Keeping the Presence of Absence: Concita de Gregorio’s “The Missing Word,” Translated from Italian by Clarissa Botsford

By Helen Walsh

The kidnapping of Livia and Alessia Schepp crossed Swiss airwaves in early 2011, circulating throughout Europe. The six-year-old twins had been picked up on January 30 by their father, Mathias, in order to spend the weekend with him. The girls never returned to their home in Saint-Sulpice, and Mathias committed suicide by train five days later at a train station in southeast Italy. The girls were never found, and the case still continues—full of speculation, false trails, and theories that have sprouted like weeds to fill every gap in the story. In 2020, a computer-generated rendering was circulated of how the girls might look at age fifteen, with the hope they could recognize themselves. But their void remains empty.

The Missing Word, translated from Italian by Clarissa Botsford, might be best described as a collection of ruminations, facts, and letters written in the voice of Irina Lucidi, the girls’ mother. The book’s spine is absence—absence of setting, absence of characters, absence of plot—and its structure reflects this absence. There are several chapters that are simple lists, with titles such as “List. Anger” or “List. Happiness.” The book opens with a chapter from De Gregorio’s point of view as the woman to whom Irina confides in, and later chapters return intermittently to De Gregorio as a sort of narrative frame. It’s an irregular frame and sometimes surprising when it reappears, but including much more than those few chapters would distract, like ornate mahogany cornicing that frames an empty wall; absence is a paradoxical subject.

While readers glean most of the physical or social details about Irina from these framing chapters, the bulk of The Missing Word is written in letter form. The letters take their subject material from aspects of Irina’s life, inextricable from her daughters’ disappearance, and never are they written to the same person nor do they suggest a reply. Occasionally the reader might have an understanding of a relationship with the receiver (a grandmother, for example) while for others it might be more difficult to image (a letter to a record keeper in Michigan). Each letter, however, is ultimately there to be read by us, and through each letter we understand more about memory, “the facts” of the girls’ disappearance, and the presence of loss.

When memory deals with loss, one of the challenges it poses is ever-present duality. “Dearest Nonna,” the second chapter, is a letter from Irina to her grandmother Klara. In the letter, Irina explains that she won’t be attending the family Christmas again. “Nonna Klara,” writes Irina, “[you] always know everything even when you don’t, you hold everything together, even things that are not meant to be held together. There’s no need to explain things to you” (13). The struggle to experience present life without abandoning the memory of her daughters—for Irina, tantamount to abandoning the only daughters left to her—holds the answer to living:

How could we live without placating memory, which doesn’t mean giving up, or forgetting, but allowing the heat to cool down, the damp to dry, everything to transform itself so that a beginning can be born from an end?…They can amputate your leg after an accident, like they did with Papa, and then you start walking, even driving a motorbike, with the prosthesis. Have you forgotten your leg, or is it precisely because you remember it—and at the same time, deal with its absence—that you can still move around in the world?… Absence is the true measure of presence. The gauge of its value and power. (14)

Irina’s words suggest that one can only experience the richness of the present through the past and our only link to it, memory. For Irina, this encompasses all that came along with her daughters, including unique forms of love and happiness. But it’s a double-edged sword: to keep her daughters’ memory she must sacrifice the release of forgetting. And with that sacrifice, she must live with perpetual absence.

Even when addressing complete strangers, Irina writes these letters with even degrees of vulnerability and sincerity. The ability to convey deep, unfathomable personal loss from a first person point of view without relying on purple phrases marks the quality of her writing. One of the most moving letters is directed to “Ms. M,” who is the county clerk of Kenosha, Wisconsin, and a stranger. Ms. M has denied Irina’s previous request for documents about her biological great-grandmother. Irina is writing to appeal the decision, and to do so she explains the circumstances behind her request.

As Irina explains to Mrs. M, her great-grandmother was the daughter of a wealthy Wisconsin factory owner. This woman had a daughter with her great-grandfather out of wedlock, and when the woman’s wealthy father found out, he paid off the great-grandfather and demanded he return to Italy with the child, Mayme. The family history was not frequently discussed, Irina writes, but as a child she’d heard a rumor that this unknown biological great-grandmother had rapidly descended into depression and was sent to live out her days in a sanitorium.

Alessia and Livia shared a birthday with Mayme. They, too, were taken away from Irina as Mayme was from her mother. The request for information about who this mother might have been is not one made out of curiosity, Irina clarifies: it is made out of necessity:

In these difficult, painful years of searching for my missing girls, in the solitude of the night, I have often seen interwoven threads, recurring dates, repeated destinies…Everything else, Ms. M., pales in comparison against my need to know whether by chance the time we’re living in does not follow a linear path but exists, rather, in an ever-present contemporaneity, where everything is in the here and now, a time-frame where what has taken place takes place and will take place co-exist. Except that we are blind and cannot see, and in order to save ourselves, we forget, we think we are the only thing that is present and important but we are actually no more than the produce of a tree that brings forth throughout the seasons the same and different leaves, the same and different fruit. We bear the marks of the lightning bold that struck us before we were born, we complete and replicate the design of the women and men who came before us. (27)

As far as bureaucracies go, it seems unlikely that deeply-felt personal history is enough to oil the obstinate gears of privacy protection laws at the local government level (and never mind that the bulkless bulk of long-distance communication takes place over email or videocalls.) Instead, the letters engender an almost unconscious suspense of disbelief for the reader. Maybe the suspension remains unnoticeable because it’s so familiar, common in a long tradition of epistolary novels in Western European literature. Maybe it derives from a more general conception of letters as an intimate, ahistorical form of communication. But part of it is unquestionably the way that De Gregorio approaches Irina’s writing, which is so genuine that each letter reads as if it is written by someone who has found her form and exercised it unceasingly, like they might have been written by Irina herself.

This suspension extends into the contents of the letters as well, where it seems understandable to write of an “ever-present contemporaneity” to a nameless woman on the far side of the Atlantic so that she’ll release confidential records. But any doubt—that it isn’t understandable to do so—is based in rationalized protocols and bureaucratic regulation, the very same elements that ultimately failed Irina in her search for her daughters. And for Irina, regulations and protocols have no power over repeated destinies—they are, in fact, powerless before the seasons.

The original title of the book in Italian is Mi sa che fuori è primavera, roughly translating as “I know that outside it’s spring.” It evokes Irina’s metaphor of a tree in her letter to Ms. M, bursting forth with the same and different leaves while the subject remains inside. If the title suggests that there is a sense of the world beyond the subject’s confines, it begs the reader to ask how. Perhaps there is a window, or a sound, or a companion who can usher in the outside world. De Gregorio gives us a hint when she writes as herself in the final chapter, “Let’s go for a stroll, shall we?” suggesting that written words have the power to lead a view of verdure to an experience of it.

The title in translation, The Missing Word, might seem far removed from the original, but can be placed in the same metaphor. In the book’s final chapters, Irina writes a list of the words used to describe relationships of presence and absence between parents and children: “Widower, widow: a person who has lost their spouse/companion” or “Orphan: a man who murders a wife” or “Infanticide: a parent who murders a child” (126). But, she writes, there is a missing word: a word for parents who lose children. She enumerates languages that can express this relationship, and those that cannot (this list is far longer and includes Italian, French, German, Spanish, and English).

So what is the point of a word? questions Irina. To which Concita replies, “Because having a name…makes you feel, despite the error, like you’re in the right place. A place that is painful and illuminating, a place that is hard but intended as part of the history of the world” (131). Put simply, both women suggest, a word lets you see yourself as the fruit of another season, different but also the same.

De Gregorio, Concita. The Missing Word. Translated by Clarissa Botsford. Europa Editions, July 2022.

Helen Walsh is a writer and translator from Central Pennsylvania. She studied Italian and history at Wellesley College, with a particular focus on contemporary Italian fiction. She is a contributing museum and book critic at the Broad Street Review and is the managing editor of Yellow Breeches Gazette Press. She currently lives in Philadelphia.

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