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Sunday, January 29, 2012

Luigi Meneghello: Deliver Us

The cover of the English edition,
featuring a street in Malo.
It is difficult to be too concise in an introduction to an introduction.  Here are the basics.  With the permission of Northwestern University Press, and Frederika Randall, we are pleased to present excerpts from Deliver Us (2011), Luigi Meneghello's charming and wise 1963 memoir of growing up in the 1920s and 1930s in Malo, a village in northern Italy, as well as selections from translator Randall's elegant introduction. 

The book is special, but so, too is Ms. Randall's first-and-only English translation.  When Meneghello's second book, The Outlaws (available online), an account of the author's experience with the partisans in World War II, appeared in English in 1967,  the inside jacket noted the existence of the earlier book--"highly praised by Italian critics," but despaired that it would ever appear in English because it was "virtually untranslatable."  It's been done.  Below, Ms. Randall introduces the book and describes some of the challenges she encountered.

From the jacket:

Luigi Meneghello (1922-2007) was among Italy's most acclaimed twentieth-century writers.  After taking part in the resistance during the war, he founded a highly influential Italian Studies department at the University of Reading in England, which he led until his retirement in 1980.  Meneghello's book about the resistance (The Outlaws, 1967), can be found online. 

Frederika Randall's translations include Sergio Luzzatto's Padre Pio (2010) and The Body of Il Duce (2005) and Ottavio Cappellani's Sicilian Tragedee (2008).  A journalist in Rome, she has written for the New York Times, The Nation, the Wall Street Journal, and many other publications.  [For the RST blog, she has written on the complex effect of current Italian politics on the anti-Fascist Resistance song, Bella Ciao, and on Rome's beloved 19th century writer, Giuseppe Gioachino Belli, whom Pasolini called "the greatest Italian poet."]
From the "Translator's Introduction: The Dispatriate" (by Frederika Randall):

The area around Malo.  Padua
is at lower right. For a
clearer map, click here.
There is no good way to reproduce the sparking sense/nonsense of Libera nos a malo, the title of Luigi Meneghello's first and best-loved book.  "Deliver us from evil": the well-known phrase, in Latin, comes from the Paternoster, of course, but it also evokes pure childish fun, for Malo is the name of the country town near Vicenza in northeast Italy where Meneghello was born and raised.  That malo pronounced during the mass set off a chain of associations for a native, not only because it bizarrely summoned up a real place on the local map, but because the vernacular male means not just evil but also pain, suffering, illness, and harm, practically the sum total of everything terrible....

By turns sharp, amused, ironic, light-handed, and sometimes vigorously rude, Meneghello's memoir is a recollection of childhood in a time and place--rural Italy of the 1920s and 1930s--that was already disappearing when it was published in 1963.  Although the events in his story take place less than a century ago, Meneghello describes a world in some ways closer to the peasant Italy of the Middle Ages than to the twenty-first-century urban sprawl that characterizes the region today....

It was a territory ruled by hard work, the Church, and Il Duce.  Here, as in many other parts of Italy, the Catholic Church exerted a powerful hold on morals and on the popular imagination.  The newest element in this universe was Fascism....Questioning authority, whether that of the Church, the state, or the family, was not encouraged by anyone.  And yet the people of Malo constituted their own part-archaic, part-modern society, through which the laws and language of the priest and the prefect trickled down only partially and imperfectly.  In some ways the town was fiercely controlled from on high; in other ways, it was strangely free.... 

[Deliver Us is] a work of memory that implicitly acknowledges the pitfalls of memory--lapses, anachronisms, exaggerations, mistakes--but it is told with the utmost respect for the truth....

Closest of all to his heart were reflections on language and the experience of using multiple languages: one spoken, one written, one only vaguely apprehended in church during the mass....

Libera nos a malo is not an easy book to translate, particularly into a language like English, which has no real counterpart to the Vicentino dialect that is such an important element in Meneghello's portrait of his native place....

The problem for a translator is not so much to render the meaning of dialect expressions, which are usually made clear by the author, as to convey the experience of having two different kinds of languages at one's disposal: an exclusively oral, richly expressive local idiom, and a more learned, less flexible, standard national language....

He had become, as he termed himself in a 1993 book, a "dispatriate."  Not an expatriate, nor an exile longing for his native ways and language.  Not an emigrant driven by economic forces, or a refugee fleeing political chaos.  But someone who had taken a good, hard look at his mother culture even as he was adopting a second one....Dispatriation: it was an experience that is probably even more pertinent and more eloquent today that it was when Meneghello first used the term, in this era when so many of us are now crossing and recrossing the borders of our globe.

Frederika Randall

From Deliver Us, by Luigi Meneghello:

    On the Vernacular
     We'd laugh with the servant girls:
     Bianco rosso e verde
     color delle tre merde
     color dei panezèi
     la caca dei putèi.

     White, red and green
      the color of the tree turds
      diaper-color, like
      baby shit.
Meneghello, in a cornfield in
Veneto, where polenta originated.
     This wasn't meant as a criticism of the tricolored national flag, not at all.  The flag was run up on Aunt Lena's balcony, it was described in "Thoughts" at school.  The three turds were lined up in the garden under the Count's wall, as shiny as paint, big flies buzzing around them, and Colomba came and tossed a wet diaper over them and mixed the colors together into a yellowish mess.
     White, red, and green was just a phrase in Italian; all the rest was its counterpart in dialect.  But there was a polemical side to all of this: we sensed that dialect gave immediate, almost automatic access to a sphere of reality that for some reason adults wanted to contain and control.  We sensed, too, that adults were playing games about this, and we admired that young, anonymous man of the people--inimitable, alas--who protested so radically as to attack the very fundamentals of our society, Family and Religion....

     A man's personality is made of two strata: on top, lie the superficial wounds in Italian, French, Latin, or whatever; down below, the older wounds that, healing, made scars of the words in dialect.  Touch one and it sets off a chain reaction, very difficult to explain to someone who has no dialect.  There's an indestructible core of material that has been apprehended, picked up with the prehensile shoots of the senses.  The dialect word is eternally pegged to reality because the word is the thing itself, perceived even before we begin to reason, and its power doesn't diminish with time, given that we've been taught to reason in another language.  This is true above all for the names of things.  

     On soccer
     We would accept and reject applicants [for the team] with great hauteur,  I holding in hand the symbol of power, the ball, and Piareto with the scowl of a senior executive.  An aspiring left wing, however, surprised us with an unexpected move: he put his hand in his pocket and asked how much the position cost.  Right then and there we hatched the idea we might be able to get twenty cents, maybe thirty; Piareto thought we should aim high, forty cents or nothing.  But the candidate, the son of a barkeeper, cut us off and pulled out a franc.  That colossal bad made us lose our heads, and the coaching staff began to jump up and down with joy and hug the prosperous left wing.

     In the Piazza
Piazza Marconi, Malo
MIDDAY, SUNSHINE, WHEN the summer still feels endless, at the bar in the piazzetta with a glass of white wine.  My father and I not saying much, waiting for friends, observing people we know.

      Utter, supreme joy, out of time, in the very heart of town, as if beyond the reach of death.  I shiver under the sun. 

Monte di Malo rises above the town.
The Town
The town of the past had its qualities: it shaped a human community that was modest but organic.  We all knew everone, relations between the young and the old were more natural, relations between human beings and things were stable, ordered, lasting.  Houses, public works, furniture, the objects of daily life: all lasted a long time.  Everything was encrusted with experiences and memories thickly laid one over the other.  Domestic utensils had a sharper personality, you could sense the hand of the craftsman who had made them and the very parsimony of life lent them importance.  Even children's toys were more consequential: fewer plastic toys, less foolishness.  Everything cost and was worth more; even the marbles we played with, the toy soldiers, were treasures.

     In the abstract, schoolmates were neither to be loved or abhorred; the injunction to love made no sense in dialect (and for that matter, it is a strange injunction even in Italian, and not even my teachers in Vicenza and Padua were able to teach me what it actually meant).  Schoolmates were like everyone else; you got along with some of them, with others you didn't, and it varied day to day.

     The principle virtues pertained to the circle of the family, and were connected with
the necessities of life, or with work.  The word "duty" in the moral sense is unknown in dialect; we have instead the word "need," in the sense in that there's no escaping something, as in one "must needs die."  One must needs work, also, for one's dòna, one's woman, for el me òmo, "my man," for the children and for the elderly who can no longer work.  You must needs work not eight hours, or seven hours or ten hours a day, but practically always, perhaps with pauses, interruptions, or slowdowns but continuously and without looking at the clock, more or less from when the sun rises well into the night....Here again, I refer not to deeds but to ideals, for not everyone worked this hard: there were the do-nothings, the slackers, the perfectionists....For most, life was extremely hard: it was hard in the fields, in the foundries, in the craftsman's shop, in the spinning mills, and it was very hard indeed for the women at home and in the family.  And even the jobs considered least demanding--the shopkeepers, the tavern keepers, the merchants, the traders--were very hard by today's standards. 

     Someone who was unusually correct in business dealings would be called "honest," a quality considered both admirable and a bit unwise, a luxury and a refinement on the part of an eccentric, usually a gentleman, that is, someone who could afford not to worry about the consequences.  The opposite of "honest" was not "dishonest" but "someone who looks after his own interests."  The town equivalent of "dishonest" would be un poco de bòn, a no-good, meaning someone who cheats in those spheres where it's not permitted, or cheats without any real necessity.  The chicken thief is neither honest or dishonest, he's a thief....
    The canonical sins--envy, pride, wrath, greed, etc.--were thought of as psychological traits, not moral concepts.  As children we were taught to accuse ourselves of them during confession, and we did so scrupulously, but growing up they seemed irrelevant, like searching our consciences about being "disobedient." 
Luigi Meneghello with his wife, Katia, a close

Christian marriage is a sort of mission in partibus infidelium, to the land of the unbelievers.  Males are naturally pagan, and it is the job of the Christian bride, not so much to covert her husband as to save his soul.  The savage male drinks, gambles, swears, molests women, gets into fights.  The missionary wife does not try to counter these habits, she just takes care of the essential, that minimum of masses, sacraments, and worship necessary to remain on good terms with heaven--so that his soul can be picked up directly on his deathbed. 

   The Sermon
    Don Antonio, who was then still known as the Capellanello, the junior chaplain, also preached with great economy.
     "The Virgin Mother," he said one time as he settled into the pulpit, and then fell silent, bowing his head.  He was silent for half a minute, utterly mute.  Then he said, "the Most Holy Virgin," and fell silent again, his head down.  Whole minutes went by, the hypnotic hush grew into an enormous silence, and Mino's grandmother was terribly embarrassed.  Then Don Antonio slowly raised his face and said, "Let Jesus Christ be praised," and stepped down.  To me, it was a moving sermon.

     Finally, the important thing was not to understand, but to know.  Doubts were discouraged, and if necessary, prohibited.  Doubts were supposed to become less childish and foolish as we grew, like Jesus, in wisdom and age--but age, rather than assist in resolving doubt, seemed to make it more difficult.  With tme, you ended up falling back on the position taken by nearly all adult males: now that you were no longer a child, these things were best left to children and devout women.  To children who recited the Sins That Cried Out to Heaven, to women who muttered prayers in incomprehensible jargon.  Such things must mean something, but what they meant was no business of ours, it was church business.  There was no connection between these abstruse lists of Vices and Virtues and everyday real life. 

     Spoken Art, and Il Duce
     This modest spoken art is dying rapidly, and in recent years, more rapidly than ever.  All that one can do is testify that it once existed, and say that a good night at Felice's tavern was at the level of an evening at the Establishment Club in London. 
     When Felice would "do" Il Duce, it was as if for the brief duration of his performance, Il Duce was really among us.  The show was mute and without hand gestures.  Employing minute, imperious contractions of his face muscles, the Founder of the Empire arrived in Malo, came into the bar wearing a sweater, sat down at the table next to ours, and painlessly electrocuted us with his predatory eyes. 

Luigi Meneghello, Deliver Us (1963)



thunderfun said...

My father was an m.p. in germany where he watched overe a prisoner of war who made him a carved out picture of italy.... his name was luigi meneghello... he carved it in the back of the picture... can this be one and the same? It is the same time period And maybe he was under arrest during the insurrection? You can contact me at and my name is carl

Anonymous said...

" Volta la carta, che NON la ze ANCOR finìa! "
Un Grande uomo.