By Olivia Soule
In Sacha Naspini’s Nives, translated from the Italian by Clarissa Botsford, the significance of the long phone call that lasts almost the entire novel creeps up on you. Towards the beginning, the elderly, eponymous widow calls the local veterinarian when one of her chickens has become frozen in place; this everyday conversation leads, circuitously, to a shocking revelation rooted deep in both characters’ pasts. The secrets that emerge from the novel’s small-town Tuscan families which prefer to keep private affairs private are deep and life-changing. In a small-town society, where people’s lives are very constrained by traditional expectations, the demands of marriage and children are a barrier to love and sexuality. The repressed love and sexual history emerge, though, little by little through the medium of a phone call.
Naspini poignantly depicts Nives’ despair and sorrow at accepting a constrained farm life, and her coming to terms with the missed opportunity of the “new life” that never came to be. When Nives and the vet Bottai start talking on the phone, confidential matters come up; namely, their love affair thirty years earlier. They had hatched a plan to run away to America together in ’82, but Bottai never showed up, and instead Nives went back home to her husband.
I put my ring back on. I thought I could hear the clinking of metal, like handcuffs. I went to the bathroom and wiped away the little makeup that was left on my face. I undressed and put on my same old nightie. As I lay under the covers, I felt grief well up inside me. It never left. (76)
Mi rimisi l’anello. Nell’infilarlo ebbi l’impressione di avvertire un rumore metallico, come quello delle manette. Andai in bagno, tolsi quel po’ di trucco che restava. Mi spogliai, indossai la solita camicia da notte. Fu nel mettermi sotto le coperte che per la prima volta intuii il lutto di me. Non è passato più.
Botsford’s translation deftly conveys Nives’ first-person perspective. Nives demonstrates her feelings of constraint aptly through the simile between a wedding ring and a pair of handcuffs. The sensory detail about “the clinking of metal” adds an aural effect to the impression of bondage. Though the necessity of translating conversational Italian into conversational English compels Botsford to take some liberties, she translates the novel’s colloquial tone very skillfully. For example, she translates “la solita camicia da notte,” literally “the usual nightgown,” as “my same old nightie” (76), a wording which points to the banality of Nives’s married life.
In terms of the diction in this passage, Botsford doesn’t quite capture the richness of the Italian; this, however, isn’t a critique of Botsford’s translation, so much as a critique of the English language for not having as much nuance as Italian. The English translation simply uses “ring” in both places, whereas the original Italian uses “anello” to mean ring and “fede” to mean “wedding ring” in particular. Nives calls the wedding ring “fede,” which also means “faith” in Italian, before the escape attempt:
“Allora sfilai la fede per l’ultima volta, la misi sul comodino” (Naspini ebook)
“So, I pulled my ring off for the last time and put it on the bedside table” (75).
She calls the ring “anello” after returning home, which points to Nives’ marriage being compromised, because now her ring is just a metal object like a pair of handcuffs, and not a symbol of trust between her and her husband.
The phone call is a germane format to reflect the gradual way in which repressed secrets get revealed. When you think Bottai is going to sign off, Nives continues to delve deeper and disclose another eyeopener. Right before the final revelation, Bottai attempts to cut short the conversation, which is threatening to devolve into offensive territory: “If that’s all, I’d say we could bring this to an end. Thanks for calling” (74). Nives responds with a more reminiscent angle: “Sometimes I look at the old photos” (74), and from this non sequitur, she launches into a new monologue that leads to her revealing the arcanum arcanorum, or the mystery of mysteries lying behind the novel.
Eventually, Nives and Bottai’s conversation has to come to some sort of resolution. She reaches for forgiveness: “Nives realized she was doing something unheard of: she was forgiving him. It came naturally to her. She could see why: it was a new prison that she hadn’t gotten used to yet” (95-96). Whereas earlier, Nives implicitly compared the ring to a pair of handcuffs, now the prison metaphor gets stated explicitly. Nives’ life has been constrained for so many years that she has locked herself into a paradigm of captivity, and now even forgiveness only exists within parameters of confinement.
In the end, the chicken Giacomina thaws out, comes back to life, and starts strutting around again “as if she were off to do the shopping” (128); this new animation mirrors the fact that Nives has purged some of the psychological damage of abandonment. The chicken frozen in place can also be read as a metaphor of time which has been suspended for the duration of the phone call, as past and present meet and converge. As Donatella, Bottai’s wife who turns out to be eavesdropping on the phone call puts it, “You’ve let go of the deadweight” (125). Nives is tempted to smoke a cigar, as her late husband Anteo would do once a year; her whole story begins and ends with her husband and his absence, and Nives appreciates him in her own way, even if it’s only after he’s gone. Although life is characterized by missed opportunities and unrealized fantasies for a small-town, married woman, the best Nives can do is to come to terms with the way things turned out.
Sacha Naspini is from Grosseto, a town south of Florence in the Italian region of Tuscany. Although Nives is his first book that has been translated into English, three other novels by him have been published by Edizioni e/o, a Rome-based publisher known for publishing Elena Ferrante and other contemporary Italian writers, as well as literature in translation. His 2018 novel Le case del malcontento, which was a bestseller, was made into a theatrical-musical performance called “Dentro le case” in Capalbio, another town in the province of Grosseto. If more of Naspini’s books are translated, the English-speaking world would most definitely benefit from his poignant treatment of the themes of love, family, and loss.
Naspini, Sacha. Nives. Translated by Clarissa Botsford. Europa Editions, 2021.
Olivia Soule has an M.F.A. in poetry from the University of Nevada, Reno, and a B.A. in English and Italian from UCLA. She has published work in the Haight Ashbury Literary Journal, Pudding Magazine, and Q/A Poetry, and has also participated in poetry readings at the Beat Museum in San Francisco and other places.
Naspini, Sacha. Nives. E-book, https://z-lib.org/, Apple Books.