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The Day Before Happiness

The Day Before Happiness - Erri De Luca, Michael Moore, Erri DeLuca Erri De Luca is one of Italy's most popular authors; he's also garnered critical praise, such as being named "author of the decade" (2001-2010) by the Corriere della Sera. He typically publishes short works, several each year, in fiction, essay, and poetry. This one is only 175 pages in English, but that makes it one of his major novels. It's the third De Luca novel to be translated by Michael F. Moore, and the fourth to be published by Other Press; they're working to build a name for De Luca in the U.S. commensurate with his stature in Italy. I was given this book by an Other Press rep when I expressed curiosity about De Luca.]The Day Before Happiness is told by a nameless orphan, growing up in a Naples apartment block in the 1950s, as the city is still recovering from the devastation of World War II. Most of his education to adulthood comes from Don Gaetano, the building's porter: think of the superintendent of an urban American working-class apartment building. During the war, Don Gaeta' hid a Jew from the German occupiers in a cellar under the building, excavated in Naples' volcanic bedrock; during the American occupation, he let smugglers use the cellar as a depository for their contraband. Don Gaeta' teaches the boy to play the Neapolitan card game scopa, takes him to Vesuvius, sends him out to fish with a friend from Ischia, and launches him as a handyman (and as the kind of "handyman" the building's lonely young widow requires). He teaches the boy how to fight with a knife and how to win the love of the little girl he'd admired from afar, now returned to the building as a grown woman.Don Gaetano's voice thus dominates The Day Before Happiness, and translator Moore makes it distinct, but I don't think he succeeds in making it realistic for an American reader. First of all, the prose throughout—both the narration and the dialogue—is riddled with comma splices and run-on sentences. That may be a customary way of representing informal speech in Italian, but in the U.S., in any writing that's remotely literary, it's a solecism that sticks out like a sore thumb. Moore also makes a great effort to replicate Don Gaetano's wordplay at the expense of the illiterate cobbler La Capa, but the setups for the puns he substitutes in English tend to bog down the scenes and kill the comedy. (Yes, it's incredibly hard to do this well, but we shouldn't just throw up our hands and say only [a:Barbara Wright translating Raymond Queneau could manage it.) Finally, much of the dialogue is in Neapolitan dialect, the pronunciation of which is so clipped and twisted relative to standard Italian that many consider it a distinct, incomprehensible language. Moore presents these lines in italics in their original language, followed by an em-dash and the English translation; the effect is of suddenly reading subtitles in a movie mainly in English, taking the reader out of the fictional trance and reminding him that the text is translated. All of these translation decisions could be justified as desirable "foreignization" of the translated text for the American reader, but they bring me into the translator's mind rather than the author's..My other complaint about the novel, which I assume to come from the Italian original (I haven't read it), is its overwritten prose and melodramatic scenes. The narrator comes to sexual maturity as a direct result of climbing Vesuvius: his body surprises him with the unfamiliar urge to masturbate, straight into the volcanic mist at the summit (p. 57). When, later, his childhood love-object Anna inexplicably reappears and offers her body to him, she bites him on the neck, drawing blood (vampire metaphor much?), which mixes on the sheets with the blood from her virginity. She tells him: "It's ours, it is the ink of our pact. You placed inside me your initial, which I awaited intact. I will give it a body and a name" (p. 101). Wince-making scenes and lines like these do their best to spoil an otherwise well-observed story of coming of age in a particularly interesting time and place. (Believe me, the second star of my rating is only grudgingly given.) The novel's climax even approaches the archetypal purity of Borges' tales of Argentine knife fights—but by that point, our experience of the narrator's self-indulgence and introspection has made it impossible to see him as a hero, even a deeply flawed one. I ended up questioning the taste and judgment of the Italian readers who, apparently, loved this book.Here are notes I took of other problematic passages:p. 15: "For us it was about stealing freedom, for him it was about his life. And his life was hanging from someone who could betray him or be arrested, murdered, and not come back to him with something to eat." Here, "hanging from" is almost certainly a mistranslation that should be "depended on."p. 59: "Studied at school, the universe was a table set for guests with a telescope." I can tell what it means, but there's no grammatical way to construe it.p. 72: On hearing the word "outrage," the illiterate La Capa says—translated from Neapolitan—"No one is raging out here." Explaining the joke doesn't make us laugh.p. 79: Anna, describing herself, says, "Today someone like that is called autistic." But in the late '50s, when she's speaking, the term autistic certainly was not in common use, in Italy or the U.S.p. 90: "Except for the few and the worst, no one had a spirit of adventure." Meaning, I think: except for a few, the worst among them.p. 106: The "true color of the sea" is white—"From within, nature must be white." But then on p. 107, "the wind was stripping the white off the sea." Is the white on the inside, or on the surface?p. 128: The narrator says: "Since yesterday I've been going around trying to find whom I should resemble." "Whom" here may be, very strictly, correct, but nowadays it's so uncommon it's become marked as a hypercorrection, and it's certainly not appropriate in spoken language.p. 138: "He needed to separate them..." There's no antecedent for this "he"; it probably should be a generic pronoun, a "he who" or a "someone."p. 141: Don Gaetano says: "The crèche is for persons with children and are teaching them to love the holy story." Should that be "and who are"? (The resulting sentence is still clumsy and unnatural as dialogue, but at least would make sense.)p. 149: "By her there was warmth, she opened in a dressing gown..." After a minute, I figured out that the second clause referred to the woman (the lonely widow) opening the door while wearing a dressing gown. But the "By her" still stymies me—it's like the translation, of what I can only assume is a reference to the widow's apartment, took a detour through the German preposition "bei."