Finding the Father: Marta Barone’s “Sunken City,” Translated from Italian by Julia MacGibbon

By Enrica Maria Ferrara

A debut novel of great maturity (although Marta Barone was already published in Italy as a YA fiction writer), Città sommersa (Bompiani, 2020) was shortlisted for the 2021 Strega Prize and awarded the 2020 Vittorini Prize and the Fiesole Prize. Translated in many languages, it is now available as Sunken City in the deft, elegant English version by Julia MacGibbon.

The book is a thriller-memoir following two intersecting timelines. In the first one, the narrator – a foreign literature editor for a publishing house and an aspiring writer – has just moved from Turin to Milan. Her past is shrouded in a mystery that will unfold in the second timeline offering a compelling account of the 1970s, the “Years of Lead,” an era of unprecedented violence in Italian history. This was the long decade of horrific crimes committed by extra-parliamentary groups of the extreme left (and right) with which the narrator’s father, a medical doctor named as Leonardo Barone or L.B., was presumed to be affiliated.

Remembering is not an easy task, for the narrator’s memory is full of holes given her father’s elusive personality and desultory presence. The situation is aggravated by the inaccuracy of official historical sources which seem to assign responsibility according to a binary logic that separates the world into victims and perpetrators, erasing personal memory in the name of an abstract process of canonization or demonization.

Despite all this uncertainty, soon the narrator puts forward an allegory to decrypt the world surfacing on the written page: the fabulous city of Kitež, “north of the Volga,” which sank into the lake before the very eyes of the invading Tatars and which, according to legend, continues to exist “beneath the water, secretly alive, with all its inhabitants” (87). The city is an allegory of human memory and all the places inextricably linked to it that can suddenly vanish without a trace. The narrator’s struggle is to capture the shimmering profile of the Kitež dome that one can glimpse from the edge of the lake underneath that liquid mirror. The challenge is to capture an absence, the outline of L.B. and his personal story intersecting History.

The main tool of which the narrator seems to avail herself is translation, in a broad sense. We learn this from Valerie, a French writer whom the narrator, a writer herself, meets at a literary festival some time after her father’s funeral: “One could argue that we spend our whole lives translating what we’re trying to say into what we actually manage to say” (92). The two women have discussed in French their respective creative projects, and Marta feels her knowledge of the language to be inadequate as she attempts to express concepts otherwise familiar to her. But is it really just a matter of language? Or is our existence, in its entirety, a long process of translation? And is it possible to restore the sense of a life, giving shape to the elusive story of L.B.? 

Confronted with the absence of her father, Marta Barone does not give up her quest but interrogates, with determination and resilience, objects, places, streets, pictures that once crossed L.B.’s path. Aware of knowing a “poorer version,” simplified and bare, of her father’s story, the narrator wanders around the cities of Milan and Turin, lets the places speak to her and recomposes, trace after trace, the identity of her parent as it emerges also from photographs, accounts of friends and enemies, militants of Prima Linea, Servire il Popolo, and other extreme left-wing organizations.

Marta Barone translates, therefore, but above all interprets and writes “confused, disconnected fragments” of “a story as vague and evanescent as a piece of land seen from a ship by night when only its dim outline is guessable, and then it drifts away” (68). Enrico Terrinoni’s theories on translation come to mind, his fascinating concept that human souls are translatable. They migrate into ink and paper when they acquire a written form, nearly through an act of transubstantiation which will then facilitate further migrations of the author’s soul, its re-embodiment through a creative process that resuscitates bodily matter, stealing people and stories away from death.

Although the narrative defies any chronological linearity, alternating elements of documentary truth with others of metanarrative fiction, the narrator keeps firmly at the helm of the drifting ship, handling the digressive flow of her memoir through astute mastery of narrative devices. I am thinking, for example, of the explicit addresses during which Barone breaks the fourth wall, encouraging a refined reader, shrewder than the narrator, to be aware of details she neglects: the metaphorical “pistol hanging on the wall in the first act of the drama” (21). I am also thinking of her constant interaction with places that speak to her as if they were alive, filling the gaps in her memory even if she has never seen them before; as if her father, passing through them, had remained somehow entangled with them. One cannot help but recall another stylistically challenging, and highly acclaimed political novel, also set in the turbulent 1970s albeit in Northern Ireland, Milkman by Anna Burns which was awarded the Man Booker Prize in 2018.

Eventually, L.B.’s daughter comes across a text written by her father that becomes nearly a surrogate for his absent body: “His own living words which finally, finally materialised, materialised physically.” It is a leaflet in which L.B., using the obscure ideological language of the extra-parliamentary left, argues the need to eradicate the binary logic of Capitalism, the schizophrenic dichotomy of body and mind, legacy of the Marxist-Leninist left: “They had to be saved, those human beings, and be transformed into bodies-with-heads,” abandoning the idea “of one single key for decoding reality, and instead seeking diverse keys, diverse projects, a profusion of languages and forms of knowledge” (209). In 2022, the year marking Pier Paolo Pasolini’s centenary, we are reminded of the writer’s political stance around the mid 1960s and early 1970s, when he condemned the bourgeois alienation of “heads without bodies” in his plays, from Calderòn to Pigsty, and celebrated the joys of “bodies without heads” in the films of the Trilogy of Life.

Alongside the political theme, there is also a very strong personal theme in Sunken City.  Indeed, the narrator is a daughter searching for her father who realizes too late that she never really knew him and therefore feels “a singular nostalgia. Not for the past so much as for things that never did happen, things that still hadn’t happened, things that would have happened, maybe. Nostalgia conjugated in the conditional perfect. Nostalgia for the no-longer possible. Perhaps one day we would have learned how to communicate. Perhaps, just for once, I would have stroked his cheek” (264-265). This is a crucial element that will allow so many readers born before the 1990s to empathize with the narrator’s predicament, with her “nostalgia for the no-longer possible,” especially in relation to a process of identity-building in which the father-daughter bond – or its rejection – plays a fundamental role but often unfolds in absentia.

There is a long tradition of Italian autobiographical narratives written by women in which this trope is explored. I am thinking, among others, of Sibilla Aleramo, Grazia Deledda, Anna Banti, Fabrizia Ramondino, Natalia Ginzburg, Lalla Romano, and Marina Jarre, whose sophisticated memoir, I padri lontani (1987), has recently been translated into English by Ann Goldstein as Distant Fathers (New Vessel Press, 2021), with Barone’s introduction.

Finding the father is not just a way of reconnecting with one’s own roots; it stems from the need to measure oneself with the patriarchal order and accept or reform its law (the Lacanian Name-of-the-Father). However, the distance of the “real” father – traditionally absent even when physically present – and the preponderance of a “symbolic” or “imagined” one, means that the relationship turns into a chase and the father into a ghost. We can see this trope masterfully developed in the father-son’s relationship of Domenico Starnone’s Via Gemito where the narrator also turns into a modernist flâneur, interacting with non-human objects to fill in the gaps of memory. But it is in contemporary novels written by women – such as, to name but a few, Farewell, Ghosts by Nadia Terranova, translated by Ann Goldstein (Seven Stories Press, 2020), Alfonsina e la strada by Simona Baldelli (Sellerio 2021), or The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein (Europa Editions, 2020) – that the daughter’s wandering around the city (or cities) becomes particularly meaningful, as it signals the bold repossessing of a public space traditionally associated with masculine power in patriarchal cultures (Milkova 2021).

Julia MacGibbon had no easy task when she undertook to translate this memoir, considerably challenging from a linguistic viewpoint given the multiple registers and styles intermixed by Barone. Next to a poetic register reminiscent of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, we have the legal jargon of Leonardo Barone’s trials reports, the ideological language of the extra-parliamentary left, the swift journalistic style of mystery novels, and the literary tone of the narrator and her highly educated family – hence frequent references to books read by the author and her father.

MacGibbon makes it look like smooth sailing, although it is clear that many complex decisions were required during the translation process. For example, when listing the songs loved by L.B., readers are confronted with a catalogue of titles in Italian; while this could be confusing, it is also unarguably beneficial to preserve the original untranslated titles for those enthusiastic readers who will want to research them on the Web. On the other hand, at a micro-level, linguistic choices seem to always aim in favour of producing an agile, communicative text, with highly commendable solutions such as “hoarder of some renown” for the expression “accumulatrice cronica di onorata carriera” or “lackadaisical” for the infrequently used term “neghittoso” (indolent). Overall, this is a remarkably accomplished translation of a spellbinding memoir which readers will certainly find immersive, original, and sophisticated.

Barone, Marta. Sunken City. Translated by Julia MacGibbon. Serpent’s Tail, 2022.

Enrica Maria Ferrara is a Tenured Teaching Fellow of Italian at Trinity College Dublin, as well as a writer and a translator. She has published widely in the field of Italian studies, comparative literature, and film. Her titles include, among others, Calvino e il teatro (Peter Lang, 2011) Staged Narratives / Narrative Stages, co-edited with Cormac Ó Cuilleanáin (Franco Cesati, 2017), the English translation of Disaster Narratives in Early Modern Naples, edited by D. Cecere et al (Rome: Viella, 2018), and the volume Posthumanism in Italian Literature and Film: Boundaries and Identity (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020). Enrica is currently working on the last draft of her debut novel in Italian (Agent: Walkabout Literary Agency).

One comment

  1. How interesting! This flaneur-like character searching for a parent cannot help but remind me of W.G. Sebald and his Austerlitz, which I just read. The parents, eradicated in the maelstrom of the Holocaust, and Austerlitz himself, who had lost his real name, his real origins, never is able to piece together his past fully. The failed search for the parent ends in the dissolution of the subject, his symbolic death. I only wish that Lacán were legible for me so I could understand the Lacanian Name-of-the-Father!

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