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Saturday 23 August 2014

70% Acrylic 30% Wool by Viola di Grado (translator Michael Reynolds)

Continuing my exploration of female writers in translation, I had an interesting encounter with this, frankly, crazy book by Italian writer Viola di Grado. It is a very strange piece of fiction, strange yet compelling. 70% Acrylic 30% Wool follows the story of Camelia, an Italian girl living in Leeds (Yorkshire, UK) whose life takes a downward turn after the death of her father in an accident which also killed the woman with which he was having an affair. Both she and her mother suffer a kind of breakdown, retreating into silence and darkness.

Camelia had been due to study Chinese at the local university, but instead she found herself caring for her silent, unresponsive mother, a woman who was once a beautiful flautist who was now obsessed with photographing holes (which may have had something to do with her husband dying in a hole). Camelia herself is obsessed with the graveyard (where her dead father lies), destroying flowers and vomiting words. It is apparent that she is emotionally disturbed. One day she discovers some disfigured clothing in a ‘dumpster’ (I will get onto explaining the quotation marks momentarily) which she took to wearing, which led her to Wen, a young Chinese man who offers her Chinese lessons and who she falls in love with. When his brother Jimmy enters the story, however, coupled with Wen’s rejection of a sexual relationship, Camelia’s mental stability takes a turn for the worse, she descends onto a dark path on which her self destructive tendancies overtake her.

I won’t go into too much detail about the story, because that’s not the best part of 70% Acrylic 30% Wool. The best part is the fizz-pop-dazzle of the language. I can’t tell you how wonderfully this book is written, with such a fresh and unique voice. Viola di Grado immediately thrusts you into the crazy centre of Camelia’s world with language that is violent and expressive, exceptional and distinctive. Like here, where Camelia sends away the journalists hoping to interview her mother:

“I accompanied the journalists to the door. When I opened it, I discovered an enormous vulgar sun that had been mysteriously regurgitated from some wintery hole and now sat in front of my house like a flea-bitten dog that wants to come in a lick the food on your table.”

or this:

“Our table. Our lurid, rotten table, honoured guest at meals that were more like vomit-soaked survival tests; our naked table stripped to its raw cheap wood, stained with sauces of every colour and assorted bodily fluids.
Our table full of holes.
Our table that fires off Gatling gun bursts of nuclear memories: Livia Mega sitting in her lingerie with her eyes half closed, a Polaroid camera on her chest in place of her heart.
Our table was now masquerading as a normal table belonging to a normal family. It was dressed in a tablecloth. Blue with obsess cherries and a border of obese strawberries. And on the table two china plates, not plastic ones, arching upwards like real soup plates, like angels in a crèche.”

Through this clever use of language, di Grado presents a world in decay, permanently stuck in December, wintery, grey and unpleasant. But is it? Camelia, seemingly so honest, is something of an unreliable narrator. As she tells her story, some of the truth of the past, the true state of her parents’ relationship, slips through and you wonder how much she wants to change this, or how much she engineers the path towards hers and her mother’s destruction.

It is an absorbing book, which carries you along with its clever use of language, its immediacy and the crazy rollercoaster ride of Camelia’s story. I can’t speak for how the story reads in Italian, but it English it’s fabulous and fantastic, an intentional car-crash of a novel. Which leads me to the one niggle on the translation: switching between American-English and English-English. I picked up on the American-English first, largely because it seemed very out of place in a character raised in Leeds and initially it jarred me quite annoyingly out of the story. On page 12 I almost put the book down, having encountered ‘bangs’ (fringe), ‘dumpster’ (bin), ‘black sweater with rhinestones’ (black jumper with…what? I don’t know what rhinestones are. At a guess diamante? At this point I got that song ‘I’m a Rhinestone Cowboy’ stuck in my head which significantly magnified my annoyance), ‘white turtleneck sweater’ (white somethingorother jumper. Turtleneck means nothing to me. I’ve been to Leeds, I live in the north of England. This is not someone brought up in the north of England speaking). Anyway, having acknowledged that my copy of the book is an American edition I forgave the ‘color’ and inappropriate references, on account of the fact that it was intended for an American audience. I read on. Page 16 I encounter ‘flat’ (apartment) and ‘mobile’ (cell phone) then almost immediately ‘thumbtack’ (drawing pin). Gah! Now I’m noticing where terms are American-English and English-English. Please please Europa Editions, pick one or the other and stick to it. The constant shifting is incredibly jarring.

Fortunately the story is hugely absorbing and after about 50 pages or so I no longer noticed the flipping between Englishes. So despite my grumbling, despite the slightly jarring moments, I very much enjoyed this crazy novel. It is fresh and vibrant, funny in many places and terrifying in others. The story is clever and dark, the use of language is intelligent and interesting and the whole, together, is something well worth reading.  

70% Acrylic 30% Wool receives an awe-brilliant 9 out of 10 Bii’s.

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