The original Italian title of Claudia Durastanti’s novel is a lot less ingenious than its English one, but much more in keeping with the intriguing text therein. The title La straniera (‘The Foreigner’) seems to be far more fitting. After all, it’s a book entirely about being foreign to, or outside of, experience. ‘Strangers I Know’ as a title seems overthought, but it’s a small point, quickly forgotten.
So what is this book about? It’s a combination of personal mythology and family history with an exploration of migration and a playful gaming-out of the basic problem we all encounter in our lives but choose to ignore: that we don’t know other people, no matter how close they are to us.
Durastanti shuffles a deck of categories to play the game, each section of the book given titles which are either loaded (‘Childhood’), theatrical (‘The Girl Absent for Heartbreak’), whimsical (‘The Language of Dreams’), or, finally, Italian (‘Ciao Straniera’). And within this game’s non-linear structure, she tells the stories of how her parents met and fell in love (ostensibly), their marriage, her family’s various migrations between Italy and Brooklyn, and the narrator’s own romantic and writing life.
These various threads would lead to a messy novel in the hands of a less capable, and less decisive writer, but Durastanti is highly talented. Like Eliot Weinberger, she explores a subject in depth, from different perspectives, without ever encouraging the reader to believe that any single point of view is authoritative. The original story of how her parents met, for example, is told twice in the opening section of the novel: once according to her mother, and then again according to her father. The stories differ wildly, and this immediately sets the tone for the central problem of any intimate personal life. Put simply, we experience different things, and tell ourselves different stories even when we go through the same things as one another.
In this way Strangers I Know brings you into the hall of mirrors that is experience. Or rather, a hall of mirrors where every mirror appears cracked, but there’s no way of telling which ones actually are. To understand yourself and your personal history, you need to understand the stories of the people who came before you. The trouble is, those people are simply human, and therefore unreliable. You’re
a foreigner not just in different places, but to different people, as they are to you.
Mapping out her family’s history across Rome, Brooklyn, London and elsewhere, Durastanti wants the reader to reflect about what they know, or rather, what they think they know, about their own lives, romances, languages and loved ones. A brilliant book, and one which will come to be read like Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch, more like a beautiful game than a novel.
Reviewed by Gurmeet Singh
STRANGERS I KNOW
by Claudia Durastanti
translated by Elizabeth Harris
published by Fitzcarraldo Editions (2022)
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Gurmeet Singh is a writer and editor from the UK, living in Berlin. He writes fiction, as well as essays on culture and politics. In 2021, he was longlisted for the Desperate Literature Short Fiction Prize and the 2021 Disquiet Fiction Prize.
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