A Life Apart, by Mariapia Veladiano, translated by Cristina Viti
A Life Apart
Mariapia Veladiano, translated by Cristina Viti
An ugly woman has no vantage point from which to tell her story,” announces Rebecca, the sympathetic, intellectual narrator of this subtle, impressively candid Calvino Prize-winning first novel from Italy. In describing her tale as one “told from the corner in which life had pushed us, through the crack left open by fear and shame”, leaving just enough “for us to breathe, just enough for us not to die”, Rebecca stresses that she is “really ugly”. Although often noting her ugliness, she seldom complains; her tone instead is factual and politely detached, though with less authorial irony than might be expected.
A suggestion of the traditional fairytale shrouds the plot. Rebecca is the daughter of beautiful parents: her gynaecologist father is black-eyed and handsome, her mother lovely. Their great romance – which brought together the doctor as a prince, the poor peasant girl as a princess, despite the opposition of her parents – is doomed. Both families have had medical tragedies, but the doctor concealed his. Therein lies the curse, the “taint”. Rebecca’s entry into the world forces her mother to abandon ordinary existence. Instead she sits in a darkened room overlooking the river. The lovingly decorated palazzo she had restored in various shades of blue and pale yellow for her husband and baby becomes an imprisoning tower.
Rebecca recalls how her mother had taken to wearing mourning dress soon after her birth. Elsewhere there is a reference to the dwarf princess and the dramatic fate of her dwarf minders. More mundane is the experience of the long procession of childminders interviewed to tend Rebecca. Few of them prove suitable and one, who stayed briefly, left, remarking: “There is too much sorrow in this house.”
The distracted father, persistently conversing with his wife who no longer speaks, does manage to secure help in the despairing form of Maddalena, a woman who has lost her two sons and her husband in an accident. Maddalena weeps all the time; it is a narrative device that Veladiano uses far too often. Yet this is a minor quibble.
Frequent visits to this grieving household are made by the glamorous and forceful Erminia, the twin sister of Rebecca’s father. Erminia is a musician whose career has been stifled because her talent never quite matched her striking appearance. She is theatrical and given to opinionated statements, an ambivalent combination of fairy godmother and gorgeous wicked witch. Men pursue her, but none linger, and she appears far too interested in her brother to care. She does detect that Rebecca has a gift for music, but the child’s mother refuses to allow her daughter to attend school. When Rebecca ventures out at all, it is only by night, wearing a hat and scarf.
Eventually the narrator wins the chance to go to school. Her father weakens and is unable to bring her, so she is accompanied on her momentous first day by Maddalena. The teacher, Miss Albertina, places her beside “a blonde, fair-skinned, hugely fat girl” who whispers that her name is “Lu-cil-la”. This child, the teacher’s niece, also has problems in that she and her mother are desperately poor because Lucilla’s father has run off with a young girl. Rebecca is delighted to have found a friend.
The ongoing tragedy of the mother reaches its climax. Erminia moves in and declares her intention to redecorate the house. “We could start with the colours: they’re too faint. It feels like living inside a box of stale candy. In the long run, colours like this make people weak.”
Rebecca’s response develops into one of the most interesting passages in the book: “What happened to me at that moment,” she recalls, “was like what we sometimes live through in nightmares, when we want to speak and are unable to . . . All I wanted was to speak and say that those colours were my colours too . . . Those colours belonged to me more than my name that no one ever used . . . They were the colours my mother had chosen and not changed after my birth. They were the thread of continuity leading back to her own dreams, they were what she was before I was born.”
In time, Rebecca is presented with a new music teacher, a polite man of indeterminate age. He turns out to be the son of a once famous piano virtuoso, a woman who then befriends Rebecca. This woman, who is believed to be mad but is clearly not, responds to Rebecca’s musical intelligence and assumes the role of truth-teller, while other painful truths are revealed through a series of poignant poems.
Veladiano gently but firmly eases the discreetly disciplined narrative along. Rebecca often muses on the question of ugliness and her lack of physical beauty. Meanwhile, her aunt and father disappear from time to time. Yet the father remains something of an inept dreamer, comforting his patients and no longer expecting anything from life. In ways this novel is reminiscent of Natalie Babbitt’s classic Tuck Everlasting (1975). Rebecca is very aware of the power of beauty, without confusing it with goodness. Ugliness, she feels, inspires hatred and contempt but never pity.
The world of this narrative is decidedly interior; rooms are summoned as so many stage settings. Indoors is perhaps seen as a fitting environment for a person who, denied a place in the physical world, is forced to exist in her head. When she recalls her classmates, they are less her enemy than she is theirs. She does not dwell on their cruelty to her, yet reflects upon it with reasoned detachment.
At one point she stands outside her music teacher’s home and listens to music seeping through the closed windows. “I could not tell who the composer or the musician might be. It was not the unmistakable touch of my teacher, which had brilliancy and a slight unconscious tendency to draw long waves of sound, something that could barely be perceived: although the notation and expression of the score were respected, the entire sonority of the piece would rise and fall as if imitating a cradling movement of which he evidently was not aware.”
The playing heard coming from within the house is different, “assured, unhesitating, but disordered. It was clear that the duration of the notes was not as it should be: they were slightly too long, or a little too brief. One was tempted to interrupt the playing and clean it up. Yet this was not the insecurity of a beginner: it had a kind of logic.”
Veladiano’s approach is philosophical, as is Rebecca’s, and this cool, thoughtful novel achieves the always difficult balance of being cerebral and also moving in a way that, say, Chloe Aridjis’s recently published second novel, Asunder, fails to do. Cristina Viti’s translation conveys the restrained humanity with a pitch-perfect grace.
A Life Apart possesses an austere wisdom and, with it, a powerfully moral sense of justice; the weak fail and the strong, even when disadvantaged, often survive as best they can.
Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent