Tag Archives: exile

A Translation from La Tregua

From the chapter called “The Dreamers” in Primo Levi’s La Tregua:

In the evenings — those long Polish evenings — the air of our quarters, already heavy with tobacco and human odors, became saturated with crazy dreams. This is the first fruit of exile and uprootedness: the unreal prevails over the real. Everyone dreamed, dreams of the past and of the future, of slavery and redemption, of improbable paradises, likewise of mythical and far-fetched enemies: cosmic enemies, perverse and subtle, ubiquitous, ambient, like the air. Everyone, with the exception perhaps of Cravero, and certainly of D’Agata.

D’Agata had no time to sleep, because he was in the grip of terror: bedbugs. Naturally, none of us were exactly fond of these troublesome companions, but we had all grown accustomed to them. They were not few or far between, but a little bug regimen, which had invaded all our bunks with the arrival of spring. By day, they nested in the crevices of the walls and in the wooden bedframes, and they would not set out on a raid until the comings and goings of the day had ceased. We were all resigned to surrender a little portion of our blood, even to do so willingly; it was less easy to get used to feeling them steal across your face and all over your body, underneath your clothing. Only those who had the good fortune to enjoy a heavy slumber, and who succeeded in losing consciousness before they awoke, could sleep in peace.

D’Agata, who was a little man, a Sicilian bricklayer, sober, reserved, and fastidious, had been reduced to sleeping during the day. He spent nights stretched out on his bed, watching all around, his eyes huge from the horror, the vigil, the spasms of attention. In his hand, he tightly grasped a gadget fashioned from a stick and a piece of wire mesh, and the wall next to him was covered with a lurid constellation of bloody stains.

At first these habits of his were the target of mockery: was his skin so much thinner than ours? But then pity took over, mixed with a trace of envy, because among us all, D’Agata was the only one whose enemies were concrete, present, tangible, and could be drawn into combat, struck, and squashed against the wall.

Nelle lunghissime sere polacche, l’aria della camerata, greve di tabacco e di odori umani, si saturava di sogni insensati. È questo il frutto piú immediato dell’esilio, dello sradicamento: il prevalere dell’irreale sul reale. Tutti sognavano sogni passati e futuri, di schiavitú e di redenzione, di paradisi inverosimili, di altrettanto mitici e inverosimili nemici: nemici cosmici, perversi e sottili, che tutto pervadono come l’aria. Tutti, ad eccezione forse di Cravero, e certamente di D’Agata.

D’Agata non aveva tempo di sognare, perché era ossessionato dal terrore delle cimici. Queste incomode compagne non piacevano a nessuno, naturalmente; ma tutti avevamo finito col farci l’abitudine. Non erano poche e sparse, ma un esercito compatto, che col sopraggiungere della primavera aveva invaso tutti i nostri giacigli: stavano annidate di giorno nelle fenditure dei muri e delle cuccette di legno, e partivano in scorreria non appena cessava il tramestio del giorno. A cedere loro una piccola porzione del nostro sangue, ci saremmo rassegnati di buon grado: era meno facile abituarsi a sentirle correre furtive sul viso e sul corpo, sotto gli abiti. Potevano dormire tranquilli solo quelli che avevano la fortuna di godere di un sonno pesante, e che riuscivano a cadere nell’incoscienza prima che quelle altre si risvegliassero.

D’Agata, che era un minuscolo, sobrio, riservato e pulitissimo muratore siciliano, si era ridotto a dormire di giorno, e passava le notti appollaiato sul letto, guardandosi intorno con occhi dilatati, dall’orrore, dalla veglia e dall’attenzione spasmodica. Teneva stretto in mano un aggeggio rudimentale, che si era costruito con un bastoncello e un pezzo di rete metallica, e il muro accanto a lui era coperto di una lurida costellazione di macchie sanguigne.

In principio queste sue abitudini erano state derise: aveva forse la pelle piú fina di noi altri? Ma poi la pietà aveva prevalso, commista con una traccia di invidia; perché, fra tutti noi, D’Agata era il solo il cui nemico fosse concreto, presente, tangibile, suscettibile di essere combattuto, percosso, schiacciato contro il muro.

On Being Sullen

Having been told that I often seem sullen, I decided to look up the word and find out a little more about it. It’s a derivative of the Latin solus, as are English words like “solitary,” “solitude,” “solo” and “sole.”

Sullen doesn’t always just mean morose, though that is the sense in which we most often use it these days; and I am pretty certain that was the sense in which the word was directed at me. It’s associated with mourning — “sullen black,” in the words of a remorseful Bolingbroke at the end of Richard II, just after he announces the gloomy fate of Exton: “With Cain go wander through shades of night,/ And never show thy head by day nor light.” The sullen mood takes us well to the east of sunlit Eden, and seems often to arise from a sense of having been wronged, or at least a sense that things have gone terribly wrong.

So in some twentieth-century English translations of the Book of Kings, Ahab retires in chapter 21 to his palace in Samaria and, “sullen and angry,” takes to his bed and refuses to eat: Ahab had tried to negotiate a land swap, but “Naboth the Jezreelite had said, ‘I will not give you the inheritance of my ancestors.’” (Ahab’s wife Jezebel will soon fix that.)

Wycliffe makes Ahab dyspeptic (“having indignation, and gnashing on the word which Naboth of Jezreel had spoken to him”), but if we are not going with “sullen” we should prefer the King James rendering of the Hebrew adjective (sr or sar) here as “heavy,” and remember that “sullen” can connote heaviness. The sullen person carries a weight, or is likely to sink or feel weighed down, like the bride in Lars von Trier’s Melancholia. “The sullen passage of thy weary steps” is the apt phrase. (That’s Richard II again.) He or she can be obstinate, stubborn and unyielding as well. So can sullen animals. Daniel Defoe writes of a bull that is “sullen, untractable [sic], and outrageous,” and in the 17th century we find a horse described as “sullen” and in need of the spur.

But the story about “sullen” that interests me most begins in the 14th century. That’s when we first find “sullen” applied to those who deliberately keep to themselves – “a soleyn by hymself” (as a line in Piers Plowman has it) — because they are averse to society or disinclined to be social. This sullen character is a melancholic, the predecessor of the early modern misanthrope — and maybe a remote ancestor of Henry David Thoreau or a great-great-great uncle of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra. I’m not going to try to put the whole family tree together here, but I think it’s fascinating to consider the emergence of this solitary figure and follow his adventures in the modern period.

It’s also worth noting that here we have the most radical use of the word “sullen,” in the sense that it connects us with the word’s roots in the condition of solitude or going solo.

This sullen one separates himself from the madding crowd, or withdraws far into himself. Even in a crowd, he can sink into his sulk. Of course, deliberately keeping to oneself and withdrawing into solitude can carry a cost. The 19th century critic George Bancroft wrote disapprovingly of Byron and other romantic poets who through “sullen misanthropy” had divorced themselves from “the haunts of man” and squandered their gifts; and in another post I’ve written about the pain that Zarathustra feels as he takes leave of his friends and returns to his mountain haunt at the behest of his mistress, The Stillest Hour. The recognition that a sullen disposition can be painful or damaging is hardly unique to the 19th century: even in the medieval poem Richard the Redeless we find logic splitters that are “so soleyne and sad of her wittis” that they can’t reach conclusions.

Sullen withdrawal and the solitude it can bring is not, however, just a way of absenting oneself, and it’s not always confounding. Maybe that’s obvious, but how often do we appreciate the illuminations that gloom can bring? A sullen turn of mind is a special kind of about-face, away from sociability and cheery outward show — to face oneself. The sullen figure (at least the one who interests me most) takes his solitary way, not just out of Eden or the haunts of men, but into himself and into the human interior.

To be sullen in this sense is not just to play solo, but to play with solitude itself. So Dr. Johnson thought the epithet “sullen” could not be applied to the trumpet, but he never heard Chet Baker. Ingmar Bergman writes in his autobiography that as a child he was “considered sullen and too sensitive”; but in his mature years, as Dorthe Nors notes in a recent essay, he became a master of disciplined solitude. “In my solitude,” Bergman writes, “I have the feeling that I contain too much humanity” — and for Nors that excess, that overflowing of humanity, is the wellspring of artistic creativity. It is not just self-imposed exile, but an encounter.

Aloha, Sisyphus

A story I found in Haruki Murakami’s latest novel After Dark deserves re-telling and some further thought. Marukami says it’s an old Hawaiian legend. I am undoubtedly doing some westernizing in my version.

Three brothers are shipwrecked and washed ashore on an uncharted island. As they discuss their predicament, the god of the volcano appears to them.

Before each brother the god places a heavy, roughly hewn boulder.

“From the top of my volcano you can see the whole world,” he says. “Roll your boulder up the side of my mountain, until you can or will roll it no longer. There you will make your home and be the master of all you survey. Of course, the one who rolls his rock the highest will command the greatest view.”

So the three brothers set out on their Sisyphean journey, rolling their big boulders across the beach. No sooner do they reach a shaded area at the base of the big mountain than one brother says to the other two: “Far enough for me. I can go no further. Besides, I can make a good life here. I will build a dwelling here in the shade, fish and eat the coconuts that fall to the ground.”

His two brothers embrace him, say their goodbyes, and set out for the peak of the big mountain. They roll their boulders for days, until one brother turns to the other and says: “Far enough for me. Why go any further? I can make a good life here. There is good earth for farming, plenty of game to hunt, and I can even plant a vineyard.”

“As you wish,” says the third brother. And he carries on, alone. He rolls his boulder for many days. The terrain grows rocky and steep; the temperatures drop. The wind howls. Above the treeline, he notices, there is very little to eat, except moss that grows on rocks; when he is thirsty, he sucks a handful of snow.

He perseveres until, after many days and nights, he reaches the top of the volcano. There he makes his spartan dwelling, eating nothing but moss and snow, and commanding a view of the whole world.