MARCH 31, 2021
IN HIS HAUNTING 2007 NOVEL If You Kept a Record of Sins, now available in a lovely English translation by Elizabeth Harris, Italian author Andrea Bajani shows his distaste for false sentimentalities and his attraction to raw uncomfortable truths. He understands the harm we are capable of inflicting upon one another. His narration often purposefully stumbles between past and present to show us the circular agony of his narrator Lorenzo’s recurring thoughts. Lorenzo speaks in a piercing first-person voice laced with yearning and regret. He is now a grown man but still a man-child; abandoned by his mother decades ago when he was not yet 10, he was left in the care of his quiet and broken-hearted stepfather. The pair formed a makeshift family and tried to summon the strength to move forward.
The story begins when Lorenzo finds out about his mother’s death and flies to Romania for her funeral. His stepdad tells him that he is unable to come. Lorenzo has never been to Romania, a place he equates with his mother’s desertion and thus has an instinctive mistrust for. She left Italy with her business partner and lover, Anselmi, decades ago with the hope of making a small fortune on a weight-loss gimmick: an enormous egg that subjects its users to a vigorous shaking purportedly to help them lose weight. She had once placed Lorenzo inside it and closed the lid tight, laughing at his terror and humiliation. She and Anselmi would drink and kiss in front of him, pretending it was all a harmless charade. He knew without her having to tell him that he was not to mention any of this to his stepdad, who seemed oblivious to her growing infatuation with her business partner.
Upset at the news of his mother’s death, Lorenzo debates whether to attend her funeral. His stepfather encourages him to go, explaining that, after all, she was his mother. But was she? The novel seems to equivocate a bit on this. She was certainly not a mother in any traditional sense of the word: an attractive, ambitious woman consumed by her desire to make some sort of splash on the world stage, she never really considered her son’s needs. By contrast, his stepfather was a kind and generous man; Lorenzo remembers with fondness how, after his mother had left, the man would place a hand on his head to comfort him: “The feel of his hand stayed with me, that tough skin, a hand that seemed on loan, it was so disconnected from that gentle, averted face.” His mother’s absence, however, has drained his stepfather; he is no longer the man he once was. His availability to his son is sincere but limited. As a result, Lorenzo has become accustomed to his essential aloneness, even taking pleasure in it, thinking of solitude as an impenetrable force field. The trip to Romania for his mother’s funeral would threaten this status quo.
Before his mother departed for good, she would leave for extended trips, returning from these excursions excited, her luggage stuffed with toys for him. They would spend an evening or two playing together, but her affection seemed forced. Though her eyes were always smiling, he refused to look at them, scared that she would see the growing rage in his own. He understood that her visits were merely a torturous mirage, teasing him and prolonging a separation that would soon be final. Her gestures seemed empty and cruel, her obliviousness to his suffering intolerable.
When Lorenzo arrives in Romania, he meets his mother’s chauffeur, Christian, whom he instinctively likes, drawn to the man’s kind eyes that looked “like candies in paper wrappers, wrinkles radiating from the edges.” Christian expresses sorrow for the loss of Lorenzo’s mother, but the young man is only half-listening. He is often oblivious to the world that surrounds him. Wherever he is, it’s as if he is really somewhere else — perhaps looking for mama’s ghost, the woman he remembers from long ago. Bajani seems to understand that this disconnection is the fatal inheritance of the unnurtured and unloved.
Lorenzo soon meets Anselmi, for whom his antagonism is instantly rekindled. The man is loud, vulgar, and insensitive, treating his Romanian workers with a smug elitism Lorenzo finds distasteful. Anselmi’s new girlfriend, Monica, is young and fearful and seems to be flirting with Lorenzo for reasons he can’t fathom. Monica has been put in charge of making Lorenzo’s stay as comfortable as possible, but she has the opposite effect on him. She jumps nervously every time her cell phone rings, and Anselmi treats her harshly. Some strange intrigue seems to surround the couple, but the author feels no compulsion to explain the many mysteries; he allows us to see these characters as they see others, through a distorted lens.
Romania is as bleak as Lorenzo had imagined it would be. Still convulsed by the fallout of the Ceaușescu regime, the country has a kind of Wild West atmosphere that Lorenzo finds distressing. The strangers he is introduced to by Anselmi mutter expressions of sympathy for his mother’s death, but Lorenzo senses he is being sized up; he is not sure for what. Anselmi’s excessive friendliness rattles him.
Memories flood his brain — memories of his mother. “You started leaving when I was young,” he thinks. “The first trip was for pleasure, to go meet some friends who were off trying to strike it rich. You drew the world on a sheet of paper the night before, to show me where you were going.” He recalls that this is when his insomnia began, as he lay restlessly waiting for her to phone. Gradually, he resigned himself to her absence. Lost in his memories, he thinks very little about his adult life. We don’t know if he has ever had a lover or if he is simply unable to love. Somehow his past hurt is always present. We sense that Bajani too, like his narrator, believes our lives are primarily defined by the traumas we endure; only some of us are able to pick up the pieces and move on. Forgiveness or redemption are just buzzwords for those who try foolishly to deny these awful truths.
We learn little about the mother’s early life. She was from a wealthy family and had two older brothers, whom she revered. From the outset, she was seen as the wicked child due to her maverick ways. At her parents’ parties, she was called upon to perform for the guests, singing or reciting a poem or playing the piano. But when she got pregnant with Lorenzo out of wedlock, they threw her into the street and never looked back.
Before the funeral, Lorenzo spends time with an old friend of his mother’s who left for Romania when she did. The man tells Lorenzo that his mother spent her last years drinking excessively, smoking too much, and generally abusing her health. Lorenzo realizes that she “died alone, like a sick dog that couldn’t even lick herself clean, the other dogs no longer willing to come around.” Of the church where her service will be held, he thinks coldly, “what an ugly end they arranged for you, in that church with its scaffolding, the sour smell of paint and broken plaster.” During the service, he seems to coerce himself to disappear — to be counted as present, even though he is absent. As she always was. He thinks back to a final phone call they had at Christmas, when he stood alone in a crowded room of revelers trying to hear her voice. The connection was poor, and she hung up before he could give a response. He had held the phone in his hand, dejected. She had won again.
In interviews, Bajani comes across as an extremely affable man in his early 40s, but he seems guarded when asked to speak about his work. One senses that he feels to do so would only serve to distract from it. His calm, elegant prose stands on its own, defying commentary. Bajani understands how the wounded often remain wounded, cut off from others and themselves. Such is the tragedy of the human story, which is somehow made less tragic by his remarkable ability to illuminate it for us.
Elaine Margolin is a book critic whose work has appeared in many venues, including The Washington Post, The Jerusalem Post, The Denver Post, and San Francisco Chronicle, as well as many literary journals. She lives in Hewlett, New York.