Wednesday, April 22, 2009

A Castle in Romagna (A Review)

A Castle in Romagna
By Igor Štiks
Translated by Russell Scott Valentino and Tomislav Kuzmanović
Autumn Hill Books
December 21, 2004

"Somehow, regardless of time and space, Strecci and I are connected. Someone once said that we listen to stories and read books only to know we're not alone. I would add that the fact that we collect them, listen to them, read them persistently all our lives, speaks of our desire to surpass their uniqueness. Somewhere stories come together, perhaps crossing or overlapping, but they are never the same."

Igor Štiks's 2000 novella A Castle in Romagna (originally titled Dvorac u Romagni and translated from Croatian by Tomislav Kuzmanović and Scott Valentino) gives me hope for An American Tragedy, which I have been trudging through for two months now. Štiks initially has the same drawback as Dreiser: a verbose style that force the reader to go over the same sentence twice. The introduction to my edition of An American Tragedy promises that the emotional power of the story will eventually make up for the sluggish beginning. Luckily, such was the case with A Castle in Romagna, in which the recklessness of love only leads to personal destruction.

There are two narrators and three narratives in three separate time periods: Romagna, Italy in 1535, Romagna in 1995, and the Croatian island of Rab in 1948. The first speaker, an exiled Croat from war-torn Bosnia, has arrived at the ancient Castello Mardi for a tour with two female friends. The resident friar, Niccolò Darsa, makes a crude joke about the young man's homeland, and then apologizes, speaking perfect Croatian and offering to tell his own story and that of Renaissance literary giant Enzo Strecci, a guest of Francesco Mardi who was later imprisoned and executed. I feel like natural sympathy with Enzo, Niccolò says, "You won't believe it if I tell you that he was like you and me. No, you won't believe it. Just like you and me." It turns out that the old cleric is an ethnic Italian who lived on Rab until Yugolsav President Josip Broz Tito's split with Stalin shortly after World War II, which precipitated a period of repression and paranoia that saw innocent people turned in and executed for being Cominformist agents. So too did Enzo live in a tumultuous era, as the threat of invasion led to a fear of Habsburg spies lurking among Mardi's household and villages.

As Niccolò, a natural storyteller, recounts his own tale and dramatizes Enzo's, a stronger bond between the two Italians becomes evident: that of forbidden romance and its inevitable follies. The rash and stubborn behavior of senseless youths in love is made all the more foolhardy by a hostile political environment that threatens to crush everyone, victims and perpetrators alike, in its relentless crusade against "subversives." Leaders, acting emotionally, use their authority to carry out personal vendettas. Lives, time and again, are destroyed by love and war. The moral of the story is, conclusively, that humanity remains the same even as the perpetual march of history alters the superficial appearance of things.

Despite its weighty subject matter, A Castle in Romagna is a very short book of only 102 pages. It is nevertheless a slow start, due to Štiks's fondness for rambling sentences that can easily make the reader lose track of the original topic. Sample:
Maria thought quickly, clearly, and correctly, but, unfortunately, on an unsound foundation, that love needed to be fought for, and she took firm hold of the tail of Enzo's horse, which, it seemed, willingly allowed her to take it as it made its way toward Catarina.
(Actually, I wonder if I might have the same problem?) Of course, the trouble with critiquing prose in a translation is that, no matter how skilled the translator, you are still not reading the original work. Nabokov once griped about reviewers who praise translated books for "reading smoothly," contending that one who does so is a mere "hack who has never read the original, and does not know its language, [and who] praises an imitation as readable because easy platitudes have replaced in it the intricacies of which he is unaware." That being said, however, another Croatian novel translated by Tomislav Kuzmanović that I have also read, Zoran Ferić's The Death of the Little Match Girl, did not have this same issue of long-windedness, so I would assume it is indeed reflective of Štiks's authentic voice. Which brings up yet another question: can one properly review a translated book if they are not familiar with the other work the translator has done? Food for thought. But as I said, as the suspense and emotional intensity of A Castle in Romagna increase, so does its readability until it finally starts to sail - dare I say it - smoothly.

Additional thought: The Death of the Little Match Girl is also set on Rab and deals with war and paranoia. Recurring themes in contemporary Croatian literature or is that too broad an assertion to make from two books? I will be reviewing a third Croatian novel, Slobodan Novak's Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh, so stay tuned.


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