Edited by The London Library
The London Library Emerging Writers Programme, now in its fourth year, supports early career writers, with many previous participants having secured significant publishing success. It’s a unique opportunity that offers writers, in all genres, one year’s free membership to The London Library and includes writing development masterclasses, literary networking opportunities, peer support, and full use of the Library’s resources. To learn more about the Emerging Writers Programme, visit: https://www.londonlibrary.co.uk/about-us/ll-emerging-writers
This month, we use our Write On! Showcase to celebrate the graduates from the 2021/22 programme. The majority of pieces we’ll be featuring here will have been written by former ‘Emerging Writers’, as well as a few from some of our more established members and Write On! Regular contributors. This week, we’re excited to showcase Explanatory Note by Edward Fortes.
In Italian, the word storia can be used interchangeably to mean history, a relationship between two people, and more generally a story of any kind – as in, “it’s a long story” or, “the same old story”, la solita storia. But a ‘story’ can also be a racconto – which might be closer to a tale, a narrative account; even just a simple relation of facts.
I took it upon myself to translate it, knowing that what he had alluded to in that moment had been, for want of a better word, true. Some people adore and venerate that word, and one can appreciate why: complete and unquestionable, even today it still implies something you can defer to – which you have always been taught to defer to. Tell the truth, you are told, in whispers and reprimands, pleas and protestations.
I once shared a room with a Cuban man named Ruben. Ruben the Cuban. That’s a true story. He was fond of rude jokes, was Ruben – both of the formalised, ‘man-walks-into-a-bar’ variety, as well as the casual deployment of innuendo. When I met him, he’d left Cuba some 20 or 30 years previously, managing to get out through a marriage, or touring with a band – or a combination of both, I can’t remember. Nor can I remember if the moment I am about to relate is the moment he told me ‘the whole story’ of his escape from Cuba, though it certainly ties in with that, insofar as it ties in with Ruben’s whole life.
We were in a small twin room at a strange, estate-cum-countryside conference centre in Umbria, each sat on single beds topped with these coarse, emerald-green bed covers – for the weather in Umbria can be harsher than you might think, even in traditionally clement seasons. They always had a remarkable shine to them, those bed covers; and thinking back, I could never tell, in the years that I went with Ruben, whether this shine was a feature of the fabric or merely an indication of its age, and the cumulative friction it had borne over its years of use, and the number of bodies that had lain on it, buffing it to a shine.
And having brushed his teeth and changed into his pyjamas (I can see him now in an old, pale-toned T-shirt and boxers), Ruben lay on his emerald-green bed cover, back against the headboard, and confessed to me. He did this with neither wisdom nor rancour, only the mellowed considerations of a man surprised at how much he had really lived in his 50-plus years. He was adamant, very clear, and said what he had to say neither proudly nor shamefully, in the way a reflection can suddenly mature in the mind and leave no reason to deny or make excuses for it any further. Every conceivable struggle he had come upon in life, he said, he could now accurately retrace to one specific, recurring thing, and that thing was a kiss.
I must have been about 28 or 29 when I knew Ruben. I do not know him any more. Eventually the job which took us to Umbria finished and our exchanges became increasingly sparse. I think he later left his third wife or encountered difficulties in the relationship. Before he disappeared entirely, I noticed that he became more vocal online, thanking people for their support, immersing himself in theories of all kinds, though there was never any mention of his wife.
No doubt I assumed too much.
I would rather re-immerse myself in a kiss; I would rather drift in them all like the sea – though I hate the sea and am fundamentally earthbound. But I must change tack and talk about the writer – and Turin, which is the centre of this triangle, if indeed a triangle can be said to have a centre.
His father, diminutive, warm-featured Sicilian that he is, still lives there, in Turin. He used to sell lamps in a shop he ran in the centre of town until he eventually realised that life in the città reale was only meant for walking. Though his father may appear an unlikely Sicilian flâneur, it is fitting that he should have brought his son to Turin. It is, after all, a story-making city, a narrative driver of a city. And when you think about it, what can you really do in Turin, where the rents are still relatively low and the books still plentiful, but be a writer? And that is what the Sicilian flâneur’s son did, albeit in a roundabout geographical way, after meandering to Paris and Spain, then back to Sicily before returning again. But writers leave all the time. His father knew that, and while not necessarily unreliable, they must be allowed their restless seeking. I, too, even though I’m only a translator, have learnt in time that you must allow these writers their seeking.
It is a surprise for me, as I translate, how some cities can mean liberation to one and constriction to another. I suppose I’m as much a reader of cities as anything else, wilfully interpreting these beasts that haunt and pursue us when no one has asked me to.
She had moved to Turin a year or two before they met, and while the place was still familiar to him, it struck him on his return as misty, nebulous. She, on the other hand, was all discovery: ready to flirt with it, exchange glances with its odd, anachronistic refinement. She did more; she saw more people. She immersed herself in conversations and wanted to hear how people spoke of it, because its elegance hadn’t yet overwhelmed her. She could watch herself float down via Po and approach Piazza Castello in limpid light. Her thoughts circulated more freely, which struck her as ironic when Turin is set in something of a geographical bowl, a declivity created by the Alps behind it, and a hill before. This, the people of the city believe, makes air circulation very limited and, elegant or otherwise, it is remarkably polluted.
One night, they walked back to the flat after an early evening meal at a restaurant she’d wanted to take him to for some time. She took quiet satisfaction in being able to introduce him to something when it was still more his city than hers. They came into the flat in silence and – coordinated by now, growing used to the space and how they shared it around this hour – they switched on several lamps rather than the main light. She had left the door open to smoke the last cigarette of the day, and watched from inside as three jagged squares of pale yellow cut into the darkness of the walkway that served as the landing. All of the apartments had this feature: after walking up an internal staircase from the street, you were briefly led back outside, along a narrow, balcony-cum-landing, to the front door. He wandered out and stood in one of the squares.
She rolled her cigarette and listened for a few moments to the strident metallic music the trams made outside until he alluded again to a mutual acquaintance, someone she knew from her work as an editor.
“What I mean is, there’s an attraction there between the two of you. Isn’t there?”
He knew his mind and had written the story easily over the last few days: a long, if perhaps knotted, uneven piece, which he had put down quickly in cheap notebooks he’d specifically bought for this purpose at Porta Nuova. In it, he described in detail a conversation he might have with another man. It would be late spring or early summer, and over a long afternoon he, the narrator, would first imply, and then discuss more openly, the prospect of an exploratory instance involving the narrator, his female partner, and a third person. The story, it must be said, is more effectively calibrated than this account of it; the ‘instance’ the narrator alludes to is less insidious than the legal connotations of the term suggest. The Latin roots of the word – instantia and instare, to ‘be present, press upon’– give a sense of urgency or urgent entreaty, but in reality his instance might be closer to ‘instant’. Or a series of instants on which such an encounter with a third person might turn. It is not intended, I don’t think, as a contentious term. It might, in fact, be nothing more than simple confusion, or elision – a mere slip of the tongue.
But we live in a slippery, transient age. And I cannot rely, as I proceed through this work I will never be paid for – quite the reverse – on any foundations the language will give me. I am not best placed to do this. I am a fraud, as we think we all are. For the true text is somewhere else, somewhere beyond my intimate understanding, and all I’m doing is belatedly stumbling back over the hills and through the woods, torch in hand, back to Umbria, back to Ruben. All I can think to say with that false modesty (or lèse-majesté?) which is the translator’s only survival, is that I have no influence on the text that comes to me. Not the text, no. Whatever happened, happened somewhere else – was written or constructed or contrived or expelled or shouted somewhere else, in a foreign cosmos I may be familiar with, but am not within. I am not within.
So I mention Ruben because, whatever infidelities he found himself engaged in, in his career as a universal paramour, he discovered their repercussions only belatedly. That night in Umbria was an instance of quiet, almost monastic realisation. Perhaps it was something to do with his lunar calendar, or astral chart; an instance of purely serendipitous stellar alignment. But he confessed. And while I must be honest and say that I hate the explanatory note in translation, this unending justification of our choices, I know that, more often than not, we owe it to someone. And now, after all these years in Turin, I know that I would confess to Ruben in turn, as I am confessing to you.
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