The Other Language: Stories
Vintage Contemporaries: Feb. 3, 2015
304 pages, $15.95
The Other Language was one of the best short story collections published in 2014. It will be published in softcover on Feb. 3, giving readers a second chance to discover its manifold pleasures. Francesca Marciano is not yet well known to the American reading public (despite three previous novels), but Language has created something of a buzz. (Perhaps Italian writers are catching on after the success of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan trilogy.)
In this collection, Marciano tells the stories of characters who find themselves on unfamiliar turf, literally and figuratively. Most involve people who have traveled to exotic locales (a Greek island in the title story, Tanzania in “Big Island, Small Island,” “An Indian Soiree”), moved from a city to a village (“The Presence of Men,” set in far southern Italy and “The Club,” which is set in Mombasa and coastal Kenya), or who live amidst a different dominant culture (“The Italian System” and “Quantum Theory”). All are disoriented by language or culture, leading them to stray from their normal behavior.
The standouts are the longest stories here: “The Other Language,” “The Presence of Men,” and “An Indian Soiree,” which are 49, 54, and 33 pages, respectively. In the title story, twelve-year-old Rome resident Emma travels to a Greek island for a vacation with her father and two younger siblings following the death of her mother. There she encounters two slightly older English brothers, with whom she is fascinated because they speak that “other language.” That “language” is both English and their seeming worldliness. Obsessed, she finds ways to hang around with them at their Greek vacation home, on the beach, and anywhere else she can. “She didn’t know what she was getting away from,” observes the narrator, “but the other language was the boat she fled on.”
Marciano, who learned English as a teenager and lived in New York City in her 20s and Kenya for 10 years after that, told William Grimes of the New York Times last spring, “You discover not just words but new things about yourself when you learn a language. I am a different person because I fell in love with English. I cannot revert. I cannot undo this. I am stuck.”
“The Presence of Men” follows a divorcee from Rome as she renovates an old house in a tiny southern Italy village. Of course, she takes several missteps, alienating the locals, but the interest is in watching her develop a relationship with the village matriarch Mina, a seamstress. The plot thickens when her brother Leo, a film agent, comes to visit with his movie start client, Ben Jackson, and they befriend Mina.
In “An Indian Soiree,” a married couple who have grown tired of each other take a trip to India. They love each other, but the life has gone out of their relationship and they seem not to know how to rekindle it.
We learn the husband admires some of his wife’s traits, yet it is no longer enough. “He loved her–that went without saying–but they’d been together for almost sixteen years and it was normal to find her tiresome at times. He had to admit it was lovely, the way she found so many things interesting and worth being investigated; it was a sign of her vitality, and he cherished that.”
A handful of pages later we get the wife’s point of view. “They had been three weeks on the road by now and she’d begun to feel how tiresome it was to travel with someone who never seemed to enjoy himself. As usual, she had to do all the work, like a puppeteer moving all the characters across the stage, or a ventriloquist doing all the voices, in order to keep the audience entertained. Sometimes it became too demanding.
Their stay in India has a powerful impact on them and their marriage. The couple, who remain unnamed, are intoxicated by the change of scenery. The wife has gone native in an awkwardly touristy way; when she has an intense dream about a former lover, she believes it’s a message and decides to contact him via Skype. The husband becomes infatuated with a famous Indian dancer who appears to return his interest.
Ironically, the best description of this scenario is found in “The Presence of Men,” when Lara considers love and lust. “Love was a drug, a rave. People got high on it and within half an hour were capable of doing anything in its name. No place was too far to reach, no phone number too expensive to call, no decision faster to make.”
Not surprisingly, they soon commit themselves to courses of action that can’t easily be undone.
The simplest pleasure in this collection is “The Italian System,” the shortest story on offer. The unnamed protagonist is a young woman from Rome who has been living in New York City for seven years. “Ever since she’d arrived in the city she’d tried very hard to become an American, but it had proved hard to blend in. It wasn’t just the accent or mispronunciation of difficult words that singled her out, it was a question of attitude. Of posture, even.” She feels hopelessly foreign. “She, even after all these years, still felt self-conscious, afraid of making a faux pas. She came to feel this was the inherent condition of anybody unmoored from the familiar, and living in a place that is home to others.”
She decides she needs a new project to energize her life. She hits upon the idea of writing a book about being Italian, specifically what makes Italians so…well, Italian, and so popular with non-Italians. She will call her book The Italian System.
Marciano is unsparing in her depictions of these characters’ foibles, but she also shows us their essential humanity. She also writes with a strong sense of place, one that is often palpable, especially when, as in my case, you are reading her stories in January. But what stands out most in these stories is Marciano’s clean, elegant prose. Even the less impressive stories in this collection are a pleasure to read, as you sail along on her controlled and well-crafted sentences.
As much as I enjoyed these stories, I have a few quibbles with The Other Language. Although all the characters are Italian, they didn’t come across as distinctly Italian. I often found myself thinking they were British or just generically “European.” Marciano lives in Rome, but she spent many years living in the U.S. and the U.K., which may explain why her characters feel more like citizens of the world than idiosyncratically Italian. Also, a few of the stories in The Other Language may leave readers perplexed with their inconclusive endings. Marciano’s stories can be deceptively subtle, and she doesn’t rely on pat endings that tie up all the strands.
Still, I am glad to have “discovered” Francesca Marciano, and I intend to make time to read her previous work and whatever she publishes next. You should, too.