Lilith, the dragon and the frog prince

River Arno

New Penguin Parallel Text:
short stories in Italian / Racconti in Italiano.
Edited by Nick Roberts, Penguin Books 1999

A volume of nine short stories by nine 20th-century Italian writers has been with me for a score of years, not exactly studiously ignored but still incomprehensibly remaining unread. I’m not too sure why I hesitated because in translation they’ve been very satisfying, and although I’ve only read a selection of paragraphs from each story in the original the experience has been equally enlightening. At a time of pandemic only virtual travel is possible, so these brief narratives have evoked Italian life and lives really well when physical travel has been out of the question.

The authors whose names were familiar to me were Italo Calvino and Primo Levi, so it was interesting to comes across Leonardo Sciascia, Goffredo Parise, Stefano Benni and Antonio Tabucchi, while the female contributors who were included were Dacia Maraini, Susanna Tamaro and Sandra Petrignani. Nick Roberts (who translated a couple of the pieces) has done a great job selecting a variety in terms of subject, tone and style; and English versions by Avril Bardoni, Sharon Wood, Ruth Feldman, Tim Parks, Edward Williams, Charles Caroe and Chris Roberts have — as far as I can tell from my very limited command of Italian — have been very readable without being departing from the originals.

And what of the stories themselves? Here are psychological portraits, tales with a sting in the tale, insightful social narratives, reported conversations, a youngster’s stream of consciousness piece, even a satire, all very different and, like courses at a dinner, each needing a little time to savour and digest before moving on.

Sciascia’s ‘The Long Crossing’ (Il lungo viaggio) is about Sicilians hoping to clandestinely migrate to America by sea; the man who arranges their passage is “some sort of travelling salesman to judge from his speech, but with an honest face that made you trust him,” and the desperate migrants remain hopeful during their long days at sea. Parise’s Italia begins very prosaically with the marriage of Maria and Giovanni, following their lives through to old age, but as the deadpan litany continues you start to realise there is a subtext, an implicit commentary on what is regarded as honorable in Italian tradition.

Maraini’s ‘The Girl with the Plait’ (La ragazza con la treccia) is vividly told but in the Italy of the 1990s the subject of abortion was largely taboo; the author sensitively but inexorably dissects what must have been a common scenario of teenage seduction leading to unwanted pregnancy. In contrast Calvino’s L’ultimo canale is a first-person tale of monomania, with the narrator continuously channel-hopping, searching for the programme that will give him the secret that he knows is for him alone. Levi’s Lilit is founded on the Jewish tradition that Adam had two wives, Eve and Lilith, and involves (as many of Levi’s stories do) prisoners in a wartime concentration camp discoursing on matters that will take them away from their everyday reality; we are led to assume the conversation between a Polish Jew and Levi himself is a piece of autobiografiction but that gives it even more poignancy.

Tamaro’s L’isola di Komodo mixes magic realism and social commentary in a thoughtful racconto about a child’s gradual rejection by parents and community because of his strange lizard-like appearance; in this cross between a fable and a parable he becomes isolated, like the so-called dragons of Komodo, largely ignored while being kept at home, until he makes a decision about his future. In a change of register Petrignani’s chatty Donne in piscina (‘Women by the Pool’) is given immediacy by being told in the present tense. Self-absorbed middle class women these sunbathers may be but one of them is constantly put in mind of the fairytale of the Frog Prince, Il principe ranocchio, whenever she considers a toad which has approached the poolside. When a wouldbe prince approaches the women what will happen to the toad?

More contrasts await with the final two stories. Benni’s Un cativvo scolaro (‘A naughty schoolboy’) is a satire on political regimes which rigidly dictate what is taught in schools; in this case the titular character has to decide whether or not to conform to a syllabus that demands an intimate knowledge of celebrity gossip, films and soaps. Finally, Tabucchi’s ‘Saturday afternoons’ (I pomeriggi del sabato) is the longest piece here but rightly so, dealing as it does with the long humid days of summer. Another schoolboy is involved here, one who has to spend the long vacation revising for a resit Latin exam, and the touching narrative perfectly captures the wandering musings of a young lad trying to focus his thoughts and feelings when all he wants to do is keep cool in the shade. Tabucchi cunningly delays gratification in this tale of a family with a missing father, a distracted mother, an irritating younger sister and a narrator who can’t bring himself to speculate on who a stranger might be.

Era in bicicletta, disse la Nena, aveva in testa un fazzoletto coi nodi, l’ho visto bene, anche lui mi ha visto, voleva qualcosa qui di casa, l’ho capito, ma è passato come se non potesse fermarsi, erano le due precise.

Tabucchi, ‘I pomeriggi del sabato’

The boy’s sister Nena has described a cyclist with a knotted handkerchief on his head, riding past at two o’clock with the air of stopping but not doing so. Who is he? Nena seems to think she knows, and will persuade her mother but not the narrator.

I really appreciated the range of stories here and the order they were presented in. Without the translations and the equally helpful notes I wouldn’t have grasped either the sense of the narratives nor the nuances of the language of the few passages I chose to interpret, but I’ll leave it to bilingual speakers to say how successful they regarded the translations. All I can say is that I valued this collection as an introduction to a spectrum of subjects and authors I largely was unaware of.


This collection read for Lory’s Summer in Other Languages, Gilion’s European Reading Challenge 2021 and my own Library of Brief Narratives memes; and it’s the fifth of my 15 Books of Summer.

14 thoughts on “Lilith, the dragon and the frog prince

      1. jjlothin

        Just checked out a Kindle preview: I think I will need to do quite a lot of work on my sparse and ancient Italian before I’ll be capable!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. The print version is excellent in that the layout of both texts match up really well in terms of appearance and page turns without seeming forced. This meant that I could see clearly how the translation related to each phrase in Italian on the opposite page. Not sure if your Kindle version will allow that, which would be a shame.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. jjlothin

            I just took a (free!) look at the Kindle version to see what the vocabulary was like – way above my level at the moment! I’ll certainly get hold of a proper (i.e. paperback) version as and when I have the time to start on this.

            Liked by 1 person

            1. The vocab is way past me too without constant referral to a dictionary, but having a smattering of French and a bit of Latin certainly helped me with getting the gist of some phrases. Good luck with getting a print copy!

              Liked by 1 person

    1. No jealousy or sense of awe required, Ola, after two years at Italian evening classes around the time this book was published — and coincidentally the same length of time for Welsh evening classes — my Italian expertise extends to Buongiorno, Buonasera, Grazie and Prego (plus similar phrases in Welsh).

      I can also read it aloud reasonably convincingly without having much idea what I’m saying, so having a parallel text is a real boon even though not much sticks in the memory afterwards!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Ooh, I’d like to try one of these, then! Italian has still a lot in common with Latin, so I hope I’d be able to decipher the meanings of some words, at least – I’ve been learning Italian as a kid for a while, and as you can imagine not much of this knowledge is close to the surface now 😉

        Liked by 1 person

    1. I wasn’t familiar with most of these authors, including Tabucchi, so as a sampler this selection works really well in introducing the work of authors one might not consider in the usual run of things. I shall have to check him out now! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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