Giuliana Morandini. The Cafe of Mirrors.
Originally published in 1983, Caffe specchi (Milano: Bompiani) won the prestigious "PremioViareggio." This 1997 publication is the first English translation of this novel. The Cafe of Mirrors tells the story of Katharina Pollaczek who arrives in an unnamed city to meet with a lawyer about gaining custody of her son, Friedrich. Several concrete events, the murder of a Serbian woman, Katharina's sexual relationship with a man she meets, and the illness of her former butler, intertwine with the inner workings of her own mind. Together with her translation of the novel, Luisa Quartermaine includes an "Introduction" on Morandini's life and works, and an "Historical Note on the City of Trieste," which provides additional background on the history and culture of Trieste and its environs.
Faithful to the author's explicit intention, Quartermaine leaves passages in languages other than Italian while providing translations in footnotes: "In order to maintain the character of the city described in this novel, and to respect the author's stylistic choice, the dialogues in dialect and the phrases in a language other than Italian have been left untranslated in the text with a translation provided in footnotes. Where English was used in the original this has been identified by the use of italic" (Translator's Note, p. xvi). In Morandini's original text, Italianists may recall, the novel concludes with "Traduzione delle frasi in lingua straniera" ["Translations of foreign words and expressions"] (pp. 152-54).
In her Introduction, Quartermaine maps out the cultural context for much of Morandini's work, situating The Cafe of Mirrors in an historical and literary continuum. Quartermaine focuses on two main aspects: first, Trieste as locus of history and, second, the thematics of alienation, which pervade Morandini's corpus in general and this novel in particular. It is interesting to note that the main character of Morandini's novel, Katharina Pollaczek, arrives in an unnamed city which the translator identifies as Trieste through "[r]eflections in the mirrors of its recognizable caffe" and "fleeting, yet precise references to its history" (viii). The translator speculates that one reason Morandini chose not to name Trieste directly in the novel is because "the Trieste of the novel reflects the fragmented personality of the protagonist, images her own crisis" (viii). While the translator does well to connect the complex relationship between character and setting, inner world and outer world, she could have provided additional commentary to aid the reader. If Trieste is so central to Morandini, why not name it? English language readers may be frustrated by the abundance of explanatory footnotes in the novel rather than additional analysis in the Introduction. In addition, Morandini's choice of Rilke to introduce the novel proper with an epigraph is entirely lost on the reader since Quartermaine fails to provide a translation into English.
Morandini's novel focuses on very few external events. Rather, we witness the existential anguish and painful alienation of a young woman who has apparently spent some time in a mental hospital. Here the dream world and quotidian reality conflate and merge, becoming indistinguishable. Physical descriptions serve only to reflect the disturbed mind of the main character: "Morandini's narrative style images the mind's language, exploiting its capacity for association and sequent observation as well as its ability to manipulate images while constantly admitting new material" (xi). Given these narrative and stylistic constraints, a translator's work is difficult indeed and becomes crucial to readers' understanding. Quartermaine takes great pains to emphasize Morandini's expressive language and associative style, at times difficult, manipulative, obtuse. A language "never too realistic, its style develops through assonance, association, sounds, and colours. Morandini renders visible what cannot be reasoned logically; concrete objects lose the materiality of still life" (xi).
Overall, Quartermaine does a good job of translating Morandini's dense and problematic prose. For example, in one of the numerous descriptions of the landscape, Quartermaine translates: "In the swollen sky, taut to the limit, dark furrows like veins of tin and lead laced the purple vault, sketched the outline of the storm in every direction. The clouds divided across a map ruled by magnetic fields" (8). ["Nel cielo gonfio e teso al limite, solchi scuri, vene di stagno e piombo, percorrevano la volta violacea, disegnavano in tutte le direzioni i diagrammi della bufera. Le nubi si dividevano in una mappa governata da campi magnetici" (12).] In another passage, Quartermaine succeeds in portraying a character's state of mind through physical description pregnant with metaphoric possibilities: "The blood slowed down leaving his hands white and still as china ornaments. Then his back bent over the balcony rail into the darkness to look at the damp asphalt. It was a very tiring position. His arms moved jerkily, intermittently, they were conducting a different melody now, they hung away from the body like withered birch branches" (83). ["Il sangue rallentava e le mani rimanevano bianche e ferme come soprammobili. Allora la sua schiena si piegava oltre la ringhiera del balcone, giu nella notte per guardare l'asfalto umido. Era una posizione di estrema fatica. Le braccia si muovevano a scatti, senza continuita, dirigevano una musica diversa, si allontanavano dal corpo come rami di betulle appassite" (80).]
In the important opening pages of the novel, however, Quartermaine fails to adequately describe the psychological make-up of the protagonist in her choice of words: "We touch things," she told herself, "to discover closed scenes, the hidden depths beneath the surface. By feeling our way over a huge belly again we rediscover its unfulfilled yearnings" (10). ["Tocchiamo le cose," penso, "per scoprire le scene chiuse, le sacche oltre la superficie. Si riattraversa un grande ventre e se ne ritroviamo i desideri sospesi" (13).] Perhaps, in this case, to underline Morandini's interest in the relationship between literature and psychology, it would have been better to translate "ventre" as "womb" and "desideri" as "desires."
At times, though, Quartermaine falls far short of making Morandini readable and understandable to an English-speaking audience with translations that are very literal. In another passage, for example, Quartermaine maintains an almost one-to-one correspondence between Italian and English which renders the passage and its context almost indecipherable: "For goodness' sake, you are all the same, but think you are different. You think you can keep everything as if in a safe, but the cells will crumble for you, too. We mustn't talk ... for you it is all useless, silence. You scorn any sign and we go on decoding a mere nothing. Will you not grant us a moment? Maybe that wall will fall down, what do you think?" (30). ["Possibile, siete tutti cosi eguali e credete di essere diversi. Pensate di trattenere tutto come in uno scrigno, ma le cellule si sfalderanno anche per voi. Non dobbiamo parlare ... per voi e tutto intutile, silenzio. Sdegnate ogni segno e noi continuiamo a decifrare il nulla. Non ci concedete un attimo? Forse quel muro crollerebbe, che ne dici?" (31)]
Nevertheless, Quartermaine's translation The Cafe of Mirrors remains an important contribution to interdisciplinary literary studies by making Giuliana Morandini's novel accessible to a new audience. Her translation is valuable to readers with limited or no knowledge of contemporary Italian women's literature as well as to seasoned scholars. Quartermaine's translation joins the exciting trend of English translations of prominent Italian women writers, such as Anna Banti, Dacia Maraini, and Franca Rame, who live on in another language and reach an ever-increasing reading public.
Carole C. Gallucci, College of William & Mary
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|Title Annotation:||ITALIAN BOOKSHELF|
|Author:||Gallucci, Carole C.|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 1998|
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