Erri De Luca: The Unreliable Witness

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an interview with Erri De Luca

When we wrote to him to ask for an interview, Erri De Luca answered that he considered our attention as a privilege. It is from this statement that we started, when we met him under the arcades of La Scala in Milan, on a sunny May afternoon.

 Hearing about privilege, in a world which is at a huge distance from the art dimension, has brought us back to the humanity of relationships, to the meaning of privilege in human bonds. A humanity which can be strongly perceived in your works, stories of life full of a basic sense of truthfulness and of belonging to things and to people, such that they overcome the borders of the territory you tell about. Therefore, why “privilege”? Why this word? What does it mean to you?

For me a privilege is to receive questions from people who are curious about me, the things I do, my stories, curious about a person. Questions that approach a person, that want to know him: this is a privilege.
I belong to a generation that has been queried by judges who did not ask to know but demanded to receive. There is a difference between the two verbs, and Latin specifies it very well. Asking to know is the Latin quaerere, which means questioning, and belongs to the asking to know. Then there is the verb petere, which is claiming, and this means asking already knowing, taking the answer for granted, only to obtain a reaction to be recorded in a legal file.
Therefore, knowing the difference between these two ways of posing questions, I consider a privilege to receive these questions related to the verb quaerere.

Reading through your work we have been impressed by your delicate language, by the possibility to perceive compassion. A sense of deep humanity comes out of your words, that in some ways are enormously refined and, in other ways, sound extremely simple and go straight to the heart. Having to give a definition, we might say that you are an author who writes with love…

Marcos Ana was an old Spanish poet who spent a long time in the Franco prisons and became a poet  there. When he came out after more than twenty years he started to go around the world with his poems; once he met the Nobel-awarded Spanish poet Miguel Ángel Asturias and then reported the details of their conversation. Asturias told him that when he wrote a poem and happened to have under his pen an overused adjective, too obvious and clichéd, he went and looked in the dictionary for the most rare, precious, refined one. Marcos Ana answered him that he did the opposite, when he found a word at hand that was not too simple, he looked in the dictionary for the most evident, frank, simple, well-known one. I do neither the one nor the other: for me the story is in the tone of the voice of someone who is telling it from the inside, so I only have to get that tone of voice, to listen and try to reach it. Once I feel it, I am the receiver of that tone of voice, then the use of the phrases comes by itself, and so their length, since my sentences are not longer that the breath needed to pronounce them. I don’t know whether it’s a matter of love, for me it’s only a matter of following a tone of voice. The tone of the voice of someone who is telling the story from his point of view, from the inside, neither from a panoramic point of view, nor from the distance of a third person assumed by the writer when he tells a story of characters. My characters are not characters, first of all they are persons for me. Literally, I consider “personage” a pejorative of the word “person”.

In some interviews you declared that many of these voices were consigned to you directly by your experiences, by the stories of people you had lived with or that you met. For instance, in your book “Il contrario di uno” (The opposite of one) you tell about a scream heard and reported by the uncle of the protagonist, that hits the reader with such an intensity, such an empathy, that it doesn’t remain only a word but it becomes a feeling of community, of recognition. Therefore, we wonder how important is the oral tradition in the transmission of a memory, in continuing a memory. Oral tradition which seems to have disappeared, as if there were nothing more to tell, or maybe there were no more ears accustomed to listen.

It seems to me that the generations who came after mine are lacking somebody to tell them stories, somebody belonging to the family. Grandparents don’t live at home any more, they are on a cruise, when they can afford it, or in a rest-home, when they can’t. All the adults and the old aged are considered dispensable, therefore their stories are not listened to anymore. On the contrary, in my childhood there was this listening: the stories were told, therefore I formed an ear that still can keep them. I can hold long stories: I have heard them so many times, for this reason they have made their way. I don’t have a prodigious memory, I am simply used to listening to it. I can listen to the stories and then keep them somewhere within myself. Then I can retrieve them and hear again that tone of voice, without which my page is dumb. I don’t find either the right adjective or the name: I have to find the tone of the voice.

The tone of the voice as the memory…

Yes…

A memory also in the sense of the construction of an identity?

The memory is not a file, not a collection, not a sticker album. It is the remnant that stays held somewhere. In my case I am not even the owner of my memory, I cannot go and consult it whenever I like. Sometimes my memory releases to me some neglected, disregarded details; therefore, around that detail I can rebuild the whole. Around that bone I can reconstruct all the lacking skeleton of the dinosaur, because I saw the dinosaur; therefore, since I have forgotten it, when I recover a bone of its tail, from there I can start to rebuild it. Writing is fairly visionary, it can do this. For me, the memory is a trigger for the reconstruction of a lost time, that enables me to stay together again with those I lost. Generally speaking, for me writing is a way to have company. The best I have ever known.

Another thing we notice when reading your works is the richness of your language. Can this be due also to the fact that, among the different Italian dialects, that spoken in Naples is one of the richest?

In general, Italian is beautiful because it is alluvial, i.e. it is the result of the influence of dialects. It is a language which has enriched itself from the abundance of dialects that have made it beautiful and various. For this reason it is a beautiful language. But my vocabulary probably depends on the fact that I translate. When you translate because you are an admirer, because you love a particular language or history, or a particular writing of a language, then you force your own language to be precise, as faithful as possible. So, this exercise of precision, always put forward by a sense of admiration, allows you to root yourself in your own vocabulary, in the vocabulary of your own language; to be the owner of the language, not a client. When somebody asks me, by the way, how to become a writer, I simply answer: first become a translator. But not as a  job, as in that case you are forced to hurry up to deliver the work and as many pages as you can to get your money, because translators earn little. No, translate for your own passion, translate even extremely well-known authors, translate even Shakespeare, let’s say, but translate for your own sake, to be as much precise as you can, to transfer the text as least injured as you can into your own language. This gives you a vocabulary: translation.

By the way, you also chose to possess languages not easy to handle, and to translate some parts of the Old Testament.

Yes, I translated from different languages, but I don’t care to speak them, I am interested in being able to read them. In other words, I don’t want to talk to Moses. I want to read the story, and to translate it, with an obstinacy of faithfulness that I don’t find in any other translation of that holy texts, which are all translated for religious purpose.

Are they in some way tamed?

Not tamed, they are translations that consider the ancient Hebrew as a sort of raw material, a raw oil that has to be refined afterwards, by the subsequent revelation. Christianity wants to be the refinery of the Old Testament, therefore it pays scarce attention to it, since it is considered an imperfect, imprecise, rough language, a minor language. The Council of Trent decides that the translation of Saint Thomas is the canonic, holy, sacred one: as if one said that the story of some Sardinian shepherds would have its precise written formulation in English, which is its real format and the language spoken by those shepherds were insignificant and negligible. I also translated from Yiddish, a language that cannot be spoken with anybody, apart from few words with some old people in Tel Aviv. I translated something from Spanish, German, Russian. But I don’t need to speak those languages: it’s enough to read them.

To perceive their tone?

I don’t know. I don’t think it’s a matter of tone, since it isn’t an acoustic learning, I don’t learn from the voice: I learn from the words, from the written words. The voice transmission is completely lacking. Should I receive it from the voice, I’d be able to repeat it too, to speak it; but I’m not, I’m not able to speak those languages. I only read them.

In “Alzaia” you wrote: “In the books I look for the letter, even the single phrase which has been written for me and which therefore I underline, copy, extract and take away. For me it’s not enough that the book is engaging, celebrated, or classic: if I’m not a piece of “The idiot” by Dostoevsky, my reading is vain”…

In fact, literature wants to touch the reader, to involve him, to catch his attention, make him take part in the story. This is its game. And good literature succeeds. In a book, everybody finds something that has been written for him. Something also happens that he already knew about himself but hadn’t found written yet, hadn’t found the formula to say, to let it emerge into consciousness; therefore, when he reads it, though it’s the first time he reads that piece of news about himself, he recognizes it. In other words, it is a second act: he doesn’t simply know it, he does directly recognize it. And this is the literature’s game. I happened to be in good company with literature, and many times I have experienced this kind of identification. But this is the only reason why I keep a book in my hands. If it cannot play this game, to me that book is inert, though extremely solemn, like some books by Joyce; it can stay on the shelf, it drops out of my hand. Therefore I keep some ignorance, literary intolerances that are larger than what I know. Cheese holes bigger than the cheese itself.

You cannot read everything, you have to make choices…

No, you can try to read everything, but I’m not able to read even what happens to be at hand, since most of the time the fiction or the poetry I have before me is an inert material. I drop it.

An important aspect of your works is their readability. There is a very precise choice of the words, which are extraordinarily crafted, but they can be read by anybody.

This has been said already, it deals with the tone of the voice. If it works, everything works. It is readable because it can be listened to.

You said that in the families nobody tells stories any more. It seems that the generation of our fathers has lost what they had received. And yet, these fathers have grown in the nineteen sixties, years of political and cultural ferment, years dense of history; nevertheless, at a certain point, that period has remained mute, as if handing down its story was wrong. Therefore its story hasn’t become a cultural heritage for the next generations, not even in the “family” stories. Why so, having you lived those years? What happened to those who had to be witness?

A mass reticence happened on behalf of a political generation who has been physically, militarily won, therefore kept silent.

You say, again in “Il contrario di uno” that you haven’t moved away from the ideas, you have moved away from the military fight, i.e. from a confrontation that only became a military one, therefore from the possibility that those years could only be reduced to that. Though the seventies were not only the armed struggle, they were also years of a great cultural movement that, however, seemed to have suddenly vanished.

Indeed, it has vanished. Those times have vanished, I don’t find anything strange in it.

Do you think that the current movements could make more impression?

They are movements depending on someone else’s deadlines, they are lacking their own vitality. There are someone else’s deadlines and so they go to grumble about, but they don’t have their own consistency, they consist of the aggregation moment due to the imposed external circumstances. So much that a change of venue is enough to make everything disappear.

My impression is that the present consciousness can rise from the understanding of the past, therefore from the memory, the belongings, the roots.

Look, my belonging is that I am one from Naples who fled. I have been a revolutionary who lost his battle, therefore in terms of belongings I have very little to claim. I did belong and now I am out of those belongings. They are part of my narrative matter. They don’t explain anything but the story of that circumstance.

Writing is also a way to keep the stories, to hand down the history?

No, the books last five minutes, they don’t hand down a damn thing, books. They are more ephemeral than newspapers. They don’t keep anything, it’s paper.

But there are some books that remain, books that are still read after decades.

Yes, out of 30.000 titles per year, therefore out of some hundreds of thousands per decade, maybe two or three titles remain.

Once you published a lot less, but …

There were far less readers.

Maybe there were some more incisive authors.

I don’t think so: Italian literature after the war was as bad as the present one. It was a minor one, scarcely significant in comparison to what was published around the world. It was of little importance.

Don’t you think that the great number of present publications can have an influence?

No, it is only a commercial matter, of territories occupied by the publishing houses.

Yet you write for……

I keep myself company.

And you keep company also with your readers?

This is a good secondary effect. If it happens, good for me: also good for the readers who haven’t wasted their money buying the book.

The moment you feel again the tone, you experience it again, and are capable to transfer it into the writing, in some way it is like you shared it, you made a gift; I mean, when you are moved, or you feel participation, identification, you are receiving something.

Yes, it is an exchange, an exchange that happens at distance and of which I don’t have any notion, any information, apart when someone tells me “yes, I read that book and I liked that sentence”, or that comma, or that moment. It is an exchange at distance of which I have no control. All I can do is know that I cannot write those pages better than I did; then, as for the rest, I cannot control or decide where they go and how they are welcomed.

And yet you say that the tones thanks to which you write have been received by the oral tradition of the stories you have been brought…

No, writing is crumbling that immensity. Every time you write, you try to pin something of the past, since all that past, that voice, is going to be lost, is lost, the only remains are written. Still, those remains are pretending to substitute all what has been said, pronounced, all the previous life. But it is however an abuse of confidence towards the immensity of life. It is tearing remnants.

Going back to your use of the language, which is very rich and precise, from a certain point of view you look in contrast with most of the contemporary authors who, in my opinion, have a more and more flattened and less varied language.

I don’t know, I don’t read, therefore I cannot say. I cannot answer to this. I don’t read what the others do, I read old books, out-of-fashion books. In other words, I don’t read what is written now. I wait until it gets old.

What do you think of this sentence by the Turkish writer Yashar Kemal: “If the people in a country want to live well and happy, first they have to respect and possess the universal values, and guarantee the freedom of thought without borders. […] The cultural richness of our country is in our hands”.

Exaggerations! Solemn, generic, tasks that the writers believe they have been entrusted by somebody, or by the fact that they have published some books. An overvaluation of second hand stuff.

You also wrote that “the writer should be smaller than the matter he tells”

Imagine if Tolstoy was bigger than the matter he told! Bigger than “War and Peace”, bigger than that enormous epic between French, Russians, Europeans. He was smaller, wasn’t he? This is why that story is so grand, because he is smaller than that story: he takes one detail, tells a fragment, and from that fragment you can enlarge and understand, grasp, realize which kind of time it was. Represent it as a whole… always with the claim that the remnant can draw the whole, the real life.

Smaller than the immensity of life

Of course.

The life of anybody is unspeakable…

Yes.

Therefore is that sense of humility also important when a writer is penning his lines?

Well, I don’t know if the writer is humble; maybe he can be even very ambitious, and his ambition can coincide with humility, because to be humble also means to think about how to describe, think that you cannot write that page better than so, and therefore to be able to keep the ambition of squeezing the best from yourself. Ambitions and humilities mix, writing is not being a Franciscan.

Many of your stories and novels seem lessons of life. When I close your book it seems I have lived an experience, not simply to have read a book. This is also due to your telling stories of life you had listened to?

I tell pieces of real life. I don’t have to build it, I don’t have to make it, I don’t need to add anything from my imagination. In some way it would infect it, it would like to demonstrate something, it would like to support some argument, some thesis. I don’t have any thesis: I tell real life and a great deal of things that suddenly happen to people. In short, always within this 20th century, that has been a century of major history gone to squash minor stories, to separate children from parents, husbands from wives, people from land. The 20th century has been a cumbersome century, very invasive. I tell small stories of that century, stories that have no lessons to communicate: they are only stories. There is no formation in these lives, no projects, no building: there is a resistance to deformation.

A witness, in a way?

But witnesses understand nothing. Witnesses are those who understand the least, because they are in the middle of the trouble with no ticket for the play: they happen to be in the middle of the fray, things take place all around and they don’t understand anything. Only after a long time do they realize what they have seen. The witness is unreliable by definition, because he is a victim.

Translation by Anna Anzani (edited by Chiara Canova and Robert Mardle)

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Experience is not what happens to you. It is what you do with what happens to you. (Aldous Huxley) Foreign born in a foreign land, in June 1968. After three years she returned to Italy but, perhaps because she grew up in a train station, perhaps because she was born as a migrant, she developed a strong passion for travelling, both real and dreamed. She looks for love in every meeting that weaves her life. Sometimes she finds it, and savors the meaning of life.