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Valeria Parrella: For Grace Received

Europa Editions is getting quite a bit of publicity these days for publishing Boualem Sansal’s The German Mujahid.  I had never ran into them before, but then suddenly I saw their attractive books popping up all over the bookstores!  Which is great news for those of us who love literature in translation.  I received a few review copies (all look excellent!) and decided to start with the young Valeria Parrella’s second book of short stories For Grace Received (Per grazia ricevuta, 2005; tr. from the Italian by Antony Shugaar, 2009).

Review copy courtesy of Europa Editions.

Review copy courtesy of Europa Editions.

It’s always impressive when a young author enters with such a mature voice and style, not to mention substantial depth of analysis in some fairly complex social and psychological topics.  Parrella has set the bar high for her future in literature.  The book contains four short stories: “Run,” “Siddhartha,” “The Imagined Friend,” and “F.G.R.” (that’s from For Grace Received, if you didn’t catch it).

My favorites were “Run” and “The Imagined Friend.”  Here’s how “Run” begins:

Every time I cross this street, I always choose the same spot: I walk sort of kitty-corner from the traffic island, or straight as an arrow along the crosswalk, as if the cars had stopped to let me pass.  Or else, stepping down from the trolley, without an umbrella, I run to take shelter under the awning outside the pharmacy.  But I always cross Via Marina at this same spot, I don’t do it on purpose — that is, I do it on purpose, but without wanting to.  And when I cross here, I image it.

What she imagines every time she crosses this street, at this location, is the terrible scene when the man she was living with was stabbed by thugs trying to intercept some money he was transporting.  Why was he transporting money?  Well, this is a look at the seedy side of Naples.  I’ve never been to Naples before, but even if I had, I doubt I’d get a glimpse at this side of this city.  If you notice the subtitle on the book cover, you’ll see it says, “Four Stories of Modern Naples.”  Parrella’s look in “Run” are definitely disillusioning for those of us whose thoughts are more romantically inclined when Naples is said. 

The tragedies in “Run” don’t stop at the stabbing of the money courrier.  He lies crippled and dying for weeks, their young son rushing in to his bed to play with him.  One of the most affecting scenes is after his death when the narrator sees the young child looking at the empty bed.  It gets worse, though, because the narrator herself is forced to work for those who ran her boyfriend’s life, ending in her going to prison. 

If it looks like I’ve given away the whole story in “Run” in that last paragraph, rest assured that I did not.  There is much to this story.  I haven’t even mentioned the man who witnessed the stabbing and what role he plays in the after effects of the tragedy.  This was just an excellent story.  If anything, its fault is in taking on too much.  Parrella is dealing with several weighty themes in a short story.  For the most part, though, it works and left this reader with that devastated, empty feeling I don’t necessarily like but certainly appreciate.

My other favorite, “The Imagined Friend,” also involves a woman rolling with punches as her young child drifts around the periphery.  Fortunately, this woman is not involved in Naples’ underworld, but her life is still tragic.  She’s involved in an unconsummated extramarital affair, dealing with the guilt but also dealing with the apprehensiveness brought on by a fear of getting hurt.  Here’s a line Parrella’s prose here that might appeal to some and not to others.

She moved toward him like a blank sheet of paper, with the expression that she used to wear at university on exam days, as she walked into the hall and focused on a sheet of white paper to keep from focusing on anything else.  Like actors when they tire themselves out before the curtain, to keep from feeling the fear.

While that particular writing doesn’t necessarily appeal to me (it feels a bit forced, as if the idea were better than the execution), this metaphor does give a nice look at our narrator’s approach to this potential lover.  Though a short story, encounters with this lover are few and far between but always just around the corner, a great representation of the narrator’s disturbed frame of mind as she deals with that and her family.

For me, “Siddhartha” and “F.G.R.” were less successful.  At least, they didn’t affect me in the same way as the two I discuss up top.  However, For Grace Receivedis a great introduction to Parrella’s abilities and promise.  If you’re looking for a small collection of slightly longer short stories, this is a great place to go.  If you’re looking to take a trip to Naples, perhaps this will give you a healthy dose of disillusionment.

3 thoughts on “Valeria Parrella: For Grace Received

  1. I studied Italian in Naples as it happens, it’s a city I’m very fond of though it has huge problems. When I was there tourists were untouchable, the Camorra lost too much money if a tourist was mugged and then called in the police so they were left alone, even though I was staying in the heart of the Spaccanapoli where my Italian friends wouldn’t go. I recall the night I arrived I was so tired I asked directions from a street gang, they were so dumbfounded that I’d approached them that they gave them.

    There were darker sides though, apart from the appalling organised crime which is horrific and among the worst in Western Europe, the gang violence and before I was there (and now again I think) bag-snatchers who operated in pairs on mopeds snatching handbags from tourists (that was what led to the ban on bothering tourists – a Japanese woman had her bag grabbed but didn’t manage to let go, she was dragged behind the moped and had her brains dashed out on the cobbles, killing her).

    Anyway, Europa Editions are excellent aren’t they? From what I’ve seen they do a mix of European literary fiction and European noir, I’m very fond of them for both.

    And a lovely review, like you I’m not sure about that last quote, but given my love of Naples I do have to check this one out.

  2. Trevor says:

    Max, I definitely think you should read this book, then. I’d love to hear your reaction to “Run” in particular.

  3. Trevor,

    I took a look at this recently, but unfortunately wasn’t taken by the translation, which seemed to use a lot of Americanisms from the passage I read which sat oddly for me in a text set in Europe. A doctor was called Doc, a woman was addressed as Ma’am, both of which I found very jarring as those terms just aren’t used in Europe and there isn’t really much of an equivalent in Italian for either.

    Am I being unfair? May I ask how you found the translation?

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