Sunday, May 30, 2010

Italian journal, 18: conversation in Enna

Piazza Vanvitelli, Caserta, May 29, 2010—
IN ENNA A FEW days ago I had an interesting conversation with the moody young man at the "Infopoint," as are now called the tourist information offices in the various cities here. Enna is a fascinating place; I want to go back there and stay a couple of days — this time we were just driving through, though we did take time to visit the rock said to be Demeter's tomb.

(Though I find it hard to understand why the entrance to the underworld would be perched hundreds of meters above the surrounding plain. Just one of the things to find out next time I'm in Enna.)

Anyhow: As well as being the geographical center of Sicily, which already fascinates me (nice to think of Enna having something in common with Wausau), Enna has been an important literary center. Stupor Mundi Frederic II was interested in such things: he had a mysterious tower built to mark the geographical oddity; and, according to the handsome young man at the Infopoint, he caused the organization of a kind of poetry cenacle.

As I understood it — my Italian's never up to conversational subtleties — the Italian ministry of culture is seeing to it that these Infopoints cover the literary points of interest in each locality as well as the archaeological, historical, architectural and artistic ones. This serves a dual purpose, of course; it promotes tourism, both international and national tourism (for as many Italians tour these sites as Dutch, German, French, English, and so on); and it raises awareness and I hope even consciousness among local residents of the riches of their own heritage, their own cultural milieu.

The Enna office (via Roma 464/466, Enna; tel. +39 0935.502214) is as much bookshop as tourist bureau. The ceiling was festooned with proof pages of a beautifully designed folio-size volume of writings by, I think (again, I failed to take notes), Nino Savarese, an Enna writer of the first half of the 20th century. My young man — the name Sergio Buscemi is on a receipt from the Infopoint; let's call him that — described Savarese as a neglected writer roughly on a par with, though writing in quite a different style, Luigi Pirandello, another Sicilian.

Buscemi (if it was indeed Buscemi) had studied modern languages in school with an eye toward a career in translation, but he seems to have come to the conclusion that, as the Italians say, tradurre, tradire; translation is betrayal. Take Goethe, for instance, he said, When I read Goethe in German I realized there was no way to translate him; he writes for the German ear. And the German mentalità, I suggested. Yes, mentalità, Buscemi replied; that's exactly the point, we live in our mentalità, it's like our terreno.

That word again: "terrain" in French and, now more profoundly because more focussed than before, in English.

I told Buscemi that we'd always been impressed with Italy for its literacy. There are bookshops in every village, it seems; not only bookshops, but good bookshops, with interesting titles. Even the Autogrill bar-café-souvenir-and-road-needs joints along the autostrada stock interesting titles among the bodice-rippers and detective and fantasy books. (And, of course, CDs and DVDs.)

Yes, Buscemi said, but not many people buy the books and read them. He became wistful. Writing is like cooking, I suggested; you don't do it for gratitude, you don't get many thanks; when you do, you're never sure the diner or the reader really gets the point; the thanks are sincere enough but perhaps a little off the mark. It's like writing string quartets.

Buscemi looked at me a little analytically. I think you're a writer, yes? I had to confess that I was, a little, and gave him a business card; perhaps he'll read this. If so he'll know that his work is important to at least one traveler, and because of him Nino Savarese is about to reach one more reader.

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