Mapping Absence: Andrea Bajani’s “If You Kept a Record of Sins,” translated from Italian by Elizabeth Harris

By Brian Robert Moore

On the first page of Esther Kinsky’s Grove, a book translated by Caroline Schmidt which explores bereavement against the backdrop of a trip through Italy, the narrator details a Romanian mourning ritual:

“In Romanian churches believers light candles in two separate places. It might be two niches in the wall, two ledges, or two metal cabinets, where the candles flicker. On the left side of the partition are the candles for the living; on the right side, the candles for the dead. If someone dies for whom in life a candle was lit in the left partition, then the burning candle is transferred to the right partition. From vii to morti. (…) I have deciphered the letters above the partitions (…) and I have read them as names, designating the one space for hope, vii, and the other for memory, morti. (…) One group of candles illuminates the future, the other the past.” (11)

Throughout the 200 odd pages of Andrea Bajani’s If You Kept a Record of Sins, translated by Elizabeth Harris, we can witness a similar process being carried out in slow motion. Though originally written in Italian, most of the novel is either set in, or spent fixating on, Romania, a country that we come to see through the eyes of the book’s Italian protagonist, Lorenzo. At the novel’s outset, Lorenzo arrives in Bucharest to bury his mother, who had been living there for years. To her, Romania was once a “Wild West” of promising business ventures, a developing world, and a developing market, right there within the confines of Europe. Romania, at least in the stories she told to her son and perhaps to herself too, was a land of unbounded hope, a place whose pull was strong enough to deprive Lorenzo of a mother for the tail end of his childhood and teen years, leaving him alone with his stepfather, besides during her brief visits back to Italy. But if this country was one of new life for his mother—named Lulu, though it is easy in the text to forget she even has a name—for Lorenzo it is a place of emptiness, the far-off, physical space that for years enclosed and symbolized his mother’s absence: it is not vii, but morti, and his journey there, as well as the mapping of his mother’s life through memory, feels like the enactment of moving a candle from one niche to the other.

While the association of Romania with death might seem harsh, this is to a large extent the country that Lorenzo encounters throughout the novel, and not only in relation to his personal history, which he illuminates with quick flashes, as though by flickering candlelight, focusing on sharp instances of heartache and fragile love while leaving the surrounding areas of his past in immaterial darkness. The people Lorenzo meets in Bucharest display no sense of hope, and are similarly haunted by suppressed memories of the Ceaușescu regime; the notion of future is not one that seems even plausible in these pages. “For the bereaved,” Kinsky writes, “the world is defined by absence” (12), and both Lorenzo and Romania seem much more defined by what they have suffered in the past than by the sense of future that denotes the realm of the living. The current absence of Ceaușescu is highlighted far more than any national political present; for Lorenzo, his mother’s absence is felt in every line, she is even the “you” to whom his narration is addressed.

For the reader, the big dreams Lulu fed Lorenzo as a child seem suspect from the start. The business venture that brought her to Romania centered on a weight-loss machine, a large egg-shaped device an individual could step into and come out of physically lighter—a product she developed with her business partner and lover, the thoroughly unlikable Anselmi, who is still overseeing the factory in Bucharest. If this device sounds absurd or flat-out funny, it is, and perhaps one of Bajani’s sharpest cultural insights is the idea that becoming integrated into the so-called “developed world” might be epitomized not by any adoption of higher ideals, but by an ability to buy—or, rather, a commitment to buying—useless junk. Lulu saw her entrepreneurial mission in the following terms: “You said it was a form of democracy, your weight-loss machine, that in their underwear, fat people were all alike, Romanians, Bulgarians, Russians, Azerbaijanis, Lebanese, Congolese, Sudanese…” (55) and the list goes on; two pages later, in reference to lines of trucks that could once be seen carrying goods into Romania, Lorenzo recalls: “They’re coming here, you’d say, in search of the west, because under Ceaușescu, they were locked in a cage” (57).

Other readers might be better equipped to judge whether Lorenzo’s perception of Romania and its capital is correct, or if it is unfairly bleak or vague—we are always aware, after all, that he is a mere visitor, just arrived, and that his understanding of this place is informed by his own strained relationship with his mother, by her unrealized dreams and by her ultimately pathetic and lonely demise. At one point, Lorenzo goes to visit the Palace of the Parliament built by Ceaușescu—a structure that locals say is visible from the moon, and which is also visible in nearly every glimpse Lorenzo takes in of Bucharest—and the treatment of the dead dictator by the tour guide speaks to the broader perspective offered by the book:

The guide had walked us through only one floor, and then we had to leave. But worst of all, she never mentioned Ceaușescu. Not even once. We’d gone in there to learn about him, what he’d been capable of, but instead he was the emptiness the guide talked around, in her composed speech on tonnage, meters, numbers. (121)

This passage resembles our experience of seeing Romania in the novel, a place defined by emptiness, where the past haunts but is never exposed; any reader looking for historical details has apparently chosen the wrong tour. At the same time, the guide’s description of “tonnage, meters, numbers” eerily echoes the brusque force of shoddy business and cold enterprise that came in the dictator’s wake, scrambling to build over everything. Outside of the palace, men are erasing the word “Ceaușescu” scrawled on a wall, until all that is left is a single syllable resembling the Italian word “ciao,” a universal form of goodbye—a symbolic moment in the text that requires little reading into.

Elizabeth Harris has done incredible work in her translation, which in its continually sharp, clipped language reflects the stripped-down nature of the original. These qualities are not only relevant on a linguistic or stylistic level, but also in terms of the novel’s central characters, the hollowed-out voice of Lorenzo, a man who never describes his own emotions, as if he too wanted to be as empty as that infamous egg, an inheritance from his mother. This is the kind of simple, bare-boned language that I imagine would be unexpectedly difficult to translate, precisely for the fact that it never seeks to draw attention to itself. Harris’s sentences leave space for the right amount of quiet, in a delicate balance that mirrors Lorenzo’s own relationship to his mother. In fact, despite the obsessive care with which every memory is put down and inventoried (a dynamic that is made far more overt in the novel’s English title, since the Italian version of the cited psalm translates essentially to “if you considered the sins,” without mentioning a “record”), this figure remains mysterious, precariously fragile, just as she was when she was alive: “And it was almost as if I felt your bones, under there, that I was lying between bone and muscle and had to stay very still, or else I’d hurt you” (125). We can already see how Harris effectively creates pauses through commas, while also maintaining an overall conversational flow in the text (the sentence even beginning with “And”).

The book is full of moments and memories, such as the one just quoted, that feel charged with emotional significance; while each is rendered effectively in isolation, the sheer number of them slowly lessens their impact. Similarly, an obvious symbol or two could have been left out of the book’s final chapters, especially in regards to the themes of distance and home (or homelessness): Lorenzo sees a plane ticket his mother bought on which the “destination had disappeared” (167); he looks at a globe on which she had once marked their home, stating, “But your hand must have slipped because seeing it now, that cross was below the bottom of Italy and above the top of Africa, in the middle of the sea” (172); Lorenzo crosses the Danube to the other side where his mother was once photographed, a passage that reflects her slow disappearance over time, and a journey across her own personal Styx, into the realm of morti. These moments are potentially building toward a sense of closure, while in alternating chapters we see step by step how Lulu came to abandon her family. However, viewing her through Lorenzo’s eyes, as he traces her existence across a “world map of your absence” (36), it’s easy to feel like she was never there to begin with.

Bajani, Andrea. If You Kept a Record of Sins. Translated by Elizabeth Harris. Archipelago Books, 2021.

Brian Robert Moore is a literary translator originally from New York City. He previously worked in the Italian publishing industry, including as editor of foreign fiction for the press Chiarelettere in Milan. He received a BA in Comparative Literature and Italian Studies from Brown University and a MPhil in Irish Writing from Trinity College Dublin. He won the 2021 PEN Grant for the English Translation of Italian Literature for his translation of Lalla Romano’s A Silence Shared, and his translation of Meeting in Positano by Goliarda Sapienza is forthcoming in May 2021 from Other Press.

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