Is it a red-headed angel/ cherub raining his wrath on a solipsistic writer-narrator or a school boy pranking a celebrity visiting his school? Is Giorgia being visited by the spirit of the young Sicilian Nun Filomena or is it her writer’s imagination trying to inhabit Filomena’s life? A peek into a woman’s/ writer’s mind.
— Priyanka Sarkar
The Bombay Literary Magazine
Dacia Maraini (1936) is a leading contemporary novelist, poet, dramatist and journalist. She has founded an all-female theater company, is the editor of Nuovi Argomenti, Italy’s premier literary journal, and is recognized among the foremost writers of Italy. She was both a finalist for the Man Booker International Prize and a three-time nominee for the Nobel Prize in Literature.
What drew me to this story is the counterpoint of reverie and the quotidian in the portraits of two women, Sister Filomena and the writer Giorgia, and the scents and the colors of Sicily permeating their encounter across time.
As a translator my loyalties are evenly split between the text I am translating and the readers of the parallel text I am rewriting in a new language with a completely different set of semiotic and cultural tools. It is a balancing act that engages me as a reader, a critic, a linguist, and a writer, one that requires constant recalibration.
Maraini’s literary project does not call for a specific translation strategy the way a more experimental text might, so translating this story ultimately came down to the deceptively simple task of following the path laid out by the author.
— Adria Frizzi
C. township, 10:00 a.m.
A high school. In a small village among the Sicilian mountains. Lots of students. Who are asking the engaged writer to engage more. But how? A boy with curly carrot-coloured hair looks at her sternly. “You writers have a voice people listen to, but you aren’t using it as you should.”
Giorgia gazes at the boy with the red curls and watches with apprehension two long white wings sprout from his frail shoulders and rise up menacingly.
“Our work unfolds over long periods of time,” she answers timidly.
Now a girl with her midriff exposed pops up out of nowhere next to the angel. She has a silver ring peeking out of her bare belly button and looks at her with a defiant smile. “You have a weapon and you don’t know how to use it,” she says in an indignant tone, “you leave us to rot in this violent, corrupt Sicily without saying a single word.”
A female student in red knee socks takes the writer to visit the convent perched on the cliffs of C.
“Here sister Filomena stopped to pray in front of the Madonna of the Angel.” Another angel? Does he have carrot-coloured curls, too, Giorgia asks herself as she follows the student in the red knee socks up a steep flight of stairs.
“Here are the cells,” the student explains, opening an intricately carved wooden door. Inside the small white-washed room you can see: a clay jug, a small bed, a chipped metal basin, a white pitcher, a cross hanging over the bedstead, and a tiny raw wood prie-dieu. On the floor, next to the door, sits a chest with elegantly painted bunches of yellow and lilac-coloured flowers and two parrots with curved beaks and red and green wings.
“What about this chest?”
“Every nun had one. They kept their trousseau in it. When they died, the same chest served as a coffin.”
“This chest was dug up during restoration work at the convent. The nun’s body was placed in a reliquary. They say it was intact. She is under consideration for beatification.”
Now the student in the red knee socks is walking ahead of her through the maze of hallways leading to a hexagonal courtyard. Small spiral columns made of marble support the vaults of a shady loggia. In the middle of the courtyard, a cramped little garden filled with roses and clumps of lavender. In the center, a gray stone well, surmounted by a wrought iron arch.
1:00 pm. Hotel Belvedere
Giorgia returns to the hotel. She sits on the bed and her thoughts return to the chest painted in bright colours. First it was used to store bedsheets, towels, underclothes, and then the body of the deceased nun was placed inside it. But since when are coffins embellished with parrots and flowers?
She tries to picture a very young sister Filomena, having arrived at the convent in C. a few months prior with her linen-filled chest. She is wearing a black veil on her head. Her throat is covered with a snow-white wimple that falls over her chest like a small apron, always clean and pressed. Every two days the wimple has to be washed and hung to dry. Every two days it has to be starched and pressed. As do the raw cotton shirts the young nuns wear right against their skin. Filomena’s small hard-working hands are always in motion, as the convent’s rule requires: an idle woman falls prey to the devil, so she must keep her hands busy: at five in the morning the sheep have to be milked and then the milk needs to be warmed up in the large copper pots. Right after that there are sheets to wash and hang to dry in the garden. Later the vegetable garden has to be taken care of: cleaning, hoeing, picking up dry leaves, watering tomatoes and cabbages. Then off to the kitchen to sift flour, chop vegetables, fry eggs, shell beans. In idle moments, fingers are to reach for the rosary hanging at her side and move along the beads as she murmurs a prayer. Next she will apply herself to embroidery, and toward evening to the sacred books, and then again the dirty dishes after supper, and at night, when her eyes are puffy with sleep and weariness, her small strong hands will have to hold the heavy book of prayers while her knees press against the rough wood of the prie-dieu for a final farewell to the Lord before going to bed. Sister Filomena knows her duty. Ever since she consecrated herself to the convent when she was barely older than a child, she has renounced mirrors, fancy clothes, dreams of love. Her childish imagination can’t even fathom the magnitude of the sacrifice she is undertaking. Her busy life and the company of other young girls like herself divert her attention from the thought of seclusion. Her judicious hands weave silk threads together, in her throat she barely audibly turns over a song she used to sing with her sisters as a child when they played, hunting for frogs in the pond behind the house.
House of the angel with the carrot-coloured curls
The boy’s mother solicitously helps Georgia out of her coat. She invites her to sit in the lavender-scented living room. There are books on the walls and a TV set, which stands out for its small size. You can tell that this is a family of readers.
Can I get you some coffee? How much sugar? The woman is friendly. The tendons in her neck are taut, as if she were holding back some emotion. She’s thin, and has large eyes which protrude a little too much from her eye sockets, as if she wanted to see beyond things, in a perpetual effort of mind and muscle.
As she drinks the coffee, still thinking about the nun Filomena, Giorgia hears the lady of the house talking to her about her high-school student son. She tells her that he studies a lot, too much perhaps. That he’s very religious. That he recently joined a Catholic association. He’s hard on himself and the others. He’s always berating his father because he doesn’t think he’s honest. “As a matter of fact, he does have a mistress, for over ten years now. But I let it go. He won’t, though. He wants his father to be virtuous. But what are you going to do, he’s still a young man. He’s bursting with desires.”
Giorgia observes with curiosity this beautiful, self-effacing woman, who speaks to her cruelly and without shame. What did she do to deserve her trust? She seems to take pleasure in baring her soul in front of her. But what kind of pleasure is it? A demonstrative display? A request for complicity? The lucid irony of someone who knows she can’t ask for anything else in life and wallows in that fact? She’d like to say something kind to her but her mouth remains shut.
As she crunches on a cumin cookie, she sees the door open. The red-headed angel appears in the doorway. With a placid expression on his face, he politely apologizes for his impertinence this morning at school. Did she perhaps take offence?
“No, why would I?”
“I hope you didn’t bother our writer,” chimes in his mother, placing a nervous hand on her son’s knee.
“I think I annoyed her. You know how young people are,” he says, putting on a mock fatherly voice.
Next morning. C. township. 9:00 am
The school principal offers to take the writer for a spin by the sea. But she asks to go back to the cloistered nuns’ convent instead. The agreeable man takes her up the village’s narrow alleys in his small black car, right beneath the cliff on which the monastery is perched.
“What interests you so much about this convent?”
“I don’t know. The nuns’ life perhaps, or those chests that served as both trousseau and coffin.”
“Would you like to see the refectory with the frescoed walls or the kitchens in the basement?”
“Both,” she replies, a little intimidated. She doesn’t know herself why she wanted to return to the convent.
They go down to the lower floors where the large kitchens are. There are windows but they are placed high up, out of reach. A purplish light filters down from the glass panes.
Ceramic pans, goatskins, water bags, basins, bowls, funnels, flasks, glass jars line the recently reorganized shelves. On the walls gleam brass pots and pans, neatly arranged tins and moulds.
“They excelled at baking. People came from all over the district to buy their confections. They would place money on the wheel, turn it and find a tray filled with amazing pastries.”
“No, by the time I was born the convent was already empty and half destroyed. Now the town council has restored it. My grandmother used to talk about it. She told me that she used to come here on Sundays, as a child, to get desserts for the big midday family meal. The nuns didn’t show their face but they were right there, hidden behind the wheel. It was forbidden to show their faces to strangers. Those sweets were so good, though! Scorzonera, are you familiar with it? It’s a ball made with thin strips of candied orange peel, and rice friselle fried in honey…and gremolate soaked in blueberry syrup, and cuccìa, a mixture of boiled wheatberries, fresh ricotta and sugar.”
Their steps echo in the huge empty hall. Giorgia reaches out with one finger and touches a large copper pot that seems to be steaming over the stove. She withdraws her finger covered with dust. She thinks she glimpses the young nun Filomena leaning against the door jamb. She recognizes her from the small portrait hanging, along with many others, in the convent’s foyer. She is a short, lean girl with large hands. Her eyes are bright and sincere. A grim smile. Can a smile be grim without turning into a sneer? But there’s nothing sneering about that small compact body. Rather, she’s struck by the young nun’s resolute, fierce gaze.
M. township. 11:00 am
Another meeting. In the small village perched on the cliffs with its back turned to a sea always stingy and hostile. There are four high school classes coming from T. and two groups of middle schoolers from C. The principal introduces the teacher tasked with presenting the writer. The kids seem distracted and busy with their cell phones, which light up one after the other. But then, when she begins to talk about things that closely concern them, the cell phones stop vibrating and their attention becomes palpable.
It’s hard to keep a teenager’s attention engaged. Minds tend to stray; thoughts used to jumping from one topic to another with the rapidity of television scatter like pigeons startled by two hands clapping together. Only passion surprises and then captivates them. Never underrate the hunger for ideas of a young mind unaccustomed to systematic thinking. Curiosity about philosophic speculation? Civic passion? Perhaps.
The red-headed angel is not around this morning. These groups are from other schools. The teacher with heavily made-up eyes watches her with curiosity. Giorgia works hard to be heard by everyone in the classroom despite the awful acoustics: voices tend to bounce off the soundproofed walls.
In front of her now are two twin sisters with identical childish, stubborn faces and glasses pushed down their noses. They approach the teacher’s desk to ask her something about violence against women. Is the number of rapes, these “bestial acts,” one of them says, really growing? And why?
Giorgia gently tries to explain that rape has nothing to do with nature and bestiality. “Rape doesn’t exist in nature, animals don’t rape,” she says. “Rather, we could view it as a weapon of war. Those who rape don’t do so because they desire a body but, on the contrary, to humiliate that body, to offend it and dominate it.”
The two twins listen to her with a mixture of incredulity and detachment as their hands play with the rings weighing down their chubby little fingers. They are comical, dressed in matching outfits, red pants and short checkered wool jackets. They are wearing headbands to hold back their hair like little girls, and braces which flash between their thick lips as soon as they smile.
“We reserved a restaurant by the sea. Would you like to eat fish?”
“I’d rather go back to the convent.”
“Don’t you want to have lunch?”
“I’ll eat tonight.”
Albeit annoyed, the teacher with long black hair takes her to the monastery, located above the village, right next to the baronial palace, which remains gutted and as yet unrestored.
“They’re going to turn it into a museum,” she informs her solemnly.
“Could I see sister Filomena’s cell again?”
“She was the daughter of a cobbler, did they tell you? She was betrothed. So the story goes. She had her dowry ready. Despite being poor, her parents had made sacrifices to marry off their beautiful daughter. The groom was a baker who would bring to the marriage a house and a not unworthy trade. But a few days before the wedding the young bride ran away and sought refuge in the mountains. Here, among these cliffs. She hid in a cave and there she lived for six months without being found. She was quiet and as spry as a goat. Her father had given her up for dead. And so had the groom. Until one day a young shepherd saw her and told people in the village about it. But he also said that she had a halo around her head, that she was as thin as a rake, and that she was speaking with the Virgin Mary. Filomena was brought home by her father, who had not given up on marrying her off to whoever he wanted. But she said that she’d rather kill herself than marry. The father bargained with his rebellious young daughter. Not the cave—the convent, if anything. And so Filomena found herself embroidering her trousseau and ordering a painted chest in order to enter the cloistered convent. She didn’t have it easy. She was always kept under special surveillance. A rebellious girl was under suspicion of belonging to the devil. But she fasted, hoed the garden, studied, got up at dawn to pray, and in time they let her be.”
Giorgia follows her thoughts about Filomena, which become fluid and draw her to a place far away in time. The nun’s gaze is fixed on the chest, which sits still, gentle and serene in the back of the cell. Inside that chest are her treasures: five Holland cloth tunics, eight Sicilian silk shirts, four sets of linen sheets, eight embroidered pillowcases, two pairs of woven wicker slippers covered with black velvet, ten white Flanders cloth wimples, ten linen towels, four black veils, two for the summer and two for the winter, and five or six books of devotion: the life of Saint Rita, the life of Saint Monica, the life of Christ, the Gospels illustrated by a famous Benedictine monk, Christmas and Easter songs. Concealed beneath the fabrics there’s also a cloth doll, but she never takes it out unless she’s alone.
In addition, the chest contains some tunics she’s never worn, lovingly sewn by her mother, Agostina Laminti. She remembers well the times she used to come up to the convent in the early days, carrying small baskets with river fish, walnuts and fresh apricots from their garden. Then she got pregnant for the thirteenth time. The doctor told her the baby was in a difficult position and she’d better have an abortion. But she wanted that thirteenth child. And she brought it into the world. But in giving life to the baby she lost her own.
Mamma Agostina carried a faint scent of basil with her. She smiled meekly, covering her mouth with a hand curled like a shell. She was missing four front teeth. She was thirty-eight, but she already looked old. She had become stooped beating sheets in the river with ashes and lye. Her hair had turned gray due to the constant pregnancies. There were always lots of children around and she didn’t have time to sleep or eat properly. And yet she never forgot the rebel daughter who had lived six months in a cave, refused to get married, and now kept herself locked up inside a cell in the convent up above. She used to say that Filomena was the wisest of all her daughters and that she would certainly make a good bride for Christ. That’s why from time to time she left her other children and rushed to the convent bearing small olive oil focacce fresh out of the oven. Every time she arrived, out of breath, she’d sit on the chest and tell her about her sisters and brothers. But she never stayed long. She was in a hurry to get back home. “I see you’re well,” she would say. She’d kiss her forehead and go back down nearly running. She’d give anything to hear Mamma Agostina’s hurried steps again!
6:00 pm. Hotel Belvedere
When she gets back to her room, Giorgia finds some yellow freesias in a blue vase. She bends over to smell them, remembering their secret, ever-so-sweet scent. But these freesias have no scent. Then she recalls hearing that fragrance-free flowers are popular these days. Why? They last longer, was the answer. But they look like plastic.
Giorgia hangs her light blue blouse in the closet. She opens her suitcase to take out her slippers. She lies down on the bed and gazes out the window at the distant sea, which is a strange reddish colour. Higher up, almost against the hotel, you can see the cliff on which the convent and the baronial tower stand out.
The teacher told her that tonight they’re having fresh “caged” tuna. “What does ‘caged’ mean?” “They breed them inside containers in the sea. You should see how nice and round they are. The cages are huge, of course. The tuna can swim back and forth inside them. Then one day they slaughter them with a lot of shouting and furious commotion. They built a factory right next to the tuna fishery. My mother used to work there. Her hands were always ruined because of the constant contact with frozen fish. As soon as the tuna arrive at the factory, they cut them up and freeze them. Then, they send them to Japan and the United States.
“I’ll go inside that chest when I’m dead…but there’s time, I’m only sixteen.”
Giorgia pursues the young nun’s daily thoughts. She thinks she can hear that small, naïve head buzzing away. She sees her from behind, as she sits embroidering with expert hands. She sees her gaze come to rest on the lilac flowers painted on the chest and on those red and green parrots with yellow ribbons fluttering around their necks. The chest is very nice, and just the right size for her body. She even tried it once, to convince her cellmate Amalia, who claimed she could never fit in there. She opened the top, took out the linens and gently lay down inside. She fit just right. Amalia insisted on closing the lid and sat on top of it to spite her. Filomena stayed inside, in the dark, with her arms crossed, thinking about what it must feel like when you’re dead. But she wasn’t scared. The darkness didn’t seem very different to her from that of her cell at night when she closed the heavy varnished wood shutters.
“Aren’t you afraid?” her friend asked her, as she opened the lid.
“No,” Filomena answered smiling.
“You know what I’m afraid of? Of never being able to have a baby,” Filomena blurted out, but she immediately regretted it. How could she think of wishing for a baby when she had been consecrated? Her long black hair had been shorn, and with it she had publicly renounced all desires of the flesh. That’s what the rules of the convent dictated. But she wasn’t thinking about love, she was thinking about the baby. For some reason, ever since she was a child, she’d wanted to hold in her arms and caress a newborn. That’s why she’d brought with her, tucked into the painted chest, a cloth doll she’d made with her own hands. Sometimes at night she picked it up and clutched it to her breast yearningly.
Amalia looked at her, astonished. The girls in the convent thought about nothing but love. They’d fall in love in an abstracted frenzy with a friar they’d only seen from behind in church, or a young peasant who’d dropped off some eggs at the gate house. None ever mentioned children. What was love but that devout, sensual feeling that bound them to the heavenly bridegroom?
“Just one groom for all of us?” Filomena wondered at times, baffled. But she knew that abbess Antonia did not like her “beloved daughters,” as she called them, to ask too many questions. “Faith is blind, my child, and is not to be discussed,” she’d declare, her fat body jiggling. It didn’t take much to make Abbess Antonia smile: all you had to do was bring her a plate of especially well-cooked beans, a carob jelly cake, a cup of whipped cream.
Filomena bows her head over the new embroidery she is working on: it represents a small blond Madonna with a big belly pushing against the blue clothing. She, too, was a virgin. And yet she had a child.
Next day. 2:30 pm. Hotel Belvedere
Giorgia is trying to close the zipper of her suitcase which, for some reason, refuses to budge. And yet she didn’t buy anything. But suitcases possess this characteristic: they allow themselves to be zipped up without any trouble before departure, but on the way back they seem to rebel against being closed.
They are waiting for her in a car in front of the small hotel with the promising name where she spent the last two nights. She moves close to the window. She gazes at the broad view opening up in front of her eyes: the valley studded with unauthorized buildings, a few warehouses for tuna canning, the olive trees, the vineyards, the orange groves. In its midst towers the ugly, lopsided school building. The kids are spilling outside in droves with their colourful backpacks right at this moment, smoking, talking, laughing. At the top left looms the cliff with the cloistered nuns’ convent and the baronial tower.
As she looks up, she thinks she glimpses a small figure leaning out of one of the convent’s windows. It could be sister Filomena. But it could also be the red-headed angel.
Dacia Maraini (1936) has established herself as a leading contemporary novelist, poet, dramatist and journalist. She has founded an all-female theater company, is the editor of Nuovi Argomenti, Italy’s premier literary journal, and is recognized among the foremost writers of Italy. She was a finalist for the Man Booker International Prize and a three-time nominee for the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Adria Frizzi (translator) writes about and translates modern and contemporary fiction from Italian, Portuguese and Spanish. In addition to Maraini, her translations include works by Elena Ferrante, Rossana Campo, Osman Lins, Caio Fernando Abreu, Marina Colasanti and Regina Rheda.