The Problem with Places

by Paolo Giordano
(translated for us by his publisher from the Italian)

It is no longer in fashion – fortunately -, nevertheless a couple of
friends, particularly around September, still insist in proposing evenings at home to project on a white wall the photos of their own holidays. Punctually, in such occasions, my father’s similar initiatives come back to my mind, when I was still living with him: sleepy after-dinners spent in dim-light during which, voice out of sync with the picture, described with meticulousness slides of places that we had already seen, whilst my sister repeated the exasperating litany: “how many more?”.

I get annoyed when others tell me about the places they have visited. Therefore, in turn, I tend to avoid it. Returning from a journey, at the recurring question: “So, how was it?”, I always respond with a laconic and interchangeable: “Beautiful”. Maybe it’s my fault – a concentration span too short, an intolerance due to the abuse of slides at a young age, a congenital aversion to still life -, but I find the majority of people (and myself above all), incapable to narrate a place – and above all a city -, without inserting a sequence of “there was a church that, there was a beach where, there were some very tall trees with”. Still images, often not very original, flattened like the slides of my unshakable friends.

But is it really possible to narrate a city? Is it possible to restore that elusive mood – I couldn’t define it otherwise – that makes you declare “I’m madly in love with Berlin”, rather than “I can’t stand Florence”? Is it possible to describe Paris without the Eiffel Tower, London avoiding the Big Ben, and New York without the sun lazily setting behind the skyline? I was sure I didn’t know how to do it, not even my own city, Turin, which I know like I knew the playground near my native home, inch by inch in all its surface, situated between the hill and the bypass. So, when I wrote my first novel, “the solitude of prime numbers”, I chose not to mention Turin not even once, to render each place, that in my head had a precise position, reachable by car in less then ten minutes from my district, a place generic and absolute: the park, the school, the river and so on.

In the months following the publication (by now too late), I discovered that each choice made throughout the writing, sooner or later, it needs justifying in front of someone: a reader capable of seeing in your intentions further than you pushed yourself. “Why does he never mention the town?”, I was asked numerous times (the torinesi, in particular, brought it up with a measure of vexation in their voice, as if I had betrayed one of our own). I, according to the occasion, chose various answers: “I wanted the story to be universal, that anyone could reconstruct it in their own place, in their own park, in their own school, near their own river”, or: “I believe it depends on Turin. I love my city, but I don’t find it powerful enough, incisive. It’s an excellent setting, but it’s not a protagonist. You see, if I was living in Venice, I could not manage without mentioning it, because it is eccentric and unique, with all that pomp tottering on the water. If I was born in Sicily, the same. I would have certainly recounted that place, because there nature is powerful, it overwhelms you. Not Turin”. Or, again: “Turin was notable for being the city of Fiat, industrial, austere. In the seventies the streets became empty at sunset and at nine o’clock the lights were all switched off, because in the morning the shifts at the factory started early. In the last few years it’s going through a rebirth, it has become an artistic and cultural breeding ground. But I don’t feel comfortable recounting that blossoming, my fingers stop dead on the laptop keys. I need the decadence and tiredness of an anonymous suburb”. Sincere answers, all of them. But biased. Because, in my heart, I nursed an embarrassing unsatisfaction, the same one drawn on the faces of my friends when, returning from a journey, I settled their curiosity with my reticent “beautiful”.

Then, some time ago, I found myself having to recount the life of Evariste Galois, a mathematician who lived in Paris at the beginning of the 19th century, whose story is inextricably tied to the history of the French capital. All my worries of failed narrator about places suddenly materialised: if I was not able to describe my city, how could I not reduce to a shoddy sketch the metropolis of world literature more talked about? So I gathered information, with maps, with photographs, with books, I racked my memories about visits to France going back to when I was a child and I tried to reconstruct a Paris that was more or less credible.

Some weeks after having delivered the story, by a strange coincidence, I journeyed to Paris and I discovered, without surprise, that in spite of the commitment I did not succeed in my intent. Leaning over the parapet of Pont Neuf, where a crucial part of the event took place, I thought: “Here the river is wider. The horizon seems further away. Everything is more impressive than how I described it”. The bridge of my story resembled more the one that is found at a stone’s throw from my house, built less than two hundred years ago, the Seine became narrow and brown like the Po (the river that cuts Turin sideways, isolating a segment): in short, in my Paris there was more of Turin than I would have ever imagined I could tell about it. All in all, a failure. And, at the same time, a more important victory.

I can choose not to mention my city – I thought -, to call a park simply The Park or, even, to cross the national borders and the ocean and to set a story in a quiet American district, but the place that I am really talking about will always be found in the radius of a kilometre from my house. Apparently, there is more to discover digging in my own yard [literal translation is: digging under the weeds in the yard in front of my block of flats], than there is going far and wide through Europe. That’s why the projection of my friends’ slides make me yawn so much. Maybe, I would be more attentive if those clicks immortalized the bedrooms where they retired to every evening, the landing where, many years before, we played pretending to be archaeologists, the bench with the peeling paint where they intertwined their fingers for the first time. Every bench photographed around the world will nevertheless be that one. I became aware of it through writing and every day I am convinced more and more: writing is also this, to send postcards from a place that is always the same. From a city, from a district, from a room.

Since publication in Italy in 2008, The Solitude of Prime Numbers has sold over 1 million copies, sold in 34 countries and won five literary awards, including Italy’s premier literary award, the Premio Strega. At 26 years old, Giordano is the youngest author to have received this literary recognition, placing him alongside previous winners primo Levi, Umberto Eco and Niccolò Ammaniti. His achievement is all the more remarkable when you realise he wrote the entire novel during the evenings of his PhD in Particle Physics. The book is published in the UK today in hardback under the Doubleday imprint from Random House.

Photo credit: Eric Borda: A musuem in Turin depicting a village in 1884


Jen P said...

Bellissimo! what a beautiful piece. And it's so true. When you are really absorbed by a place, it is so much more than what it 'is' physically. I seem to most often remember places and the feeling they created by smell, but only when I am confronted with the the same scent again, in a different (or return to that) setting.

Seems this is only out in English in September 09? According to amazon. What a gorgeous cover too.

Mike French said...

It is out today Jen click here to find it on Amazon

And I have one here on my shelf and you're right the cover is gorgeous.