Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Short-a-Day: Dacia Maraini's "Hunger"

Originally published in A Public Space, No. 6, 2008. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 63.

[Translated by Will Schutt as part of the FOCUS: Italy series.]

The child opens her eyes and discovers it's still dark out. Her stomach is stiff with hunger. She had been dreaming of biting into a loaf of bread when a serpent slid onto her arm. She woke with a start and good-bye, bread. Going back to sleep is out of the question. Hunger forces her to her feet, despite the cold and dark.

So opens Maraini's "Hunger," with its litany of inescapable facts, befitting for the young narrator, Cina, who is trapped in a Japanese internment camp, starving in the cold, curtained shadow of a temple whose religious icons offer only useless thoughts. Her mother and two sisters lie beside her, and when she finally gets the opportunity to seize a mouse -- "They hadn't eaten meat in over a year," the sort of sentence that should never be so simply put, and yet, sadly is a reality for so many -- she winds up letting it go when she realizes that it has two babies of its own that it is caring for.

These elements are familiar, the questioning of a Christ figure, the serenity of a Buddha statue, the trickery and illusion of the Pulcinella character, but placed beside one another, their deeper meanings not just irrelevant but unknown to the narrator, they give light to the impotence of prayer. (Consider this exchange: "'Couldn't they have put two nails, one for each foot?' 'Maybe they were running low on nails,' said the young mother curiously."). It is not enough to hope for things: there must be substance. And if not substance, cries the end of the story, at least let there be dreams: at least there, we know our limits and do not wait for disappointment.

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