The joy of words from elsewhere

Readers searching for treasures at The Star Regent 24 Hour Book sale. PHOTO: PETER MCINTOSH
Readers searching for treasures at The Star Regent 24 Hour Book sale. PHOTO: PETER MCINTOSH
Angela Trolove will take what she can get of Italian literature in Ōtepoti Dunedin.

A few years ago, I would travel from Tainui each week to bring my son to Opoho playcentre, a place I really liked.

There I met a mother who grew up in Brighton. She was pleased her childhood friends were just neighbours, she said. You couldn’t choose your subculture in the back of beyond. It was your neighbours or no-one.

I admire that.

In this way, and this is the real point of this article, while in German or French you’re spoilt for choice, second-hand Italian books in Ōtepoti Dunedin are finite. When I do luck in at the Regent book sale, I can count on one hand my donor’s interests: mathematical theory and, for children, Richard Scarry.

So I pay my gold coin to the voluntary cashier and take home a book on Infinity. A little light evening reading.

A modest collection of novels at the public library veers more towards literature. This collection was donated by my Italian teacher who convenes the community’s La Piccola Italia.

In it, there are some excellent short stories by the good-hearted yet precise Antonio Tabbuchi and formal, humane Primo Levi.

But looking for novelty, I tip the spine down on a thick Mondadori paperback. I’ll take what I can get.

All this to say I’m working my way through a novel outside my genre by an author I don’t warm to and this in my expensive downtime.

I put him down. I pick him up.

Fabio Volo’s novel Un Posto Nel Mondo boldly bores where no book has bored before. Three paragraphs indulge narrator Michele debating how to word a first text to love interest Francesca.

As Michele’s insecurity accrues, I blurt aloud "Are you joking?"

I check through the novel for an editor to whom I can say, "Mud be on your name", but there is none.

Harsh criticism on my part. While there are dull tracts in this popular fiction novel (often a feeling of word-count-for-the-sake-of-word-count surfaces), I snuggle into any writer, in this case TV presenter Fabio Volo, diligently writing a book.

Even when that book includes a blow-by-blow of frustrations and mental prattle as narrator Michele agonises for Francesca to message him back. Diligence. Good.

Does criticism also exist to stop writers abusing readers? But, snarls the devil, you can put the book down at any time.

I am not his readership. A lot of toilet talk. I search online for reviews for the book. The first-up glow. One allows, of Volo’s novels perhaps this is the lesser work.

I am allowed to read the book, I tell myself. It was in bookstores in 2006 and reprinted three times by 2010, according to my copy. It’s there on the library shelf, but I also feel like I’m not allowed to read it because Volo is not my people. If I grew up in Brighton, he would be my people by necessity.

I read on to maintain my language so I can be with my children in their father’s Lombardy when we return there.

I love the Italian language. With Tabucchi I look up the high words. With Volo I could look up the slang but I won’t need them to fit in with the people I want to. Call me a snob.

And yet he is coherent and diligent as a writer, and he loves peeing standing, and loving women. I tautoko that. I recognise and celebrate that. His chapter breaks make sense.

Credit where credit is due. He knows how to saddle up the horse-and-trap of a novel and flap the reins and make it go.

On the plus side, here’s what popular fiction does — "not all popular fiction" — allowing clichés, it dares me to lighten up. Popular fiction gives me a sense of humour. It releases me from perfectionism.

In an often wealthy country like Aotearoa New Zealand, it’s an anomaly, almost delectable, being limited for choice. The books available to me have this curious denominator of readers of Italian who spent time in my city. My Italian canon is at the mercy of their tastes.

I could read e-books. I could ask my mother-in-law (a connoisseur of literature) to post me winners of the Premio Strega. I listen to podcasts and audio books on RAI (Radio Italia).

But I enjoy in autumn attending the annual Regent book sale. This year, I stock up on the three Italian volumes to get me through a long, cold winter.

Like a Belgian writer friend once told me, our happiness is out of our hands. We’re granted finite happiness in life and it comes to us when it comes. It’s not something we determine.

And I brightened.

My Italian literary input is like that.

— Angela Trolove is a poet who teaches creative writing at the University of Otago.