Birth of a Book

Nina Bunjevac

In 2015, not long after the release of the French edition of my book Fatherland, the news arrived that I had been nominated for a literary prize in the southern region of Provence, the outcome of which is deliberated annually, by secondary school students and apprentices from the area. There are two nominating categories: one in the realm of classical fiction and one, of the graphic novel. The entire nominating procedure is very extravagant for it brings each nominated author to visit the area twice, with separate tasks for each leg of the journey.

The first visit involves touring secondary schools, libraries and bookshops, and giving talks to the youth there, alone or with the five other nominees; the second part of the journey involves meeting all nominated authors, and then each producing a short performance piece to be shared with an audience of about 300 youth at the award ceremony.

My first visit to Provence was really an extension of my trip to Angoulême, for the three-day International Comic Festival that takes place in late January. Before I embarked on this trip, I had an impressive dream of looking at the dark and cloudy sky and seeing a prism of colours, just barely breaking through the clouds. For those who are more familiar with my work, it will come as no surprise that I pay particular importance to my dream life and use the process of active imagination. This is especially true when I deal with themes that recur in my work: the reconciliation of opposites and the attempt to introduce order within chaos, personal or otherwise. This approach to my work has also made me something of a loner - and something of a seeker.

And so, after an emotionally turbulent weekend at the festival in Angoulême, I found myself touring the south of France, talking to youth in libraries and bookshops and walking the streets of old Aix-en-Provence with my guide, a beautiful and charming young man called Max. We behaved rather childishly - such was the energy between us - like two kids up to no good, filled with youthful joy. As we sat on the terrace of a café and began leafing through the booklet (which listed the nominated works, along with short biographies and pictures of the authors) we came upon the picture of Antonio Moresco. In his photo he strikes a thinking pose, with his hand supporting that brilliant forehead of his. I struck the same pose and said, “Look, Max! I am Antonio Moresco! Quick: take a picture of me!” which he did, before we giggled some more.

The agency responsible for the literary prize makes sure that each nominated artist receives the works by the other nominees, once the edition in their own language becomes available. Moresco’s nominated work, La Lucina, arrived on the day I left Toronto to visit Provence for the second time. I took the book along on the trip, but truth be told, I had no time to read it.

The meeting of all the nominees and the award ceremony took place in Marseilles. We were all placed in the beautiful Hôtel Hermès, with a rooftop terrace that overlooked the old port, an iconic giant Ferris-wheel and the church of the Good Mother on top of a hill directly across from us. Moresco was the last author to arrive, and did so during a celebratory dinner held on the rustic terrace of the restaurant. The outdoor plants, the hanging vines, the long table adorned with all sorts of delicacies and wine resembled something one would see portrayed in a Renaissance painting. Even the people surrounding it seemed to fit into this timeless picture. The Master arrived during the main course – a humble, soft-spoken and gentle man who did not speak a word of English – and somehow made the painting complete. During that entire trip we must have exchanged a handful of sentences, since his translator spoke no English and mine spoke no Italian.

The award ceremony went well. In addition to the rich entertainment program realized by the joint efforts of the teachers and students, the event offered an art exhibit of pupils’ artwork, as inspired by the nominated titles. For his part of the authors’ performance, Moresco read a passage in French from La Lucina, during which the room of several hundred could have heard a pin drop. My performance came last, a Bouffon-style dance number to Millie Small’s “My Boy Lollipop”. I dressed up as an unsightly pregnant teenager, with herpes sores and a giant lollipop prop, only to explode in anger from being laughed at. I had a full-blown nervous breakdown right there on the stage, shouting profanities at the audience (the profanities of such nature I dare not repeat here).

The surprising factor is, that very same performance - my first since I was a teenager - filled with all sorts of vulgarities, got the five-star approval from the serious and soft-spoken Antonio Moresco. The trip ended on very much the same note as the first one, with a dinner at an Italian restaurant in Marseilles, underneath the statue of Janus, with Max and I singing the only popular song of the 1980s we both knew the lyrics to: L’italiano by Toto Cutugno. Luckily, Moresco was not around to witness this.

I returned to Toronto feeling that the trip was not yet complete, that something was missing. The impressions of Marseilles were still lingering. And so, I began reading Moresco’s La Lucina. The novella is set in an abandoned village on the very edge of the fault line, where frequent tremors are felt, and where a wounded man meets the other half of his wounded self. In the main character, a veteran of a terrible war, I saw my grandfather, who was also soft-spoken, a man of few words, kind and just.

Within himself, my grandfather had carried a terrible burden of witnessing an atrocity when, as a 16-year-old in the communist resistance, he was dispatched into a village in order to make sure it was clear of enemy soldiers before his unit arrived. He never spoke to me of this, but what he saw while sneaking up to a house, from where a multitude of voices and laughter could be heard, remained etched in his memory until his death: an infant, slowly tortured over the steam rising from a cauldron full of boiling water. Although there never was a person in my life I loved more, and who showed me more kindness and love – I still remember, as a child, seeing my grandfather sitting in natural surroundings, staring into the distance, for hours at a time, much like the hero of La Lucina. I am somewhat embarrassed to say this - at 44 years of age - but I am still mourning his death and I still feel his presence at times. Needless to say, La Lucina shook me to the core.

In October of 2016, I travelled to Lucca, Italy, for the promotion of the Italian edition of Fatherland. I had promised Moresco that I would send him a copy of it as soon as it became available, and so, I asked my Italian editor Pasquale to send him a copy, and if he was familiar with his work. To this, Pasquale replied, in a typical Italian fashion, the kind I adore, gesticulating something that hinted at awe: “Antonio Moresco! Of course I know him. I wrote big part of my thesis on him! He is the BEST!”

Just as we sat down for dinner later on that evening and just as Simone, the publisher, had poured a dollar-sized dollop of the Tuscan olive oil on my plate, Pasquale and I expressed, almost in unison, the idea of working on a joint project with Moresco. The excitement was palpable.

Alas, how do you find a man who has chosen not to be public, who prefers not to be found by regular means? After searching for Moresco’s email and telephone number in vain, Pasquale sat down and wrote him a letter, the kind people used to write not so long ago, before the internet made communication expedient and bereft of any deeper meaning. The letter sat waiting for Moresco to return from his Berlin-Paris walking trip, the same letter he would later describe in his text in La Repubblica as: “the letter every writer hopes to receive, the kind which has the tendency to move literature in a new direction”. The ’deus ex machina’ so to speak.

Pasquale, Moresco, Simone and I met some months later in Venice. It was a meeting like no other, a meeting of souls, more than anything. Whatever happened during that day, it sure was radiating, to use Moresco’s own words. It was as if we had all dropped our preconceived personas and let our child-like nature shine - perhaps for the first time ever - unable to hide sheer joy and tears when Moresco informed us about the theme of the book he was to write for this project. The truth is, none of us had any time to process the meeting, let alone time to tackle a new project. Moresco was preparing a book to come out the following autumn, and I was finishing my new book, Bezimena. A plan was hatched to write the book in two and a half months and then provide me with a translation from the original Italian. All in all, I would have the same amount of time to produce the illustrations - time I did not have and could not afford.

The translated version of Fiaba Bianca came to me just as I was about to start the most difficult part of the book I was finishing. In Fatherland, I had tackled the theme of my family’s history, the polarity between political and spiritual realities that had influenced it, searching for my own place and position in its vastness. It was therapeutic and individuating at the same time, but it was not emotionally heavy. Bezimena, on the other hand, dealt with my own darkness, my own hurt and trauma, and with traumas I had witnessed.

Fiaba Bianca moved me deeply - it seemed like a perfect antidote to the chaos I had been experiencing for over fifteen years of my life. It tried to dispel and examine the thoughts which had inspired Bezimena: emotional and spiritual darkness, the loss of trust. In Fiaba Bianca, a young girl is taught by her loving – yet dead – grandfather how to discern evil and how to escape the belly of the beast by finding the light within. The story was written for Antonio’s granddaughter Bianca, and as such, it simply radiates love, a love I am all too familiar with.

I tackled the chore with gusto – often breaking down in tears – with a militant discipline, draining my body dry of energy. This book wanted to come to life and I did not matter. To be honest, I don’t think either of us mattered in this process, for we were simply conduits for something greater than ourselves to manifest.

On May 14th, once all my deadlines had been met and taken care of, and once I had managed to recuperate from overwork, the printed copy of Fiaba Bianca arrived in my home in Toronto. Only seven months after our meeting in Venice. Shortly before this, I had a dream in which I was holding an infant wrapped in a cloth of rainbow colours, walking along with an unknown dream companion. After a while he was no longer next to me, but in the adjoining room, still smiling and radiating love, the kind of love one only feels in dreams, or in those moments some have described as “mystical experiences”. Even though he was leaving, he was also letting me know that he will always be around. Holding Fiaba Bianca in my hands, I felt that same love.

[Qui il post originale e qui la pagina dell’editore dedicata a Fiaba bianca.]

pubblicato da s.baratto nella rubrica libri il 25 maggio 2018