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Jarre revival

By Alberto Cavaglion*

A few months ago I recorded on this portal a podcast about Marina Jarre and her “Distant fathers”. I could not imagine what would happen, without my knowledge, over the next few weeks. A series of editorial initiatives that have brought back to the fore a solitary, fascinating writer, modern because of her fidelity to an ironic narrative, disenchanted, not really Turinese, Waldensian or conformist.
Firstly, her books have been reissued several times on the initiative of Bompiani and Marta Barone, who is a competent coordinator. Marta Barone wrote the preface of “Distant Fathers” which came out first and is perhaps Jarre’s masterpiece followed by the American edition translated by Ann Goldstein, who already translated Levi’s complete works.
“Giving a face and a number to the few who bear witness” is the stylistic mark that – since her debut – has made unmistakable “the slight foreign accent” of Marina Jarre, one of the rare contemporary writers who has been able to deal with history. In every book she provided teachings of wisdom and irony to those who were unsure about the expressive potential of “writing by commemorating”, with a surprisingly wide range of considerations, incentives, subtle and witty thoughts on Italy in the Sixties and Seventies. “Return to Latvia” is the book marking the end of her career which stands up to the comparison with the moralistic triviality of many historians’ essays on the trite memory-history combination and of languid conferences on the Shoah.
Yiddish proverbs do not always hit the mark. “No road leads back” is the proverb Marina Jarre has chosen. “Return to Latvia” deals with a barely known event in Italy: deportation from the Baltic countries, massacres perpetrated in Riga by the Nazis with the complicity of the Latvians and mass murderers, the dimensions of which are often poorly known by the Italian Jews themselves – writes Jarre with a pinch of justified malice. The book is of great interest for those who intend to look at the work of a writer in its becoming, since it represents in a certain way a rewriting of her previous book “Distant fathers” (1987). There are continuous textual references to an autobiography that Jarre today defines as “adjusted”. In fact, the new book corrects the previous one – thirty years later – by perfecting it, that is to say by subjecting it to the scrutiny of historiographical investigation and on-site reinterpretation. To bring distant fathers closer, the author becomes a historian, identifies herself in the role of a “citizen who has all the virtues” of the “Histories of Herodotus”, recalls her dissertation on the fathers of the Church, Pellegrino’s university teaching, the silent and non-ritual memory of the mother of Emanuele Artom (director of the Jewish school of Turin), plays with letters, documents, quotations from essays, passages from diary transcribed on small sheets, writes captions to photographs of an album that portrays her posing with her parents and her grandparents. Two particularly touching snapshots constitute – as an analyst would say – the founding act of “Return to Latvia”: the stampede of Michi and Sissi from their paternal home, their father’s ultimate trip to Torre Pellice; are images read – or better revisited – with an interpretative subtlety that historians do not always have, when they discover the photo to be a useful source for them. This is another proof of how literature can lend a hand to the analysis of the past. The reader should not overlook a detail: before leaving for the journey into her memory, looking at the sea, the writer holds a copy of Onegin in her hand.
Marina Jarre is well aware that “it cannot be told” and she can hardly bear any artistic-literary expression: “I still find it hard to go and see a film on the subject”. She writes that “telling is betraying”, she hates “the perfidy in repetition” that distinguishes and deteriorates many of our discourses on the Shoah: “The perfidy of repetition, as well as the enormity of numbers, makes events abstract and subject to comparisons and dissertations, gives them a teaching function, but takes away flesh and blood, screams and blood, gasps and blood”. Adulterated by the “perfidy of repetition” in classrooms and in conference rooms, memories “acquire a consoling semblance after the initial shock and horror”. Witnesses narrate, recall and hope that “the torment of remembering is useful and necessary. However, they do not narrate by addressing us, who listen and watch, they address countless people who had to succumb”. These are harsh, sharp words, marked by the typical accent of a writer who has been able to run the risk of being unpopular. But these are words of austere elegance.
It is possible to go back, as long as limits connected to the perfidy of repetition or trivialization are clear. Numbers cannot be represented either, in order to avoid any metaphysical value that could be attributed to them. Therefore, not out of vanity, but out of shareable modesty, in her last book five ***** replace the zeros of extermination. If something will obscure the future of citizens who have all the virtues, this will consist in the “intertwining which has gradually been created between personal condolences and public condolences”. If mourning became “such a heavy burden imposed in a public ritual”, it would be our own fault.


Translated by Antonella Losavio, student at Trieste University and the Advanced school for interpreters and Translators of Trieste University, intern at the newspaper office of the Union of the Italian Jewish Communities.