Saturday, January 22, 2011

Short-a-Day: Erri de Luca's "An Hour of Hate"

Originally published in A Public Space, No. 6, 2008. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 44.

[Translated by Simon Nightingale as part of the FOCUS: Italy series.]

"For a good many years last century, I carried weapons. With no authorization save my own." So says de Luca, setting the frank tone of his character and his own authorially clipped intentions. Our character is violent. Independently. That's all you need to know. You can almost hear the periods embedded in the story. But such a choice leaves us still wanting to know the character; instead, we get a very limited glimpse, without any intimacy or motives, of a single action. In this case, we know that the protagonist has turned his back on weapons, in an attempt to control his nerves, and that he has attempted to bury himself in the sort of peace that comes from being in "the bottom of the pile": he has taken a labor-intensive job in a foreign city, and he looks merely to be left alone: "Men are simple machines," he writes of the others. Of himself, apart: "I did not share their gloom of their joy. I had no horizon to head for."

He is working through his issues, he has turned his hatred of the foreman into a game, in which he waits for the foreman to be in danger so that he can simply refuse to help him, "leaving to chance the task of taking action against the man." And all for what? Because he disagrees with the fate left to him by a character in Turgenev's Fathers and Sons, the young man Bazarov's dictate that "A man must be ferocious." Our narrator, a grown man in his mid-thirties, choose to fight that fate, not for himself, for he has been, but for others: "I'll never let anyone say that a man must be so." The pivotal moment in this very short story comes when our protagonist finds himself throttling the foreman; the man upset his bowl of pasta, and that's just going too far. As he recalls Bazarov, he loosens his grip, disgusted with himself, and the story ends with the stretched reflection that "Books save someone or something when they come between us and what we're doing." Fan as I am of the terse, immediate writing in this piece, I just don't think there's enough here to help us understand the hate-filled man or the methods in which he channels that rage. And as moralizing goes, do we readers really need to be instructed in the usefulness of these papery lives we momentarily inhabit?

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