The Silence of the Outcasts: An Interview with Dacia Maraini

(Pescasseroli, Easter 2005)

To meet with Dacia Maraini and speak with her in peace means going up to the bitter and severe lands of Abruzzo where the writer, who lives in Rome, takes refuge during holidays and in summer. This March, Easter concludes a winter of polar temperatures and the snow in the National Park of Abruzzo remains plentiful. Dacia Maraini loves cross-country skiing and walking in the woods; this is her natural realm, and she settles here to write her books in solitude and receive visits from friends. Abruzzo is a secluded, harsh, and obstinate region. Pescina produced Ignazio Silone, and Benedetto Croce was born in Pescasseroli, in that bizarre wonder that is the National Park. A few kilometers from the center of Pescasseroli lies the pointed-roof house of Dacia Maraini, born in Florence to a Florentine father and a Sicilian mother, but Abruzzese by choice, or rather by an "orographical abruzzesità," to use Giorgio Manganelli's term for Croce, who felt at home only in this region. In the park, there are still Marsican bears, chamois and roe deer; wolves and boars roam about; and the hawk, buzzard, and royal eagle fly overhead. The Abruzzo mountains produce silence, and the secluded villages seem deserted theater sets, the piazzas breeding ground for legends and ghosts. An anachronistic landscape at odds with history, archaic and absolute.

Dacia Maraini, one of the most important voices in contemporary fiction, translated all over the world, published her latest novel, Colomba, in December 2004, signaling her return to historical narrative with an epic, choral structure, after the international success of The Silent Duchess (1990), with over 1.5 million copies sold. Colomba, part giallo and part investigation with fairy-tale touches, tells the story of a young woman who disappears, leaving no trace but a bicycle left at the edge of a forest. What has become of Colomba? Her grandmother Zaira continues to search for her with relentless tenacity. After so many futile attempts with the police and the local press, Zaira becomes convinced that the only one who can help her find her missing granddaughter is the author of the novel herself, the woman with the short hair. And Zaira, like Scheherazade, begins to exercise her techniques of seduction on the writer.

Set in Touta, an imaginary little town in Abruzzo, Colomba is the female version of the family saga that spans the entire twentieth century and accounts for the painful marginality of a world of outcasts in a land wedged between isolation and poverty. The imbroglio of Zà's family affairs delves into a century of Italian history: the emigration from Sicily to Abruzzo during World War I, from the earthquake to the famine, from Fascism to a character's exile in Australia for political reasons, the postwar years, from the protests in the seventies to the fall of the utopias in an agitated and confused present. When Abruzzo was the bitter 'Merica, or an Argentina for the poor.

This novel—which involved over four years of work, quickly ascended the ranks of the highest selling books in Italy, and has been hailed by critics as one of her most significant works alongside Bagheria and Voices—was the subject of my chat with Dacia Maraini.

Benedetta Centovalli: When the novel begins, we don't know anything about Colomba's disappearance. Has there been a crime, a kidnapping, or is she just a runaway? And Zaira starts the story back in the mid-nineteenth century with the great-grandmother. First of all, why did you choose the mystery of a disappearance?

Dacia Maraini: I don't know why I have always been curious about the phenomenon of disappearances. You don't know if someone is alive or dead, if they left because they wanted to escape from a world they hated, or if they were taken away. I had started writing about a Jewish boy, a childhood friend who disappeared during the Nazi era and probably ended up in an extermination camp. But the story was interrupted midway by a sense of powerlessness: how can you describe the horror? Then, the view out my window, of the Abruzzo mountains and the woods I was getting to know, suggested the story of Colomba and her family.

B.C.: Marianna Ucrìa drew her strength from an absence of voice and Zaira from the absence of Colomba. In both cases, the narrative restores fullness and life to something that is not present. Does writing carry the possibility of soothing and healing deep wounds?

D.M.: "Writing always means hiding something in such a way that it is then discovered," Calvino says in If on a Winter's Night a Traveler. Like saying that we write to find something that we didn't know before writing it. Whose existence perhaps we intuited vaguely but without realizing it concealed from ourselves.

B.C.: A chorus of stories swirls around Colomba's absence. What type of family epic did you want to tell? Here there are the stories of five generations of women. Abandoned and betrayed women, girl-mothers who resist their solitary lot, clinging to the unexpected life raft of a daughter . . .

D.M.: When I look around me, I see mostly women who are alone, left by their husbands after their kids grew up, for a younger woman, which is the most common thing, or suddenly abandoned after getting married and left with young children. I don't know the statistics, nor do I think there are any, but the news tells us more and more often about this type of modern family, in which the fathers have left and the mothers raise the children by themselves. Now there are also some fathers who take care of children by themselves, but they're a complete minority. Something struck me in Africa, in black Africa, where polygamy is legal: the solitary woman is the rule there, from at an extremely young age, and the children are always the mother's responsibility. Besides, everywhere, life is getting longer, marriages fall apart, divorce is a reality that happens even where the law doesn't sanction it. It remains the tradition that women are trusted to take vcare of the children.

B.C.: What is Colomba's relationship to your experience with feminism?

D.M.: I don't like "isms," which assume a preconstructed ideology. I consider myself an aware person who is sensitive to injustice. For my whole life I have dedicated myself to those who have been subjected to injustice. I've conducted investigations and written in newspapers about the homeless, the incarcerated, the sick excluded from care, about child labor, child exploitation, etc. Since I quickly discovered that women have suffered and still suffer many injustices, I've been happy to support them. In Colomba, like in all my books, one senses, I think, that I side with those who deal with injustice and abuse of power. It comes naturally to me, it's part of my character.

B.C.: What do you think survives today of the women's movement of the sixties and seventies?

D.M.: In Europe, the women's movement has done a lot to change their position. Starting with civil rights and laws. Today, on paper, men and women are equal. Of course, in the shift from paper to everyday life, things aren't so simple. It's easier to change a law than an age-old mentality. Deep down, many prejudices, many hostilities, many fears persist. But if we take a look at all the peoples in the world, we have to realize that the condition of women is very backward and sometimes very sad, from both the social and psychological points of view. There are still countries where women don't enjoy basic rights like the vote or the freedom to study or the freedom of choice in marriage. Every year there are twenty million little girls in Africa who are deprived of their sexuality through brutal genital operations. Basically, there's still much to be done.

B.C.: In the book you write about women betrayed by their men, who seem more like a rosary of missed opportunities than companions. But there are also intense moments of tenderness and passion. In what way has your personal life influenced, or in what way does it influence, if at all, your writing?

D.M.: One writes what one lives, even if not in a literal way. Someone who has gone through an unhappy love tends to describe unhappy loves, even if they have nothing to do with their own.

B.C.: Was your connection with Alberto Moravia also important for your experience as a writer?

D.M.: Moravia was for me an example of intellectual honesty and artisanal seriousness. He taught me that the writer is always naked and exposed. When I met him, I had already written my first novel and I couldn't find a publisher for it. He read it, thought it was good, and wrote a nice preface for the publisher, who, as it turns out, published it right away. He was always generous with young writers. Just as today I try to help young people who are starting to write and can't find publishers.

B.C.: What is the most significant legacy that Moravia left you in terms of literature?

D.M.: As I said, that of thinking of yourself as an artisan first and then an artist. Authors have to work on their books like cobblers on their shoes. They have to know and choose the best leather, they have to pull the string with their hands, know how to tell the needles apart and know how to maneuver them, understand the adhesives and know how to test their consistency.

B.C.: What importance does friendship have in your life? And what is its relationship to your writing?

D.M.: Friendship is a form of love. In fact, you don't know how it starts or why. It is subject to the caprices of time. It can grow or die without a reason. It can last a lifetime. Moravia said that a friend is someone you can call every day. I try to cultivate friendships, because they are great assets. And I tend to make them last over time. Nevertheless sometimes they end mysteriously and you don't really know for what reason. Just like loves.

B.C.: What type of friendship did you have with Pier Paolo Pasolini?

D.M.: I met him because he was a friend of Moravia's. But then a more direct friendship came about. After he read Memoirs of a Female Thief, which was a picaresque novel, he asked me to write the screenplay for Arabian Nights with him. Which we did, hidden away in a house on the beach, but without ever going for a swim. We worked twelve hours a day. He was very demanding of himself, but also of his collaborators.

B.C.: You have always been, like your father, a traveler. What memories do you have of the trips you took with Pasolini and Moravia?

D.M.: I took dozens of trips with Moravia and Pasolini, mostly in Africa and India. We often went to look for locations for his films. Other times I did documentaries for television and they came along.

Pasolini was an ideal travel companion. He never got tired, he was full of curiosity and he adapted to even the most difficult situations. During trips I usually drove the Land Rover, because he didn't trust local drivers, who were always drunk. Alberto was a marvelous storyteller and we stayed and listened, entranced. Pier Paolo didn't speak much. But every so often he came out with something of great depth. He was very attached to his mother, and was always looking for a telephone to call her. At that time there weren't cellular phones yet. I remember that he was capable, after ten hours of travel in the middle of the dust, of going another twenty kilometers to call his mother. And if she told him that she'd had a headache that evening, he got a headache too. It was a very intense, symbiotic relationship. And he said he could never make love to a woman because it would have been like being with his mother. Toward the end his father had taken up drinking and he became violent with his wife or his son. He took his mother's side. When his father died, which he writes about in one of his poems, his mother put on lipstick and they went to the movies like a couple of lovebirds. He was a devoted friend and very sweet. But deep down he remained a solitary person. Wild and solitary.

B.C.: Marianna Ucrìa, a Sicilian noblewoman; Zaira, a simple mountain woman. How did Zaira's character come about?

D.M.: There's always a character who comes to knock on my door and asks to be written. Probably, among these Abruzzese mountains, where for a while now I've been living, the character who would come to knock at my door couldn't be anyone other than a strong, stubborn mountain woman.

B.C.: But where do your characters and your stories come from? Are they the result of research or invention? Inspired by pictures, photographs, or film? How much is autobiographical?

D.M.: Characters simply come and find me. They sit down, I offer them a coffee. They tell me their story and then they almost always leave. When a character, after drinking some coffee and briefly telling her story, wants dinner and then a place to sleep and then breakfast and so on, for me the time has come to write the novel. In a novel there's not much autobiography. There are characters in transit. Naturally, I can project something of my experiences onto these characters, but they have their own autonomy, a personality that is often a mystery to me. I don't always understand my characters. I write to understand them better.

B.C.: Who is Zaira?

D.M.: Zaira is a mountain woman. She knows her mountains and she loves them. Exactly because she knows them she knows that, as in the oldest of fairy tales, mountain forests can contain dragons and monsters.

B.C.: An epic novel, Colomba is also historical literature, committed to telling the story of Italy and its conflicts. What is the connection between literature and politics?

D.M.: There's no explicit connection if we're referring to the politics of parties and governments. But an extremely strong connection if we're referring to politics as the difficult art of cohabitation among peoples, among individuals. I didn't have in mind the idea of recounting Italy's history, but the characters are from a family that, little by little, led me into the heart of the big events in our history: World War I, emigration, Fascism, World War II, '68, and so on. Telling the stories of five generations, I couldn't help going through and revealing what the characters experienced during that long period of time.

B.C.: Is it enough for a writer to give testimony, or do you believe that the responsibility of someone who writes has a vaster significance, in other words, that it has to do with choosing sides?

D.M.: A writer is first and foremost a witness of her time. She must tell the truth, not take a political position. But then the truth that she discovers is profoundly political.

B.C.: Colomba is a complex novel, with an ambitious structure; it has a Russian doll sort of construction. From one story you enter another, a continuous flow of narratives in quick bursts of air.

D.M.: Readers tell me that they struggle a little to get into the book, but once they do, they go all the way to the end holding their breath. I consider it a fluid novel that moves in waves. The waves have the habit of going forward and then flowing back. In Colomba the stories go back and forth. And this very fluidity has allowed me liberties in storytelling that I didn't have with the other books. Aging has brought me greater liberty in fiction. When I was young I was harder on myself. I wrote with an idea of absolute seriousness. Now I even allow myself digressions, a little straying out of bounds.

B.C.: Along with Zaira, who narrates the story, there's her mother, who in turn tells it to her little girl. What role did your mother, Topazia, have in your choice to be a writer?

D.M.: I think that happens in almost all families. The first narrative voice a child encounters is the maternal one. The voice that initiates us into the pains and the delights of the world. As long as there's a voice that will narrate no matter what, we can remain calm. Everything will end when there are no longer voices to narrate stories, regardless of whether they're maternal or paternal.

B.C.: Your family is unique: your father, Fosco Maraini, anthropologist, orientalist, traveler, photographer, mountain climber, and writer; your mother Topazia, painter and cultural organizer, Sicilian aristocrat, daughter of the legendary Enrico Alliata, Duke of Salaparuta.

D.M.: My father, an ethnologist, was very aware of cultures different from our own. One of the earliest memories I have of him speaking is when he told me: "Remember that races don't exist, cultures exist." Said in the years when racism triumphed in all of Europe, it was an act of courage.

B.C.: What was your mother's family like?

D.M.: My mother was the daughter of a Sicilian duke and a gorgeous Chilean, whose father was the Chilean ambassador to England. My grandfather, Enrico, was a very cultured man, very cutting edge for his time. He didn't place any importance on his being aristocracy. He had simple ways and tastes. He personally took care of the winery he had inherited from his father and was out all day in the vineyards with the farmers and the workers, among the barrels, the must, the grapes. He was a fine oenologist. He read a lot. When he was middle-aged, he became a Steinerian and took up philosophy. And he detested Fascism. My grandmother, Sonia Ortuzar y Ovalle, was a woman with a strong personality. She had a stupendous soprano voice and wanted to sing. But at that time it was considered disreputable for a girl from a good family to go onstage, and she had to content herself with singing at benefits. This was very frustrating for her. I think that as an opera singer she would have been much happier.

B.C.: Could you speak about your experience in Japan, your connection to that country?

D.M.: I spent eight years in Japan. My father had received international grant to study the Ainu, a people from Northern Japan. So we settled in Sapporo, in the land of snow. Then in 1943, while we were in Kyoto, Japan made a pact with Germany and Italy. We were asked to sign an agreement stating that we belonged to the Republic of Salœ. My father and mother refused and so we were placed in a concentration camp for two years. There, we suffered hunger, cold, and great fear. Fear of dying before the war was over. Luckily we made it, but I still dream of the bombings and the shrapnel from the flying grenades.

B.C.: Colomba, like The Silent Duchess, Bagheria, or La nave per Kobe (The Boat to Kobe), is a book about the value of memory. Do you think that memory is an asset that should be defended now more than ever from political aggression in Italy as well?

D.M.: The future is created through memory. It isn't by chance that Bergson calls historical memory, not instinctive, physiological memory, but composite, intelligent memory, the conscience of man.

B.C.: The Abruzzi, the mountains, the arduous trails, the paths that lead up into the woods, are also the memory of a childhood spent following your father, who was a demanding and inviting climber. Some of the most intense passages are dedicated to Fosco, who passed away a few months before the novel came out, up to the almost comic episode of Dacia stuck in a tree waiting for her parents to return from a stroll. Even Zaira climbs around, goes on walks, bustles about here and there through the mountains. Could we simplify by saying that your mother's legacy is the narrative and your father's the memory?

D.M.: Sure, memories of my father, the great climber, who loved skiing and rocks, are not absent from this book. I talk about him in the part about the narrator's story. Having made the narrator also a character, it is clear that she too has been given a story to tell. My father died while I was writing the book and that triggered memories of certain mountain trips of ours that were full of struggles and deprivation, in true Spartan spirit, which was my father's spirit at that time.

B.C.: Besides the characters in the novel, the setting dominates. Abruzzo is the real protagonist . . .

D.M.: Actually, one critic said the same thing, that the real protagonist of this novel is the mountain. I also really loved the sea when I was young, when I lived in Sicily, but unfortunately the sea here has been reduced to a trash dump. It's a horrible pain going to the beach; you risk getting an infection or getting tar all over you. The offenses we have committed against our coasts, I don't know how they can be remedied. The damage is serious. To hole up and write, at one time I would have gone to the sea. I've seen Neruda's house, on the open sea, and its wild beauty struck me. For us today, we can only find some semblance of an intact natural world in the mountains.

B.C.: Abruzzo and snow, Zà's search almost a battle against the snow. Is snow particularly special to you?

D.M.: The snow is part of my earliest childhood memories. In Sapporo, I went to school in a sled. My father put me in skis when I was three. Many times it fell in on us through the second-floor window because the entire first floor was buried in snow. For me the snow is benign, like a friend. A winter without snow seems depressing, lacking.

B.C.: A bitter, solitary region, with its bitter, guttural dialect with no vowels. For the first time you chose to write in dialect as well. What difficulties did you come across?

D.M.: I couldn't not tackle dialect, writing about an area in the middle of the mountains that was extremely poor until the seventies, that commonly used dialect and still does. I'm not saying that I learned it, because it's very difficult, but I gained a familiarity with it and I must say that its musicality, though contracted and rough, won me over.

B.C.: The dog, Fungo, is another unforgettable character. What do animals mean to you?

D.M.: The dog was named Fungo because it pops out of the ground like a mushroom, one sunny morning, without announcing itself. I have a very tender, affectionate relationship with animals. I've always lived with dogs and cats. But at home I've also had a goldfinch, a sparrow that had fallen from its nest, a gosling, a baby goat, always free though, not in cages. What strikes me most of all in Christian culture, which is supposed to be concerned with the rights of the weakest, is the lack of regard toward animals. Maybe because they're thought to be soulless. They're treated like slaves, objects of ownership, more or less loved, but without rights. It's never taken into consideration that the world belongs to them too and that our pretenses of owning and using the entire planet exclusively for our interests are arrogant and presumptuous. We protect animals only when they serve us in some way. Otherwise we carry them off to be exterminated. I don't think it's right.

B.C.: The novel contains many literary references, not citations, but little charms for the reader, from Arabian Nights to Flaubert, from Pirandello to Calderón, but out of all of them, Life Is a Dream seems central.

D.M.: You said it well, they're charms. I have always been a voracious, passionate reader, sometimes to the extent of confusing my memories with the memories of characters who have kept me company for days and nights. Calderón de la Barca, then, has been a particularly intense love, and I still often reread Life Is a Dream, which is for me like a work of philosophy, mysterious and profound.

B.C.: You have said many times that you fall in love with books and when you talk about literature it's as if you were talking about love. What books have you loved the most?

D.M.: Since I was young, I've really loved books that talked about the sea. Maybe because the first trip I took was on the sea from Brindisi to Kobe. Even more, I've always liked stories about ships that venture out to distant waters, that discover mysterious deserted islands. You might have guessed that my favorite authors during adolescence were Conrad, Melville, Stevenson. I don't know why, but Italy, a country with so much coastline, which has played a huge part in the most important geographical discoveries, doesn't have a sea literature. All the great novels are oriented toward the interior.

B.C.: Which authors, male and female, do you consider decisive in your formation?

D.M.: I always say that I've had many beloved fathers. Like Balzac, Dostoyevsky, Svevo. It's just that a literature made only of fathers makes a woman feel orphaned. So I started to look. And I discovered at least five mothers: Grazia Deledda, Anna Maria Ortese, Lalla Romano, Elsa Morante, Natalia Ginzburg. I'm talking about Italian mothers. In literature, as in a family, you need both mothers and fathers. They're our models and keep us company for our whole lives.

B.C.: Life Is a Dream is also a theatrical piece, and theater is a passion that has crossed your life. Your plays have been staged in several countries and some of them have gone around the world: Mary Stuart, Dialogue between a Prostitute and her Client, Stravaganza (Extravagance), The Dreams of Clytemnestra. To you, what is theater?

D.M.: Writing is a solitary activity, it requires isolation and silence. Theater is done with others: actors, the director, the musician, the technicians. It's a collective work. There's a solitary moment in the construction of the text, but to put it on stage, we have to deal with other people, and it's a big discussion, a process, trying different things. And that's what I like about theater.

B.C.: Going from fiction to actual theatrical texts reveals a very strong continuity, one mode slips into the other. There's always a lot of theater in your work.

D.M.: When I write a novel I think in novelistic terms; when I write for the theater, I think in theatrical terms. They are truly two different and often irreconcilable languages, even if both of them use words. In fact, I never translate one genre into the other. Each text definitely comes into being as a play or as a novel. I don't like transforming one to the other. It could be, though, that without even realizing it, something of my theater passes into the prose and vice versa, but if it happens, it's by chance.

B.C.: For you, what is the difference between a novel and a play?

D.M.: The novel has to do with the passage of time. It tries to investigate the reason for this mysterious path from yesterday to today and then to tomorrow. Theater, on the other hand, is the petrification of time. The novel is fluid, a running river. Theater is set in the moment it is performed. The novel is social, secular, familial. Theater is religious, ritual, symbolic.

B.C.: Your life is marked by books, trips, and long stays in the mountains of Abruzzo. What does Dacia Maraini dream of now?

D.M.: I dream of continuing to dream. Stories, tales, events. Falling in love with a story is like falling in love with a person. It tends to occupy your life, your thoughts. You can't do anything else for a long time. So, I would like to continue as long as I can, to fall in love with new stories and be able to tell them.