[New Vessel Press; 2021]
Tr. from the Italian by Ann Goldstein
This piece is a contribution to a two-part forum on Distant Fathers. You can read the first part here.
Some writers are made to pen memoirs. Maybe it’s because they have lived in a particular place at a particular moment. In other cases, there’s a fascinating family history that compels the writer to turn to his or her personal story for material.
In the case of Marina Jarre, a Latvian-born Italian writer who died in 2016, it’s all of the above and then some. Jarre wrote often about cultural identity and was the author of more than a dozen works of literature. Her memoir, Distant Fathers, which has been translated by Ann Goldstein, the translator of Elena Ferrante’s works, explores a lifetime of political and personal strife, of unrequited love, of missed opportunities, of misunderstandings.
Jarre was born in Riga in the early part of the 20th century to a mixed family of Italian Waldensians on one side, and Russian Jews on the other side. All of her Jewish relations, including her father, perished in the Holocaust.
She recalls an outing in Turin in 1941 with her extended family. “My cousins, my aunts and uncles, the others at the table didn’t survive 1941,” she writes of the year that the Germans occupied Riga, rounding up her father and most of the other Jews living in the city. They were shot; she never saw her father again.
But before that devastating moment can be revealed, the one-of-a-kind memoir includes stunning scenes of the author and her young sister being spirited out of Latvia and into Italy as her parents cycled through a tumultuous, acrimonious divorce. Jarre manages to capture marvelously the fickleness and candor of childhood. “I feel irrational tremors inside me; I sometimes admire bad people and I want to be like them,” she writes in the section chronicling her childhood, referring to her attraction both to her mother, who was often cruel to her, and to the bad people from history Jarre witnessed firsthand.
Distant Fathers shows the author as she is torn between Riga and Torino, torn between father and mother, torn between German (her first language) and Italian, and torn between Jewish and Christian identities. Her life is also torn apart as it intersects with major world history. From the year she turned 15, she recalls a speech by Mussolini, and the year she turned 20 is marked by the Germans’ departure from her grandparents’ Italian town near Turin.
“What are usually called the best years of one’s life are for me contained between those dates,” she writes.
Books in translation frequently school us on history or culture that is unknown to us. But rarely is it as unfamiliar as the Waldensian history that Jarre gives an overview of, courtesy of her matrilineal side. The Waldensians were a Protestant off-shoot that rose up in France in the 12th century, predating Martin Luther’s Reformation, and whose members lived largely in the Alpine valleys west of Turin. Despite living through significant persecution – Pope Francis officially apologized for the church’s discrimination against the off-shoot in 2015 – the Waldensians have endured, many of them still living in Northeast Italy. Jarre’s discussion of these events offers her an opportunity to describe the ways the forces of history intersected with that of her own family.
The most important aspect of the memoir, however, is how it recaps the relationships – which are often strained – with the women in Jarre’s life. And of all the women in her life, her mother loomed the largest. That would be true of most people but in Jarre’s case, the memoir could be read as a catalog of how she disappointed her mother, how she failed to live up to her mother’s expectations, and how her mother spelled this out at every turn.
Early on in the memoir, Jarre recalls a moment where she’s ill, and she’s never been happier because her mother is forced to pay her attention. “I’m afraid of my mother, I’m afraid of her when she’s there, but I want her when she’s not there,” Jarre opines.
It’s chilling later when Jarre’s young son returns from Grandmother’s house and says, “Mamma, why does Grandma always say bad things about you?”
The one woman who returns Jarre’s love in equal measure is her sister, Sisi. “My only childhood bond was with my sister. Constant and unexamined,” she writes. “My family was her and me . . . ”
Jarre switches between present- and the past-tense narration while she recounts the salient moments of her long life; this divides the child’s perspective from that of the adult Jarre. And as Goldstein writes in her Translator’s Note, “There is very little about the telling that is straightforward,” adding that time, which is an important theme of the work “generally goes forward in this memoir but not in a straight line.”
This can make for rather disjointed reading. At times, the reader may wish Jarre chose a straight narrative line and followed it. But the jagged feel this gives to the work is particularly apt for the way it meshes with Jarre’s character, especially when she tells candid stories about herself and her failings. For example, As a young woman, Jarre worked in Turin with French refugees and one day she came upon a family with an infant who was close to dying. A short while later, the little girl did die, and Jarre was entrusted with money the family had scraped together to maintain the grave. Jarre admits she spent the money on herself and never bothered to go to the cemetery. It’s to her great credit as a memoirist that she includes the story but her candor cannot conceal how awful the anecdote positions her. Goldstein thus observes that Jarre “is often an unlikeable narrator; and certainly an unpredictable one . . . ”
That can be a challenge for the translator. But in the case of Distant Fathers, the larger challenge is toggling between languages. Long passages in the English translation are in the original French (the language of her grandmother), sometimes with footnotes, sometimes without. Some translators say a translated work should read as though the original author wrote in the target language. Yet here Goldstein has the unenviable task of translating the inner thoughts (the stuff of memoir, after all) of an author who grew up thinking in French, German and Italian. In the original Italian work, the book’s French passages work in concert with the Italian passages, for example, but the way they work in the mind of someone who’s fluent in both languages. And readers simply have to follow along (with Goldstein’s fine translation, they can).
If the reader is up to it, treasures await in this work. Jarre’s English-language debut is a story of an unforgettable life full of heartbreaking moments, and the author honors the genre of memoir by presenting her life and herself truthfully, warts and all.
Jeanne Bonner is an editor, essayist and literary translator. She has an MFA in Writing from Bennington College. She won the 2018 PEN Grant for the English Translation of Italian literature. She teaches writing part-time and works as a contract news editor at CNN.