In memory of writer Gianni Celati who passed away on 2 January 2022.
This article by Pina Piccolo was first published as “Gianni Celati’s Silence, Space, Motion and Relief” in Gradiva, 1988, Vol. IV, N. 2, pages 61-5.
In reviewing Narratori delle pianure (Milan: Feltrinelli, 1985), Alfredo Giuliani has pointed out the advantages of setting the tales in the plains, as it provides a space without boundaries: “I confini della pianura s’inventano stradafacendo.” (La Repubblica, Aug. 13, 1985). Celati hímself emphasized the freedom given by such surroundings and transposed them to a subjectíve plane: “La pianura non è tanto una zona geografica, ma un luogo mentale sul quale sforzarsi per conoscere i confini. Che sono poi i confini della nostra capacità d’immaginare storie.” (in La Stampa, June 15, 1985). Analyzing the thirty tales, one can discern three main relations between motion and spaces: 1) the exotic visits the familiar, i.e. some outside element comes into the plains; 2) the familiar visits the exotic, or the peregrinations of the plain folks into the outside world; 3) the familiar becomes exotic – or discovering spaces made invisible by our daily immersion in them. These combinations are significant insofar as they exemplify one of the tendencies of the grotesque to put in relation things that traditional logic deems distant.
The raw material of the different narratives consists usually of alienated situations, most of them taking place against the backdrop of desolate plains, whether they’d be vacant cities, fields or over populated suburbs. The range of human experience reveals the transition from a traditional rural social organization to amorphous and alienated relations in an industrialized setting. Thus, new human “specimens” come to populate the landscape, ranging from commuting children of separated parents, working class boys owned by a sponsoring firm that is `raising` them to be professional soccer players, to psychiatrists and disco bound youths. Thus, this contemporary Novellino (as the author himself defined his collection of short stories) while drawing on Italian tradition, has undergone stylistic and structural changes reflecting the times it depicts.
A fourth variable almost always associated with space, distance and motion is communication, and most often its lack, which results in silence. This fourth variable is of the utmost importance in greatly altering Celati’s style and rhythm in comparison to his previous works.
The first story “L’isola in mezzo all’ Atlantico” contains a great many of Celati’s strategies, therefore, a detailed analysis of it can be useful. As in most of the stories, Celati advises the reader that his story is a second hand one, heard from an unidentified plain dweller. In this one, a high school student from Gallarate (the plains) comes into contact with someone living on an island in the Atlantic (the exotic), through a short-wave radio. Thus, boundaries are annulled by modern technological advances that allow the far and the near to be put side by side. However, the far away interlocutor presents some peculiar traits: he is not interested in exchanging technical information or news about other shortwave radio operators, he simply wants to describe in the greatest detail, the island on which he lives. Because of this, the boy learns only the man’s name, Archie, and not even his exact location. Thus, the “presence” made possible by the radio, becomes an “absence” of information relevant to one of the parties. Instead of personal data, the boy receives a wealth of detailed information about the places where Archie and his wife take walks, details which at first he finds peculiar and unnecessary. Discouraged by the interlocutor reticence about personal matters, the boy starts just taping the communications, in this way participating in an escalation of non-communication, ironically carried out through a medium designed to put people in a two-way contact.
Upon hearing the tapes, one day the boy catches Archie’s soulful exclamation “Questi posti non li vedrò mai più ,” but all of his conjectures as to its meaning remain unanswered. Finally, all contacts stop, in one last tape the man thanks him for listening and takes his leave. Having failed as a dialoguing voice, Archie instead succeeds as a narrator, in fact, spurred by the description of the beauty of the island, later in the summer, the boy from Gallarate and his girlfriend decide to go there. Once on the island, they recognize all the places described on the shortwave radio and recall all the episodes Archie associated with them. Reluctant to reveal their identity, the boy and his girlfriend head to Archie’s house, asking for a room to rent. Even though the owner of the house is named Archie, the two later discover that he is not their past, far away interlocutor.
In fact, Archie #2 (a possible double that can be seen as a prelude to deception and duplicity) relates to him the tale of his reticent friend (Archie #l), a policeman from Glasgow who through carelessness and disdain for ghetto dwellers shot and killed a young man. Archie #2 was the sole witness and the two had agreed that Archie #1 and his wife would go somewhere for five years and after that he would turn himself in.
Cosi l’uomo era venuto ad abitare su quell’isola. Erano trascorsi cinque anni, durante i quali egli aveva imparato a osservare ciò che gli stava attorno per rendere attenti i propri gesti e pensieri, ed era tornato a Glasgow a farsi arrestare. (Narratori p. 14)
What the boy had interpreted as reticence, had been just a “custom-made” use of the short-wave radio, a tool enabling its user to acquire listeners for his newly improved spirit of observation. This one-way use of the radio, can be seen as akin to narration, its proclaimed end “to learn to observe what surrounded him in order to make his thoughts and gestures more careful” can be directly tied to the process of narration, as we shall see in Celati’s own statements about the purpose of relating stories.
Celati’s characters are no longer moving with the speed of light through hospital wards, or even flying through the air with the greatest of ease only to land into garbage trucks, as in Le avventure di Guizzardi where the animè-like cartoon tempo of the narration found its homologue in the protagonist’s halting speech. Here, instead the meticulous narration punctuated by silence and reticence seems to express the will to lend order to a chaotic reality. What appears in the beginning as an “obtuseness of meaning,” (as in the misunderstood use of the short-wave radio) later in the narration reveals itself to be laden with significance. In the process of narrating, the narrator seems to want to instill a discipline of listening in his audience. A clue to the reasons for this change can be gathered from a statement Celati made about the purpose of narrating:
Noi crediamo sia possibile ricucire le apparenze disperse negli spazi vuoti, attraverso un raconto che organizzi l’esperienza, e che perciò dia sollievo…
Ci sono mondi di racconto in ogni punto dello spazio, apparenze che cambiano a ogni apertura d’occhi, disorientamenti infiniti che richiedono sempre nuovi racconti: richiedono soprattutto un pensare-immaginare che non si paralizzi nel disprezzo di ciò che sta attorno. Narratori, Front Cover)
In the course of “sewing up” appearances scattered in empty spaces, Celati seems to organize the experience in a way that obeys the rhythms dictated by these interstices, which can be constituted by misunderstandings, plain indifference, ignorance, opacity, all leading to a slowing down in the rhythm of narration, and conversely by proliferation, chaotic movement that leads instead to a quickening of the tempo. Often times, these two modes of apprehending reality are placed in a contiguous position, greatly emphasizing the sense of the grotesque.
One story features a situation which could be termed modern day Menippean satire. Its affable protagonist is a retired typographer, who can finally settle down to write a treatise about “what makes the world go on.” As a man who is accustomed to being surrounded with the printed word, he thinks that through reading he might find the answer. Little by little he realizes that the proliferation of the written word is not necessarily laden with meaning and is somewhat baffled (paralyzed) by it.
His realization belongs to the series “discovering the exotic in the familiar,` and the process does not prove to be productive one:
Col tempo però s’è accorto di non poter più mettere gli occhi quasi da nessuna parte senza trovare delle parole stampate da leggere. Pubblicita, insegne, scritte nelle vetrine, muri tappezzati di manifesti facevano si che lui, dopo una mezza giornata fuori casa, avesse già letto migliaia e migliaia di parole stampate. Cosi tornando a casa non aveva più voglia di leggere libri, né di scrivere, aveva solo voglia di guardare delle partite di calcio alla televisione. (Narrator! p. 50)
He expounds the problem to anyone willing to listen and finally finds some worthy collaborators – his granddaughter and her youthful science teacher, a long-haired inventor. Under the spell of science, they opt for an empirical method of investigation and since the world goes on because people “think about making it go,” they invent a homemade machine capable of measuring people’s thought frequency as they bounce off trees. When this method fails, the old man turns to the local civic leaders, who in the best of bureaucratic traditions organize a public lecture by a world-renowned authority in the field. The speaker wraps up the question in one hour and half with great applause from the audience, and leaves our thoughtful trio with the same questions and even greater proliferation of printed paper.
Its open-ended conclusion, bordering on the pessimistic does provide relief: the narrative itself has structured the old typographer’s experience in a dialogical manner. His openness of mind and his tenacity cannot be defeated by the reams of printed paper or “authoritative” writing that pop in his way, one can still imagine the trio continuing to pursue their quest.
The opposite forma mentis, stereotyped German rationalism or “monologism” if we want to use Bakhtin’s terminology, governs the tale of the inventor of the perpetual motion machine. Poetic justice seems at work when hard-hat worker Rudiger Fiess is knocked over by a crane, becomes disabled in his center of motion (the legs), and finally is able to work on his machine, a worthy project that had even received recognition by Adenauer, but alas! could not be implemented for lack of financing.
Once disabled, Fiess moved to the plains, where his wife’s hometown was located. There, bringing the exotic to the familiar, he resumes his studies and construction of the perpetual motion machine The machine, supreme expression of the quest for the creation of motion and energy with the least expenditure of power is described by Celati in an almost anthropomorphic way. Recovering his talent for descriptions mimicking the styles of animated cartoons, Celati’s combines the familiar and the uncanny in the best grotesque tradition.
In certi punti degli snodi aerei c’erano saliscendi con tiranti rigidi
e contrappesi in fondo, a forma di maglio. Quando la macchina
era in moto quei magli piombavano sulle predelle innestate in
certi punti delle ruote minori o delle quattro ruote maggiori:
il maglio dava un gran pugno alla predella mettendo in moto
la ruota e le ruote collegate, e ritornando poi in alto per pugno
a un’altra predella a tempo debito. (Narratori p. 120)
The grandiosity of the scheme is rendered by the meticulous naming of mechanical parts fitting into one another. The wickedness of its aims is rendered by the word “pugni” (fists) which cannot refer to anything but deliberate human energy concentrated through the fist to hurt an opponent. Even objects of utmost childish purity, “quei palloni di gomma col manico con cui i bamBachtin
bini fanno i salti a rana,” are swallowed by the fierce machine to obtain the most rationalized result; however, for all his efforts, Fiess can make the machine go only for 50 seconds. One gathers that Fiess attributes the source of his specific failure, to a more general lack of cosmic order when the narrator tells us
Secondo Feiss it mondo andava male perché Dio l’ha abbandonato al suo destino, nelle mani di terroristi rossi e asiatici. Ad esempio in Germania ci sono in giro troppi turchi, con facce spaventose secondo lui, che alla domenica vanno a ballare come se niente fosse. (Narratori)
The feeling of uneasiness created by the machine is exorcised by the final image of the dancing Turks a reminder that defying authority is still in the order of the day.
University of California at Santa Cruz
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