My Sardinian Summer
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A laugh-out-loud, poignant and uplifting ode to the simple pleasure and small joys in life. Perfect for fans of Gail Honeyman, Rosanna Ley and Ruth Hogan. "A lovely feel-good story" -Lisa, NetGalley reviewer "I adored this book... a wonderful discovery!" -Breves litteraires blog How do you find where you're going, if you've forgotten where you're from... WHAT READERS THINK "A wonderful read" -Abby, NetGalley reviewer "An ode to the simple pleasure and small joys in life." - Breves litteraires blog "A real treat!" - RTBF "A book full of light, sunshine and joy." - Lapresse.ca "The writing is soft, luminous, and full of hope." - Blogger " A delightful novel that celebrates the reading experience." - Tele 7 Jours Giacomo is stuck in a funk he can't shake - and a translation he can't finish. When he's summoned home to Sardinia, to say a final goodbye to his dying grandmother, he's offered the perfect opportunity to escape. On the noisy, sun-drenched island, Giacomo reconnects with long-lost friends and overbearing relatives, relives the childhood he once couldn't wait to leave behind, and rediscovers new joie-de-vivre within him. Never mind that he's making no progress on his translation. . . When the time comes to leave once more, Giacomo wonders: has he fallen back in love with his home-island? Or has he been hiding from something which he needs the courage to return and confront? But most importantly - is his grandma really as ill as she's claiming to be?
Release date: March 19, 2020
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Print pages: 236
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My Sardinian Summer
Every time I come back, I get this feeling, just for a moment, that everything’s changed – the mentality, the people, the dog bowl by the neighbours’ door … But it’s a short-lived illusion. Nothing ever moves, here in the village. Maybe it’s the altitude that prevents any movement, I don’t know. The altitude rarefying the air. You’d have to take everyone down into the valley, see if things change. But no one ever goes down there. As if they just have to stay up here, cut off from anyone else, cut off from a life outside these brightly coloured walls with their pictures. You see, our village has another distinctive characteristic: people draw on walls. Frescoes, caricatures, random things, animals, nothing goes unrecorded by the artists’ brushes. A sort of vast, ever-present open-air comic book.
It was six o’clock in the morning. The first bus of the day had just dropped me off on the main road through the village. Six o’clock in the morning, a time for stray dogs and travellers newly arrived in the port fifty minutes earlier. There have always been as many stray dogs as people, respectfully sharing out the time: daytime for the humans, night-time for the abandoned mutts. There were a couple I recognized, even though I came to the island less and less. You have to be brave to go back to the place you were born, the place where you grew up, and see it through an adult’s eyes. I wasn’t brave. Every trip back was painful, making me suffer more and more and giving me less and less pleasure. I lived far away from this little world, in France, without the bright colours of those houses, without pictures on the walls and without stray dogs.
As it happens, one of the dogs came over to me as I stepped off the bus, as if to sniff out whether I had any connection with the place, whether I had the right to set foot there. He accepted me by refraining from chewing off my leg. I know I’ve said this before, but I’m really not brave. As a protection, I put my small suitcase between myself and the dog, the suitcase that held a part of my existence. A little bit of France in Sardinia. My clothes, of course, and the book I’d been working on for several months: a new translation of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. There were also the pages of my work so far, which had been arduous to produce. I minded much more about them than my clothes because I’d never had such a complicated job before.
Melville had reworked the book a few months before he died, and my editor, Carlo, had stumbled across this text that specialists didn’t know existed. A text that he’d entrusted to me, a translator with a great career ahead of him … a future benchmark in the field … it was a great honour. A form of recognition, my friends said. What not many of them knew was that the editor’s mother was Sardinian. That was why. The real reason. But I kept this to myself. Sometimes it’s good to keep a bit of mystery about ourselves and the things that give us a leg-up in life.
I’d said yes to the editor, without realizing how difficult the work would be. Or how important. It was so easy to sign the contract, so tempting. The problems would come later. I hadn’t remembered that Melville’s book was so long. Seven hundred and forty-two pages in the existing version. Six hundred and forty-one in the version I was to translate. A hundred fewer pages – I could count myself lucky.
So when the dog drew closer to my suitcase, I was apprehensive about my leg, obviously, but I also felt a perfectly legitimate terror at the thought of watching my work being destroyed by a dog that no one had even noticed except for me at this particular moment. It was a good thing, then, that he spared me and left my suitcase intact. He probably wasn’t a big Melville fan, or maybe he was frightened of taking on that whale. Dogs are no braver than people, at the end of the day. Eventually, they all wandered off and left me to make my way over to my parents’ house.
There was still no one out in the street when I reached the front door. The ghost village was fast asleep. The lock was tricky, as it had always been, as if the house expected anyone who wanted to come in to make an effort. My parents weren’t there, they’d gone away for a holiday on the other side of the island. They always let me have a key so I could come back whenever I felt the need to. And that need was proving increasingly rare. Parents think they know best about what their children want. Sometimes they’re wrong. The house was cold. The shutters, which had been closed since they’d left, had stopped the sun from getting inside.
My parents were an odd couple according to our friends, they were an odd couple according to the wider family, an odd couple according to other villagers, an odd couple according to the whole world. Some people are just like that, they spend a lifetime side by side when they were designed to be blissfully unaware of each other. Nothing clicked between them.
My father was the incarnation of calm. In ancient Greece he could have applied to be the god of introspection. Few words found an opportunity to come out of his mouth. And because this had been going on for years, the few remaining words available had forgotten how to get to the exit. Every now and then a word would find it, but apparently failed to pass the information on to the others.
My mother, on the other hand, specialized in micro-scandals and over-inflated dramas. I’ve lost count of the times she walked out, leaving my father on his own, sad and dejected, his hands tucked into his pockets until she came back. My mother would move in with my grandma, in the house opposite. These escapes lasted two or three days, never more. My father had to suffer, that was her watchword. The worst of it was, these arguments should never have happened. They often evolved from completely inoffensive situations. One time my father helped a pretty tourist who’d got lost in our village and wanted to know how to get to the coast. “Il mare,” she kept saying, swivelling her head from left to right. It took my father five minutes to explain the directions to her.
I was a teenager. The tourist really was very pretty, with direct eye contact and just the right depth of tan, one of those tourists who’s mastered the sun’s influence on her skin. She wasn’t the sort who come to our island to go home roasted. We eat grilled pork, not foreigners. I would gladly have kissed her sleeveless arms. I even imagined asking for her hand in marriage and taking her away from the village for a wonderful romantic idyll in a shepherd’s hut. Not too far from my family home, but just enough so we wouldn’t hear my mother’s shouting.
I daydreamed while my father tried to help her, in English that he cobbled back together specially for the occasion, a sort of mash-up of Beatles lyrics and the remnants of lessons he’d had forty years earlier. After five minutes, he gave up and tried drawing the route instead. Unlike words, anyone from anywhere can understand a drawing. Papa painted house walls when people asked him to, frescoes or even just colours. Painter-decorator and artist rolled into one. Blue, red, green, shapes, figures and words emerged from his sturdy hands. And they needed to be sturdy, to have all that in them.
The tourist moved in closer to get a better look. The sketch was clear, precise, as perfect as her skin – Clara, was her name, she’d eventually revealed, dazzled as she was by my father’s skilled cartography. But at the sight of the reduced distance between them, my mother bristled, complaining that never in twenty years of marriage had my father drawn anything for her.
“So you’ll draw for a foreigner, Mario, but not for me, your wife, Maria, your ever-faithful wife.” My mother had an unfortunate tendency to see herself as the perfect faithful wife.
Clara, who didn’t understand my mother’s outburst, most likely thought Mama was giving my father advice to improve his map. She smiled at her and I knew my mother’s fury would be unleashed in the house as soon as Clara drove away to the coast. “You disappoint me, Mario, never a single drawing for your wife.”
She was right. My father never drew, not for her nor for other women. And certainly not for me. He wasn’t the type to draw a particular type of car for me when I was little, nor suns or houses. I had nothing from him, nothing tangible, just his eyes filled with despair before the tornado. The weather’s on the turn, they seemed to say, already misting over. Once we were alone, Clara having gone – and in my mind she had become Chiara, alba chiara, a luminous perfection that had now gone – my mother headed straight for thunderous darkness. Inside the house, doors slammed, as did words. She packed her bag, which was in reality always ready, just in case, and went off to my grandma’s house. This departure, if her words were to be believed, was for good. She wouldn’t be coming back this time. She came back the next day. “That’s the last time, Mario, do you hear me?”
I’d noticed that the name Mario was only brought out for special occasions. It was a mark of solemnity, a sign intended to draw my father’s attention to the gravity of the situation. At all other times she called him Papa. Of course he wasn’t her papa but her husband. He was my papa. As a child, I seriously questioned their relationship. There’s no denying this scrambling of names wasn’t easy to understand. Luckily for me, these exceptional situations that brought Mario out for an airing weren’t actually so exceptional.
Stepping into the house thirty years later, it felt as if her insults and disapproval lived on between those walls, now yellowed by these old squabbles. It was half past six and I walked, like a ghost, down the long corridor that led to my bedroom. A gallery of family portraits looked down at me. I didn’t remember all these people hung around the house. They must have been glad of a visitor in this God’s waiting room of a place. But I wasn’t here for them. I didn’t show any sign of my indifference as I walked along that chilly corridor, eyeing them with feigned nostalgia, its fakery imperceptible to the dead.
I was here for my grandmother, my nonna, who was breathing her last according to the message that my uncle Gavino had left on my voicemail. She had gone into a deep coma. My parents were due back later in the day. They had gone off on an “expedition” in the south of the island, visiting an old friend of my father’s who had recently been widowed. And yes, it was an expedition for them to leave the village. My mother didn’t cope well with the upheaval – yes, this qualified as “upheaval” to her – and being away from home. As if the walls might collapse without her, as if she were holding up the whole construction. She agreed to this trip to please my father, to allow him to spend some time with his childhood friend, so the two men could look at old photographs together. Side by side, they would laugh – and cry too – while she snoozed on the sofa. More proof of her love, probably.
“Be quick, Giacomo. The doctors don’t think she has long.”
I was in Marseille, deep into my translation, grappling with Moby Dick, when my phone announced the news to me. Gavino never called me, so I immediately knew he must have something important to tell me. In every family, there is one person who takes on the role of bearer of bad news. Gavino had come through the casting session with flying colours, thanks to his exaggeratedly deep voice, that was so good at implying imminent and inevitable doom. Or in this instance, my grandmother’s demise. I caught the first available boat, paying through the nose to spend the crossing lying on a bench seat in the middle of the piano bar. An unfortunate singer (I say unfortunate because no one would feel fortunate in such a place) trudged through Phil Collins’ backlist, singing continuously to avoid the silence where the applause should have been. Everything about his performance was pitiful: his suit, his voice, his backing track and his audience. And Phil Collins. How could anyone arrange their set list around Phil Collins? Wasn’t there someone in charge of programming who could have talked him out of that, at least? Someone with a degree of common sense to tell him that nobody would clap a Phil Collins tribute act?
Moby Dick would have been doing the world a service if he’d decided to attack the boat during this set. We would have all died as heroes, and people would have wept over our terrible fate.
But the sea monster was safe and warm in my bag, happy to stay put. The show on offer was probably not to his taste. After his performance, the singer came and sat near me. You’ve probably realized I attract this sort of attention, from stray dogs and singers alike.
Like a forest put to sleep by a witch, my bedroom hadn’t changed since my last visit, which was now over a year ago, nearly two. The bed was made. Mama always kept it made. You never knew when I’d be there, she would say. “You’re like the postman, we wait and wait for him and he doesn’t come. Then the next day, when we’ve given up hope, he turns up. We’re a bit angry because he could have come sooner, but we don’t say anything, we just smile stupidly, almost apologize for not greeting him with enough enthusiasm …”
On my bed was a copy of Zeno’s Conscience that I translated into English. It had been a gift to my parents. They were always proud to see my name on books, even if it was just on the inside pages. Mama claimed to recognize something of me in my translations, despite not reading English. I lay down on my cold bed and began to read. One page, then two, then three …
The ceiling light was flickering, irritating me. I wanted to ignore it and carry on reading, but it was impossible. The text was visible for a few seconds, then disappeared, and I had to start the same sentence again. After ten minutes of unfruitful reading I switched off the light and opened the shutter, letting daylight discreetly fill the room. I stood on the bed to look at the bulb. I didn’t have a replacement for it and knew nothing about electricity, but, hey, don’t we often do pointless things to make ourselves look important? I’d noticed this with people whose cars break down. Their knee-jerk reaction is to open the bonnet and look at an engine which they have no idea how to fix. But still they look, as though the problem will leap up and say: “I’m right here! You just need to move this here, and the car will start.” Until they eventually slouch back to their seat and defeatedly call a breakdown service.
From where I was standing on the bed, the world looked different. Looking at my room from above gave me a panorama of the years I’d spent here. A life lived on an island, far removed from the crowds and bustle of the mainland. With its loneliness, struggles, cobbled streets and inhabitants stationed outside their houses. If I went to the library, I had to cross the main road and walk right past those wizened eyes, those seated figures that never smiled, never betraying any indication of goodwill.
It turned out that the lightbulb in the bedroom had a little collection of dried-out flies on it. Mama was far too short to reach up here. And to think, she spent days on end cleaning the house, hunting down the tiniest speck of dust … I wouldn’t mention this macabre find. I swiftly ran a hanky over the flies, giving them a little send-off. Here lies one of the flies, etc.
Just so that I’d covered all bases, I twisted the bulb back in a couple of times. This operation did nothing to settle its rubbish illuminating abilities. Never mind, daylight would do. I went back to my book, glad to be reunited with Zeno, my Zeno with whom I’d spent many a long month in Marseille. We were a well-matched couple: he had his cigarettes and I my fear of failure. A fear I could never shake off, probably part of my innermost being.
The ghosts on the landing wall slept peacefully. They weren’t alone anymore.
“Are you Sardinian?”
“Um … yes. I don’t really know. It’s complicated.”
“How are you feeling? Do you not know that either? You are funny.”
“I was born on the island but I haven’t lived here for a long time. Funny, me? How about you, are you Sardinian?”
“No, I’m from Rome.”
“If you say so.”
“Rome’s a wonderful city.”
“Do you know it?”
“No, I’ve never set foot in the place.”
“You should. It really is beautiful, you’re right. I think your phone’s ringing.”
“It’s nothing, probably a mistake. I’m not expecting any calls. Not too difficult, singing on a boat?”
“You get used to everything, you know. In the early days, my voice would rock with the boat. In other words, the show was pretty mediocre. I’ve got used to a moving stage now. My voice is steadier. Easier on the ear.”
“It certainly is, I found it very easy on the ear.”
“Did you really listen? Be honest with me, don’t spare my feelings.”
“At the beginning, yes. But I’m tired at the moment, I can’t concentrate. I ended up falling asleep.”
“No one normally listens to me, you know. People have better things to do. Like sleeping. Talking, eating. I’m like a bottle of oil on a restaurant table, people only see me if they feel the need.”
“I think you’re being hard on yourself.”
“It’s the truth. I’ve been singing on this stage for ten years. But Phil Collins is my speciality. He’s a major artist. And how about you, what do you do for a living? Don’t say music producer or impresario, or I’ll jump overboard … After what I’ve just told you … You’re not likely to offer me a fantastic contract and a world tour …”
“No danger of that.”
“You really are funny. Humour’s a rare quality. It’s what keeps me going, you know, when I’m singing to a room full of sleeping passengers, all lying awkwardly on these curved seats, with their shoes off and holes in their socks. They find it hard to get to sleep and then wake up full of aches and pains but they still come back on these boats every year! But let’s get back to you – I’m a typical artist, it’s always all about me. What do you do?”
“I’m a translator.”
“Yes, I mostly translate English novels into French. I also sometimes translate Italian into French. It all depends.”
“Depends on what you’re offered?”
“So you’re actually copying out books in another language.”
“You could say that.”
“You say the same thing as the authors but in the language you’ve been asked to.”
“I say nearly the same thing.”
“It’s all about the nearly. I’m the nearly man. More or less.”
“And I’m nearly a star … What are you translating at the moment, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“I’m working on an unpublished version of Moby Dick, have you heard of it?
“The one with the whale?”
“People who work on boats avoid reading that sort of thing.”
“If you want to know a bit more about my work, I did a. . .
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