The opening chapters of Marco Balzano’s I’m Staying Here find the narrator Trina’s memory coming into focus around a time of historic upheaval:
Until that time [spring of ’23], life had kept pace with the rhythm of the seasons, especially in these border valleys. Like an echo that fades away, history seemed never to have reached them. Our language was German, our religion Christianity, our work was in fields and cowsheds. Nothing more was needed to understand this mountain people, to whom you also belong, if for no other reason than that you were born here. (9)
There is a heart-wrenching simplicity to Trina’s intimate narrating voice, to her unashamed descriptions of Curon’s country life, and to her frank animosity towards those who upend their region’s peace. She is penning this story in short chapter-letters to her daughter, we learn, though the reason for the daughter’s absence, like a long-buried trauma, takes many chapters to approach, and, in the spirit of gradual healing, many more chapters to resolve. In this way, the tides of a mother’s heartache set the tension scale against which an entire world’s conflict will be measured.
The conflict starts in Trina’s youth: she and her friends have trained to be schoolteachers, but in German. Italian is “an exotic language” in South Tyrol, equated with Fascists and travelling salesman. The girls learn Italian on their own in hopes of being employed despite the shift in regime, then seethe with resentment as they are passed over for local teaching positions, which are assigned instead to “semi-illiterates from Sicily and the country-side around Venice” (21). Nevertheless, as Trina and her family traverse the years of war in an ever-worsening series of losses and betrayals, Trina is a rare and sought-after figure of dual-fluency, literacy and communication. But her role as language-bearer is not triumphal – it is not one of power or even superiority. When notices go up around town in Italian, Trina’s husband drags her roughly to the square: “It was unpleasant to voice words he didn’t want to hear, and I didn’t think it was nice of him to get me to translate them” (73), she notes. Through Trina we learn that language work, much like motherhood, is exhausting and embroiled with debilitating emotions. It requires more sacrifice than is fair.
The language work at the heart of Trina’s relationship with her illiterate neighbors also involves letters from their men at war, brought to her to be read. When the censors blot out too much or when the women insist there must be more, Trina invents things to get rid of them. The women leave her favors, but she passes them immediately to her mother. She “wasn’t interested in being charitable” (83). Here and everywhere, Balzano’s account of a community’s destruction is as lacking in pompous heroism as any neorealist classic: his palette of shades of sorrow finds vibrancy in the fleeting moments of humanity; what might have passed for courageous valor is revealed instead as a combination of panic and luck.
Bearing her language skills reluctantly, Trina tries to evade the request to tutor a little boy whose lack of Italian gets him bullied by his schoolteachers, but her mother accepts the task on her behalf. And it is in small pockets of peace with the young student fidgeting on his bench that some of the sweetness of Italian returns to Trina, in memories of song albums and afternoons spent studying with her friends:
A kiss you’ll get
If you come back
But there’ll be no more
If you leave for war (13)
It is a testament to the skill of translator Jill Foulston that in these moments of reverie the reader feels a pining for the Italian. Foulston keeps the English rigid, even shallow, while the song lyrics gesture towards a lusher music in Trina’s memory. The moments of recollection fade into a private register – inaccessible and unexplored. In fact, in English translation, the centrality of language as Trina’s domain and its role in the tragic story of Curon come even more adamantly to the fore. Balzano’s original Italian text explores the hurt of linguistic oppression in the language of that oppression: there is a sinister fluidity between the language of the novel’s narration and the oppressive announcements hung in the shop windows declaring that “IT IS FORBIDDEN TO SPEAK GERMAN” and “MUSSOLINI IS ALWAYS RIGHT” (15). Are these conflicts of interest just the conventions of prose, a reader of the Italian is led to ask, or is something important going on between the lines?
In English translation, both German and Italian might be posited as “others” on a more neutral linguistic plane, and the conflict between them presents itself as thematic, less integral to the fabric of the book’s existence. In some ways, with a translator as the protagonist, the story is liberated in translation: Trina’s rancor towards imposed Italian makes it hard to imagine why she would choose to spill her soul in that language. Perfectly in tune with these dynamics of animosity and loyalty, Jill Foulston’s translation keeps the imported words of administrative Italian in Italian – carabinieri, podestà – allowing Trina’s hurt to imbue their italicization with disdain.
Balzano’s novel, it should be noted, explicitly wants to tell a forgotten story: the story of the people and place of Curon sunk beneath a lake built out of international greed. The story’s language is sparse, its characters guarded, its conflicts register first on the level of the human and then the political. Perhaps the most powerful gesture Balzano makes in his composition is the abundance of space he allots for Trina’s world: every scene features a slice of cake or sugared bread, a bowl of polenta in milk or a serving of soup, a heavy frying pan carried up a mountain, or the prickle of hay through a sweater. On the one hand, the tactic of prioritizing the personal realm in accounts of historical conflict is by no means original; on the other, what is striking about Balzano’s story, exhumed and reanimated with the force of imagination, is the pull towards an inversion of spheres. Struck as he was by the sight of a lone bell tower, Balzano asks with his novel not “How can I use an individual to tell the story of this place?”, but rather, “In whose story might this sight’s attendant tragedy have figured?”
In shaping his novel’s form around the archaic force of water – giver and destroyer of life – Balzano seems to reach for the tactics of Ignazio Silone, author of the masterful Fontamara (1933), which also features a tale not of political opposition but of people crushed by politics. While Silone’s socialism found expression in his novel’s chorus of peasant voices, Balzano opts for the deep dive with his investment in Trina, a dive Foulston’s translation renders with admirable simplicity. There was so much time, so much life, before things looked like this – the novel’s narrator seems to insist, gazing with the author at that belltower. And listening to that insistence, the reader is struck with the thought that this, too, is a way to tell history.
Balzano, Marco. I’m Staying Here. Translated by Jill Foulston. Other Press, 2020.
Maria Massucco is a PhD Candidate in Italian at Stanford University with minors in French and in Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies. Her current research draws together works of Italian prose, poetry and film from the last century in an investigation of gendered madness. Her work as a translator includes collaboration on several essay volumes, including Ovid’s Metamorphoses in Twentieth-Century Italian Literature, ed. Comparini.