THE ITALIANIST: Riveting Italian Books You Need to Know About by Alex Valente. PRIMA CHE CHIUDIATE GLI OCCHI (‘Before you close our eyes’) by Morena Pedriali Errani

‘See, kid. There are two types of people in the world. Those who run and those who stay still. They’re staying still and we’re running. Do you understand?’

‘No.’

‘We don’t kill like they do.’

‘But we’re still killing people.’

‘Yes, but not like them.’

‘Cielo, we kill just like them.’

He sighs, exasperated. 

‘They kill because someone said: Kill. We don’t do that.’

He tucks his hair behind his ear. He reminds me of my father, but it’s only for a moment. Just a moment. 

‘Maybe when the war actually ends, all of us will be buried already. Because of starvation, because of those bastards, because of the cold – who knows. But them? They’ll come back, eventually. Don’t for a second think that they won’t. They’ll be back and if we don’t kill them today, we won’t be killing the ones who’ll come back either. 

If we don’t die on this mountain, if we don’t die here, now, at twenty, at thirty years old; if we hide like rabbits and wait for someone to come save us, the rebels of tomorrow will not know how to kill the fascists of tomorrow.’

‘With a gun?’

He laughs. ‘No, kid. You don’t kill a fascist with a gun.’

His tone has softened. I wonder who Cielo was before the war. 

‘How then?’

‘Disobedience, Fiamma. You kill them with disobedience.’

Italian literature does not avoid mentioning the Second World War – the war Italians like to remember the most, with some intentionally fuzzy details, for better or worse – as those were the years where modern Italy was born, with all its faults and promise. Italian writers, however, tend to avoid mentioning the participants in that war: whether they were Resistance fighters, like the two talking in the scene above (my translation), or those who actually liberated cities and camps, or who immediately went into hiding as soon as Mussolini was deposed and the Nazis took over, only to re-emerge as ‘new’ politicians and journalists. There is a tendency to mythologise certain aspects of the war, often excluding the experiences of those whose story was already excluded, and in some cases, still is.

Italian author Morena Pedriali Errani, however, avoids nothing. Her novel Prima che Chiudiate gli Occhi (‘Before you close your eyes’) is an incredible snapshot of the reality of persecution, of resistance, of fighting for your life before everyone realises that is what you must do. The novel straddles two periods of time, just before WWII breaks out and right at the end (on the Italian side), and it follows a single person: Jezebel, a young Sinti woman, daughter of a Sinti man and an unknown woman, no longer in their lives. It is a novel that begins by building up dread, noting through Jezebel’s eyes how Italy is closing in around their community, their extended family of artists, how friends haven’t been seen in a year, how moving to the south might be safer, how the laws are changing and people are getting crueller.  It’s a story of a young woman discovering the boundaries of her world, dreaming of freedom and love and kissing that gadje boy she met in town who reads so many books and speaks so well, even if he doesn’t speak her language and she cannot read. It’s a dreamscape of a story, a stained-glass window that cracks as the pressure gets too much, and the shards become a blood-stained kaleidoscope. Errani’s language and style mirror that same vivid, multi-faceted perspective , filling the text with striking metaphors and similes, from the very opening lines of the book (my translation below):

The air tonight is a white nerve, a border fiercely blowing into my plaits. The weeds at the centre of the field tickle my elbows, tear at my skirt. A distant howling and the lights from the town briefly interrupted by a cart, the darkness pouring over the branches like a silent web. The world all looks the same, I think, I’ve already seen all this, even if I don’t know where. A crow looks at me from his perch on a willow tree, hissing words I cannot understand. My eyes go wide, I shudder. I start speaking: ‘Please, please, please’. A tear draws an arc along my nose. ‘Please, please,’ the crow doesn’t move, maybe it doesn’t exist and was never there. You can’t trust your eyes at night, please darkness let me get home to my dad. 

A particularly deft trick that the author pulls in the text is to have Jezebel be described not just through her experiences, but also through the words of those who wish to define her: her father, still mourning the absence of her mother; Libero, the reading boy she falls for and who betrays her and her family to her father, a local fascist leader; the stories that her father and her close friend, Benjamin, tell around the campfire, carried by the wind. I pulled an incredibly smug face when, in the second part of the book, Jezebel takes on the codename Fiamma as she joins the partisan fighters – the same name that Libero had called her when she refused to give him her real name. The passage below (in my translation) comes after that very moment:

We deny it, they ask us where we’re from and we drop the name of a nearby town, raising our head. We die inside because our blood is the story of all of our ancestors, the sacrifice of their songs, our cursed diaspora, our barij familija, great family; we want to lift our head and plunge a knife into the heart of those who spit on our name, on our people, who survived through the centuries only thanks to the resistance of their art, only thanks to the songs around the fire. 

The Sinti have never waged war, have never stolen lands, opened banks, killed innocent people. So we deny everything.

One day, we all know it, we will no longer be able to deny anything. We’ll be suspended, free-falling motes, praying to meet a blessing before the crash, a permit to salvation.

One day, very soon, we will no longer be able to deny anything.

There is an inevitability to the events described and to the story that Errani weaves; if not directly based on her grandmother’s actual life events, it is most definitely inspired by her, yet I still wished for history to take a different route at every turn: it is inevitable that Jezebel’s father will die, inevitable that Libero will betray them, inevitable that Jezebel will join the armed Resistance, inevitable that she will kill – the war is inevitable, the horrors inevitable, history is already written. Except this time we get to see everyone’s story too.

By Alex Valente

PRIMA CHE CHIUDIATE GLI OCCHI 

(‘Before you close your eyes’)

by Morena Pedriali Errani

Published in Italian by Giulio Perrone Editore (2023)

Translations from Italian by Alex Valente


Morena Pedriali Errani was born and raised in Ferrara, by a Sinti family of circus artists and owners. She is also a circus artist, an activist for Romani rights and part of the communications team for Movimento Kethane. She has been a finalist for the Premio Campiello Giovani and Premio Chiara Giovani. She presented some of her writing at the European Parliament in Brussels, through the Roma association Phiren Amenca.


Alex Valente (he/him) is a white European currently living on xʷməθkʷəy̓əm, Sḵwx̱wú7mesh, and səlilwətaɬ land. He is a literary translator from Italian into English, though he also dabbles with French and RPGs, and is co-editor of The Norwich Radical. His work has been published in NYT Magazine, The Massachusetts Review, The Short Story Project, and PEN Transmissions.


Read previous posts in The Italianist series:

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