Geographies of Family Memory and Belonging: Marina Jarre’s “Return to Latvia,” Translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein

By Daria Kozhanova

The case of the Italian author Marina Jarre (1925-2016) is unusual for the international literary market: her works are being simultaneously rediscovered in Italy and discovered in English translation. Jarre’s recently republished autobiography I padri lontani (1987, 2021) and its English version Distant Fathers (2021) by Ann Goldstein have attracted wide attention. What is more, her Return to Latvia has already come out in English, again in Goldstein’s translation (New Vessel Press, 2023), while the new Italian edition of Ritorno in Lettonia has yet to be released. It is thanks to Goldstein that English-speaking readers can hear Jarre’s unique voice — “cool and searching yet ironic, tender, brutal, and astonishingly attentive to life and its details” (ⅹⅴ), as defined by the writer Marta Barone who played a crucial role in bringing Jarre’s writings to light.

In Return to Latvia, originally published in 2003, Jarre picks up the threads of autobiographical stories she began unfolding in Distant Fathers. Born in Riga to an Italian (and Waldensian) mother and a Latvian-Russian-Jewish father, after the separation of her parents she moved to Italy, to the maternal native town Torre Pellice in Piedmont. The narrator of Return to Latvia strives to bridge the overwhelming distance between the past and the present. After she and her sister left Latvia secretly, in a farm cart (to hide from their father), Jarre did not return to her country of birth until 1999. When she finally comes back to Latvia with her son Pietro, who organized the trip, Jarre feels at once like a native and stranger, an “Italian tourist” (44) who does not even speak Latvian. She admits, “Riga no longer existed outside of me. There was no longer a country I could recognize” (17). Walking in the streets, she maps intimate geographies which uncover tales and memories about her family. Her pilgrimage evokes the first part of Distant Fathers, with pictures of her childhood, when she finds her family’s last house in Riga and the house of her paternal grandfathers.

For Jarre, Riga is also a liminal space marking both the beginning and the end: it is a city where she was born and where her father died. In Distant Fathers, she mentions that Samuel Gersoni (as well as the rest of his Jewish family) was killed by the Nazis in Riga’s ghetto in 1941, together with little Irene, his illegitimate daughter. In Return to Latvia, Jarre recalls her father’s strange letter of 1941 in which he begged his ex-wife and daughters to help him escape from Latvia, highlighting their shared Jewish identity: “because, remember that you, too, are Jewish” (20). Jarre’s voyage to Riga — both physical and then creative, expressed via writing — represents an attempt to recover the invisible paternal figure and come to terms with the tragic destiny of her father and their Jewish relatives. In the last paragraphs of the book, she describes her visit to the extermination site, Rumbula station on the outskirts of Riga, where she paradoxically reads a memorial sign not as a symbol of death but of life: “Now, on the contrary, what became true and present in that Star of David that marked the place where they had killed him wasn’t my father’s death, it was his life. I found him alive” (323).

The search for an absent father is a recurring topic in contemporary Italian literature, as Enrica Maria Ferrara has suggested. Moreover, this “investigation” often implies revealing hidden histories, as it does in the novels about fathers and daughters by Francesca Melandri and Marta Barone who deal with the silences of Italian colonialism and political terrorism. Similarly, through the story of her father, “lost in the crowd of the countless” (30), Jarre unfolds the collective history, trauma, and (post)memory of the Holocaust in Latvia which is not well-known in Italy: “for us Italians the Shoah begins with Auschwitz” (54).

Return to Latvia is at the same time a novel, an autobiography, a memoir, a travelogue, an essay, and a writer’s diary. It even resembles a detective story since Jarre tries to trace the history of her paternal family in Latvia and reconstruct what could have happened to her father in the ghetto. She looks into family letters and photographs, monographs, archival documents, newspapers, and testimonies of the survivors, collecting reperti, like Melania Gaia Mazzucco in her novel Vita (2003) that investigates the forgotten past of the Italian emigration through the author’s familial mythologies. Jarre masterfully assembles non-fictional and fictional materials and creates a metatext, quoting and commenting on other literary works and her own novels: there are not only frequent references to Distant Fathers, but also to Another Piece of the World (Un altro pezzo di mondo, 1997) and especially to A Slight Foreign Accent (Un leggero accento straniero, 1972) in which she first explored the extermination of Jews in the Baltic countries. Although Return to Latvia is written in the first person, it is an “open” text that gives space to other voices: “I was the narrator, that was the only bond. But I realized how inadequate what I reported about them was, how little of their history was really known to me. I would have liked them to escape from my page and tell their story themselves” (212).

The openness of Jarre’s writing is not only in this multitude of voices but also in the linguistic diversity. Goldstein’s translation demonstrates how Jarre shifts between different languages, organically intertwining foreign words (German, Russian, Latvian, Hebrew, Yiddish…) and implicitly translating sources that she incorporates in her narrative. While a remarkable trait of Jarre’s work is precisely her multicultural background, in Return to Latvia she rediscovers her connections with her Jewish heritage and memory, starting from the very first chapter “Palestine” and a tale about the Nativity in which she notes, “My father’s ancestors also came from Egypt thousands of years ago, crossing the Red Sea” (6). Jarre sees herself as a part of the long genealogy of Gersoni: “Their name has come down to me, and likewise their features — to my father, and thus to my sister and the child Irene, who died with him” (6). What drives her research and writing is the sense of belonging to a larger family (like in the case of Jarre’s friendship with her “doppelgänger,” a young Milanese journalist Marina Gersoni whose forebears also came from Latvia).

Symbols of mourning from the Jewish culture, “stones and ritual tears” (16), as the title of the second chapter reads, reflect Jarre’s relation to the Holocaust. Due to her lack of direct experience, Jarre has a lot in common with second generation-Shoah survivors born after the war: “The slaughter had touched me, unaware, and I carried the weight of an inappropriate mourning, in which serious personal experiences were so tightly interwoven with the atrocity of history that I couldn’t present myself in a clear and unambiguous way. It seemed to me that I had no right to mourn” (19). Her writing is an expression of mourning, a way to “celebrate the funeral rites” (31) for her father and his family. Jarre explores the intricate issues of oblivion and complicity: for example, she discusses the involvement of Latvians in the extermination of Jews (like the members of the paramilitary organization Aizsargi and its leader Viktors Arājs) and the country’s difficulty in dealing with this uncomfortable past. She claims, “I only want people to know; and so, as I was able, I placed stones, by writing” (297), and thus in her work, grieving, commemorating, as well as the quest for knowledge and private and public justice are tightly intertwined.

Jarre’s Return to Latvia can be put in conversation with works of Jewish Italian women writers, both Holocaust survivors and second generation, such as Edith Bruck (who is mentioned inthe text), Liana Millu, Giacoma Limentani, Lia Levi, and particularly Helena Janeczek. Moreover, the rediscovery of Jarre’s writing reflects the ongoing efforts to bring back previously overlooked Italian female authors: among them are Alba de Céspedes, Laudomia Bonanni, Fausta Cialente, Fabrizia Ramondino, Dolores Prato, and Brianna Carafa. Meanwhile, the translation of her second book confirms that, echoing the success of Elena Ferrante, Italian women’s writing is gaining much attention in the Anglophone world since authors like Anna Maria Ortese, Elsa Morante, Natalia Ginzburg, Lalla Romano, Nadia Terranova, Donatella di Pietrantonio, and Claudia Durastanti have been recently (re)translated (or are being (re)translated) into English.

Marina Jarre’s mother was a translator of Russian literature for Italian publishers, and Jarre grew up in Riga speaking German. When Jarre writes in Italian, the language of her mother is “a language that’s not immediate, that I have to grasp again every time, and control, to render and control, to render the improper proper. A language that is never intimate. I use it as a tool even though, as we know, the craftsman is fond of his tool, cares for it, and puts it back after use” (5). The renewed interest in her works is in line with the current focus on transnational Italian authors who exceed rigid definitions of national and linguistic identity.

Jarre, Marina. Return to Latvia. Translated by Ann Goldstein. New Vessel Press, 2023.

Daria Kozhanova is a PhD student in Romance Studies (Italian track) at Duke University. Her main research interests are contemporary Italian women’s writing, gender studies, and ecocriticism, as well as transnational Italian literature and literary translation.

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