A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Frisch & Co, a German publisher specialising in e-books in English translation, has an eye for quirky novelists writing in languages that anglophones rarely explore. I read two of their Italian offerings, The Combover by Adrian N Bravi, and I Stole the Rain, by Elisa Ruotolo. They’re good books; well-written, nicely translated, absorbing, and also very short. But as e-books they had a lot of work to do to claim my attention.
I have to read e-books for work when no print edition exists, or is ridiculously expensive, but this is an ordeal for me: reading this way is sore on the eyes, too heavy on the wrists or lap with the weight of the Device, and deeply frustrating. So reading e-books for pleasure is the biggest oxymoron in my life. After I received a very nice Nexus for my birthday, I gave e-reading another try, but it hasn’t improved. Perhaps I chose the wrong apps: the Kindle app is adequate as an interface between me and a novel, but is still rather hit and miss. Moon Reader Pro is just awful, I cannot believe how much irritation and frustration it generates in the simple act of (failing in) finding the last chapter read, or seeing how many pages are left. And that is just in the simple act of reading: there is a great deal more in the reading experience of a printed book that an e-book cannot offer. I get really annoyed when the battery runs out: no book has this problem, not does it take 8 hours to recharge! I miss the softness, lightness and tangibility of paper. I miss the simplicity and ease of moving through the book rapidly and in full control, looking at two or more pages at once, flipping back and forth at will. I miss the information on the copyright page, the extra bits about illustrations or maps, the advertising about forthcoming books, the info about the author and their previous works, the back page blurb, even the cover artwork, because all this imprints the story, and the emotional and intellectual impact of the words and their narration, in my memory. An e-book simply imprints frustration, and a burning desire to never read this way again.
So, Bravi and Ruotolo were working against a considerable amount of negative energy when I began to read their stories. Bravi’s The Combover (translated by Richard Dixon) is very very short: I was taken by surprise at its ending, when it seemed to be just getting into its stride. It’s the story of Arduino, a university lecturer who cherishes his father’s proud tradition of the sculpted combover, and finds his life going off the rails when an Argentinian student approaches the podium one day in mid-lecture, and detroys the professor’s lacquered coiffure by flipping it down into his eyes. Naturally the professor flees, back to his home village, and escapes into the woods to live as a hermit, contemplating the nature of free will, and how he will find his way to Lapland, where he has decided that he will find spiritual freedom. Naturally his arrival in the district attracts attention, and before the week is out Arduino and his carefully maintained combover are attracting devotees who wait patiently for their faith healing properties.
This is very visual fiction of the absurd by a screenwriter and a comedian. Bravi makes the reader adopt the world view of Arduino by offering no alternative point of view. It’s hard work to remember that the off-kilter rural Italian setting is possibly alive and well, and above all normal, right now in the heart of Italy, since they seem as bizarre as the rest of the plot. It felt cruel to laugh at Arduino’s obsessions, and it was appalling to read his meltdown at home, and the treatment of his wife. This is a strange, haunting oddity, with nagging questions about why we choose the hairstyle we do.
Elisa Ruotolo’s I Stole the Rain is translated by Lisa McCreadie, and is a set of three shortish short stories, with the same grim, poverty-threatened daily existence as a setting. ‘I Am Super Legend’ is told in flashback by a bar owner married to an illegal immigrant. But the fake marriage and his hopes for finally owning the bar are a tiny detail compared to the passion and richness in the backstory of his rise to village football league stardom, and his shocking failure to shine in basic training at a football academy, in a different culture that follows the offside rule. I remember watching Italian village football matches during one summer in the 1980s, when I was on an archaeological dig near Naples, and this story rings very true, with the primitive conditions and the traditional social politics. ‘The Child Comes Home’ uses the same technique of the tiny detail to frame a story about something completely different: a son who disappeared at the age of nine causes the mother’s miserable marriage to be destroyed by her refusal to accept his death. In parallel, she continues her illiterate grandmother’s business as a black-market seller of gold jewellery, despised by her batty sisters-in-law, and cautiously finds love again with an elderly friend. ‘Look At Me’ is the saddest of all, the cruel story of Cesare who cannot speak, his forceful adoption by the narrator’s father, and the awful trick played on him that destroys the creaking arrangements built up around a family without a wife or mother, and with a housekeeper without a reputation.
These are stories with characters that will not leave you, and will return at the slightest mention of a gold brooch, or a goalpost, or even a broken radio. In the end, the medium of the stories didn’t affect my appreciation. I will never willingly read an e-book again, but I would be happy to read more by Bravi and Ruotolo. Sorry, Frisch & Co …
Adrian N Bravi, The Combover, originally published by Edizioni Nottetempo, published by Frisch & Co 19 November 2013, ISBN 978-0-989-12674-8, $5.99
Elisa Ruotolo, I Stole the Rain, originally published by Edizioni Nottetempo, published by Frisch & Co 15 October 2013, 978-0-989-12673-1, $5.99.
Kate podcasts about books that cause emotional upheavals on http://www.reallylikethisbook.com.