By Alex Valente
Caterina Bonvicini’s The Year of Our Love, translated by Antony Shugaar, is the story of Olivia and Valerio, who meet and grow up together in the same house while belonging to different families and class, who lose each other and find each other again several times, and who maintain a bizarre romantic tension through a period which spans from the late 1970s to the early 2010s. It is also the story of their country, Italy, in that same time bracket, with its political turmoils, media empire expansion, and underlying current of corruption as status symbol. All these elements touch upon the story of the two main characters without overtly interfering with their lives, as they are shown to be alleged victims of the ebbs of history with little agency or power to affect its inevitable tides.
Allegedly, of course, as the underlying historical framework is ever-present and constantly nudging both Olivia and Valerio, starting from the kidnapping of the former’s grandfather (and the family fortune in the first place), continuing through the life of the latter as he comes into his own wealth through corrupt industries and politics of nepotism and favoritism, among other episodes and points of contact. Translator Antony Shugaar does a really good job, in his introductory note, of clarifying these timelines, events, and shifts in the Italian socio-political landscape for an Anglophone audience – specifically a US one, too, with some deft connections and contextualization, and one heavy allusion to the interference of the CIA in Italian politics since the 1940s – while maintaining an accessible tone and route into what lies between the lines of Caterina Bonvicini’s text.
Bonvicini has succeeded in a pretty well realized sequence of endeavors: present a historical novel masquerading it as a family saga; subvert, or rather condense, the trendy family saga genre into a single generation, a single couple of peers in fact, across forty years; criticize the affectations and development of a country which has, for the most part, yet to learn how to come to terms with its own faults, flaws, and structural problems, through the personified eyes of the shifting aristocracy and middle classes – the petit/petty bourgeoisie, one of the author’s favorite targets.
No one in the novel is truly likeable, and that is perhaps the strength of the story. Olivia is the heiress of a family relying on old (dirty) money, with aristocratic ambition first, status later, and eventual inevitable nostalgia. Valerio is the son of laboring house staff, who finds himself caught between growing up as a semi-peer of Olivia’s (thanks to her family’s support) and as a privileged street kid in the underfunded parts of Rome, until he falls into (dirty) money himself via illegal activities – and in the same field as Olivia’s grandfather once did: construction and real estate. Especially after their childhood not-really-romance, they become insufferable at the best of times:
Olivia took me by the arm. “Valerio? Come away with me!”
I ran after her, a little worried: “Won’t your husband be jealous?”
“Don’t be silly. He’d find that utterly petty bourgeois.”
“Forgive me, I’m not much of an expert on the bourgeoisie,” I replied sarcastically. That know-it-all tone needed to be punished.
She bowed her head: “You’re right, it’s stupid.”
Meanwhile she was biting her nails and picking viciously at the skin around them, but it was no longer my job to stop her.
“You know, my husband likes guys, too. In fact, he especially likes guys. And as far as that goes, whatever.”
“What do you mean, ‘whatever’? Then why is he married to you?”
“Well, these days we’re all bisexual.”
Her voice actually changed when she issued these axioms, I had the suspicion that acting arrogant helped her to conquer her bewilderment.
“You’re bisexual?” I asked.
“I’ve tried it, but I didn’t especially like it, so I don’t think so.” She turned to see how I’d reacted. “Maybe I was more attracted by the idea than the act itself. But then, when you’re actually in the middle of it, it changes. I did my best, you know? But I couldn’t really experience any pleasure. So I started to have my doubts.” (190, 192-3)
Olivia and Valerio’s story, while not emblematic of the entire country – a fact which many of the peripheral characters (especially those revolving around Valerio’s life) suggest – does crystallize some of the fears and developments bleeding into the personal from the wider political and historical undercurrents of Italy through the decades in which the novel is set. The main characters and their families are a stylized synecdoche of a specific slice of Italy’s population, the ones who would most be affected by the Years of Lead first, Craxi’s corruption and judicial inquiries later, Berlusconi’s politics and legacy after that, but only in ways that become daily occurrences: the people with money who feared losing all of it, but never truly would; those without who suddenly made a lot of it. History happens both around and to them, but they move along with it, and make no attempt to change it – in fact, both they and their families ride out the black, sticky wave of the Second Republic to their own advantage. As Valerio’s father would say: “When all is said and done […] what can you do?” (118)
One particularly effective scene sees the two having one of their bigger fights during a period of actual romantic relationship between them set to a backdrop of snippets of Silvio Berlusconi’s election victory speech, left entirely untouched and unexplained by author and translator alike, but chilling to most Italian readers who might remember it as the start of everything going wrong (again) in the country. Valerio and Olivia, however, are too busy fighting over her choice to study art in Paris away from him.
The disaffected, Gatsby-esque way in which the characters relate to their lives, with the bubbling historical waters at times rising, at times receding around them, seems to be an intrinsic part of their voices. The story is mostly told through Valerio’s perspective, though the timing of the telling is unclear; if it is a stylistic choice to flatten the tone – Valerio sounds exactly the same, and jarringly formal at that, across the entire forty years of narration, which would be justified if this were a present-day narration of past events – while keeping a register that swings between didactically formal and clumsily regional, it is one that perhaps could have been avoided in Shugaar’s translation.
He told me that Manon had just discovered that Gianni had a new lover (“a gran penna, a young ragazòla, just a young thing,” using dialect terms for an underage sweetheart). And, even worse, the fact that Gianni was writing check after check for millions of lire (“She makes sure he gives her plenty of pilla, you get me?”). Pilla meant cold hard cash. (64)
While I recognize the difficulties of navigating regional and social idioms and dialects, the choice to gloss in-line or parenthetically virtually every use of a dialectal turn or comment makes an already less than lively dialogue into an academic exercise. Preserving the nature of the original register, tone, and dialectal switch is nigh impossible, but Shugaar’s chosen solution only gives a purely linguistic glimpse into a complicated network of class and social dynamics, even ones as clumsily peppered around as Bonvicini employs them. The result, at times, is an overly clunky series of explanations for the anglophone reader:
A small crowd of curious kids quickly assembled. Wise-cracks hailed down: romanesco decidedly lent itself to this purpose, ironic and world-weary as it was, the language of people who’ve lived through everything you could think of and have a word for everything (“Ao’, ma che ha fatto questa? ’A comunione?” was one catcall: “Hey, where’s she coming from? Her first communion?” And then: “A Scirli Templeee!” to represent the exaggerated Italianization of the American child actress Shirley Temple, evoking a resemblance). (86)
Perhaps I am not the intended demographic for this book and its translation, which feels too constrained by stiff dialogue, didactic dialectal lessons, and language that feels too anchored to a previous generation of Anglophone speakers and readers (see for example the use of ‘queer’ as a slur to refer to Olivia’s uncle, which would work in the words of her grandmother but not as much with everyone else in the 1990s). Shugaar’s careful syntax at times follows – and outright explains – too much of the Italian for the text to fully shine in English. What attempts to be, with mixed results, a ruthless deconstruction of the Italian bourgeoisie of the 1990s and their uncaring wealth is held back by splitting the focus on the historical background between the lines and the romantic plot between two entirely unlikeable characters, and removing any fun from it as a result. In its defence, however, Shugaar’s rendition of the disaffected, careless voice of most of the characters does fit the deconstructive efforts of Bonvicini’s novel – often petty, definitely bourgeois, and overall unforgivingly accurate.
Bonvicini, Caterina. The Year of Our Love. Translated by Antony Shugaar. Other Press, 2021.
Alex Valente (he/him) is a white European currently living on xʷməθkʷəy̓əm, Sḵwx̱wú7mesh, and səlilwətaɬ land. He is an award-winning literary translator from Italian into English, though he also dabbles with French. His work has been published in NYT Magazine, The Massachusetts Review, The Short Story Project, and PEN Transmissions.
What a smart review! I definitely feel for Shugaar’s attempts to render and explain dialect. But you make a convincing argument that, overall, his attempts to teach the reader fall flat and simply stall the literary experience for the reader. Excellent writing.