died during an adulterous misadventure, and Camelia translates her blank silences into elaborately interpreted communiqués. Looks “say” things that only Camelia can understand: “(she) turned her head and spoke a gaze called Next time I promise!” Camelia falls in love with the man giving her extracurricular tutelage in Chinese ideograms, and passages of 70% Acrylic become caught up in whimsical juxtapositions of Chinese words that have the same written symbol but no obvious connection in English, words that Camelia explains share “keys”: Confucius and hole, heart and punish, name and darkness, garbage and inspire. Camelia gets most excited when generating her own word combinations, and as the operatic finale of the novel heads inexorably towards us, she tattoos her favorite creation on her own body in a predictable but satisfying scene.
Foreign languages appear to Camelia as things to be unlocked. Her Chinese “keys” give her insight into a language she seems at times desperate to absorb and master. As an Italian immigrant living in England, her existence is bilingual and fraught with the self-consciousness of someone who is always aware of her foreignness. Her English is frequently misunderstood, and she frequently misunderstands Chinese. The one person with whom she can share her mother tongue, her mother, has refused to speak with anyone for three years. Writers who live between multiple languages are often obsessed with this linguistic movement, with words and slips of meanings (Beckett being maybe the most dazzling example) and Di Grado plays with words and levels of meaning that travel across or get stopped at linguistic borders.
As Camelia retells a story told to her by her dead father, of a Japanese monk who tries to banish his ghosts by writing Chinese ideograms on his body, Camelia’s urgent obsession with writing in foreign languages reveals itself as necrotic fixation. The plot of the book starts and ends with a death, and remains more or less monomaniacally committed to death for the rest of it. The gothic, even emo, tone of the novel drives this home again and again: Camelia is always bleeding, dying, wishing herself dead, rotting and decaying in her linguistically reinforced fortress of solitude. At times this drama feels a little over the top; it can feel like too much youthful melodrama in the genre of “things that clinically depressed twenty year-olds write in their journals,” things like “I’ve divined the truth, I have: the English and the sun and the cars buried under all that white and the postmen and the dogs and the minutes and my pale face in the mirror are nothing more than passing incarnations of death.” Camelia’s father dies once, but she herself dies everyday, she is forever dying and the worst thing that might happen to her is that she won’t die. But even as the morbid litany continues, Di Grado wins you back, with lovely, taut, equally death-obsessed tidbits that charm: “The tongue is a witless crematorium that would like to share but instead destroys, like Edward Scissorhands’ blade-fingers that cut when they caress.” She always finds cleverness and humor just in time to derail her funereal inventories and transform them into endearing, almost aphoristic discoveries.
The hybridized fabric of the novel’s title is a clearly marked, unmistakable symbol, and is a perfect example of the tight literary world Di Grado has wrought in her first novel. Her hybrid acrylic/wool is echoed in Camelia’s Italian/English, in the Chinese ideograms that combine meanings together. Camelia fishes discarded clothing out of the dumpster, destroys them and recombines them into Frankenstein amalgamations again and again. Di Grado likes to play with repeated tropes: keys appear at crucial moments, in ideograms, as the keys to the flute, on a keyboard, to the house. Michael Reynolds has found some elegant ways to fold in these repeated symbols, preserving the nouns that mark the literary device. “Holes” are precisely located throughout the book, from holes in clothes, in photographs, in the ground, in the body, in the washing machine, in cinema, in the ideogram Camelia has tattooed on her body, telling us which symbols to pay attention to and creating an impression of careful technique. 70% Acrylic 30% Wool is incredibly sculpted and tight, with carefully woven images and language that repeat in chiseled arcs, creating a rhythmic narrative that radiates with Di Grado’s mastery of craft.
If 70% Acrylic orbits around death, Hollow Heart fully inhabits it. The narrator of Hollow Heart, Dorotea Giglio, commits suicide in the first sentence: “In 2011 the world ended: I killed myself.” And things go downhill (and underground) from there. The story of the book is structured around the decomposition of Dorotea’s body, slowly rotting below decks while she haunts her mother and ex-boyfriend. She documents the slow disintegration of her physical self with elaborate, scientific tracts, laboriously recorded in a journal that she begins after her death. These passages are strange little prose-poems, written in Italics because “Italics see the dead.” The journal entries are gripping because of their gory detail:
9/17/2011: The anaerobic germs, born inside me, have grown by now.
9/18/2011: My body, especially my swollen, taut belly, is covered with blisters.
9/24/2011: Some of the blisters have burst. Out comes hydrogen. Then nitrogen.
10/12/2011: My stomach has split open.
These grisly passages are essentially the plot of the book, the part of the narrative that is in motion, moving towards an ending. Everything else is frozen, but Dorotea’s festering body changes and transforms.
The project of translation that haunts her first novel is treated to a more theoretical, even metaphysical approach in Hollow Heart. In 70% Acrylic, different languages and cultures struggle to meet each other across vast divides; in Hollow Heart, the barrier is none other than death. The dead, in a genuinely distressing twist, lose their ability to read, but not to write. Dorotea can only scribble away her experiences, never read those of others. But because she is dead, her messages are rarely received. The dead, after all, can’t read, and the living can’t hear the dead.
None of my postmortem letters ever reached their intended recipients, at least not in the common understanding of the phrase, which implies that someone realizes that the letter has arrived. That’s because I myself am a letter that never reached its destination: the message of my body—with all its experiences and the things that it learned—remained buried underground, abandoned.
For Dorotea, her body is the interpreter, and she obsessively documents that body’s destruction beneath the squirming legs of insects, carefully listed in the order of their arrival on her corpse. This creates a world of unbearable solipsism, where Dorotea seems like the only thing that exists. The first sentence of the book, with its ending world, repeats itself in strangely discordant moments, where Dorotea insists that it’s not she that has ended, but everything else; her death is “a universal geological phenomenon.”
Viola Di Grado has created a stylized public personality to match her crafted literary aesthetic: she’s goth. She wears hoods and lace gloves and most notably, deep plum lipstick. In Hollow Heart, lipstick, the classic symbol of femininity, connects Dorotea to other generations of women, to her mothers and her aunts. They wear lipstick together, often the same shade, and resemble each other because of it. And lipstick becomes the medium for Dorotea’s one successful textual exchange with the living. She writes, “I’m still here” in lipstick in her mother’s bathroom, explaining,
I gave no credence to the rhetoric of an unbridgeable gap between the living and the dead. I didn’t entirely believe in the invisibility either. It struck me as a cinematic gimmick, perfect for Demi Moore moping around her apartment in overalls while her dead husband watches over her, unseen. What I needed was a solution, a translation, a way to go on being there. When my mother saw the message, she screamed.
In interviews, Di Grado has asserted that the hard-and-fast distinction between life and death is a Western prejudice, and part of what she hopes to do with her writing is break down that division. She believes that, “life and death are not events, but rather processes.” Her hyper-Gothic novels have a strange optimism, an almost willful aliveness even as they wallow in depression and the vicissitudes of flesh-eating beetles. In the world of Hollow Heart, death is something you can choose not to believe in. Death puts a stop to reading, but not writing, being seen but not seeing. It’s boring and inconvenient and regrettable, but you keep busy, you go on. While 70% Acrylic’s Camelia seems occasionally to be self-indulgent in her despair, it’s hard to fault Dorotea’s moping: she’s dead. And while Camelia’s story ends rather grimly after she murders her mother’s boyfriend and locks them both back into their shared madwoman’s attic, Dorotea finds herself united with her dead aunt, watching over her mother and her newborn baby niece, named after her. The novel told from the point of view of a corpse is, weirdly, more optimistic and encouraging than the novel with a living narrator.
Dorotea draws on a long line of tragic female figures, from her miserable mother and suicidal aunt, to Amy Winehouse (whose suicide occurs on the same day as Dorotea’s), Sinead O’Connor and Violet Trefusis. In one of the most charming scenes in Hollow Heart, Dorotea goes to London to celebrate her fourth death anniversary and attends an Amy Winehouse concert, performed by a dead Amy to an audience of the dead. At one point, Amy gives up performing and lies sprawled on the stage, just singing “Back to Black” as the theatre goes dark around them.
The sense of carefully structured motifs and repeating themes that holds 70% Acrylic so tightly together is just hinted at in Hollow Heart, as though they were training wheels that Di Grado now occasionally likes to revisit. Both novels contain holes, literally, but the symbolic holes that consistently appear in the first novel appear in the second only in wry, self-referential moments – Dorotea’s birth is the result of a hole in a condom, and she’s born and dies in a bathtub, but Di Grado leaves it there. Hollow Heart is freed from some of its author’s earlier formal restraints; having killed off her first-person narrator in the first sentence, Di Grado is allowed to play at being Virgil, shepherding us around her world of the dead. Unlike Camelia, Dorotea isn’t trying to learn or master anything; she has no projects beyond composing a thorough narrative of her own decomposition.
These two novels share their author but not the same translator. Both Michael Reynolds, who translated 70% Acrylic and Antony Shugaar, who translated Hollow Heart, have captured a remarkably similar voice and produced distinctive, quirky renditions of these texts. I imagine that Di Grado, who lives in England, wrote these books with at least a fleeting recognition that they would make their way into the English language; both novels seem at ease in English and not particularly marked by their Italian-ness.
Both novels share a Gothic obsession that, admittedly, some readers may find heavy-handed. Reading entire novels about cockroaches nibbling on your eyeballs, or about soaping down your mother’s sagging, flaccid skin while you slowly lose your mind during a bleak, never-ending English winter might not be a pastime for everyone. But if you can imagine those subjects rendered lovely and captivating by someone who has true talent, then reading 70% Acrylic 30% Wool and Hollow Heart becomes compulsively joyful. Di Grado plays an inventive, self-aware game with language that saturates her macabre landscapes, transforming them into darkly comical expositions of death and unhappiness. In Hollow Heart, Camelia writes about her expectations for the afterlife:
The newly dead, after all the thanatocentric advertising offered by religion and art, have enormous expectations concerning death, and I was no exception to the rule. That first day I anxiously awaited something extraordinary.
One of Di Grado’s most recent Facebook post shows her perched in the window of a castle, bedecked in a giant hat and purple-black lipstick, writing her third novel. I think we’re justified in awaiting something extraordinary.
Caite Dolan-Leach is a writer and translator. She currently lives in Cape Town.