THE ITALIANIST: Riveting Italian Books You Need to Know About by Alex Valente: SENZA RESPIRO (‘Breathless’) by Raffaella Mottana

A quick note on this month’s Italianist: some readers may find one or both of the main topics disturbing, as the book deals with the themes of loss of a parent and the BDSM world.

She loved diving when she was younger. She’d put on her goggles and fins and wouldn’t leave the water until her hands were covered in seashells. One afternoon, she had been swimming close to the buoys, a large vibrant red shape on the clean seabed: a starfish. She had dived down towards the sand, grabbed it, and pushed herself back to the surface. She had rubbed her fingers over its slippery and soft tentacles. She’d brought it back to the shore.

‘Look how pretty!’ she’d told Greta, showing her the starfish, now in a plastic bucket.

Her sister had removed her earphones, barely glanced at it.

‘You need to throw it back in.’

‘After! I want to look at it.’ She had sat down on her towel and stared at the starfish inside its bucket.
[…]

The following day, she’d noticed that it had curled up on itself a little, but was still bright red, stark against the pink of the basin.

The colour fading had been gradual, starting from the tips. They had gone pale, and then bleached. That white disease had spread to the limbs and body. When Cecilia had touched it, it was hard and stiff.

‘Why is it like that?’ she’d asked Greta.

‘It’s dying, you idiot,’ her sister had replied.

The passage above, in my translation, is a flashback scene from the third chapter of Raffaella Mottana’s debut novel Senza Respiro (‘Breathless’). It is also the most seemingly incongruous scene compared with the rest of the book, which is an exploration of grief and its physical processing, through sexual self-discovery and BDSM* practices – until you connect, as the author does, the way in which death removes all colour from both the memories and physical bodies of our loved ones.

The first part of the book describes the final weeks and death of the main character Cecilia’s mother. The second part – immediately following the first, chronologically – deals with Cecilia encountering and exploring BDSM practices and its community, after an epiphany during a sexual encounter. It is also, subtly at first and explicitly as the text progresses, Cecilia’s way of processing the loss of her mother.

The mother is never named, never fully described as she was before the illness, and often referred to by Cecilia as ‘the thing on the pillow/on the bed.’ The language is surgical, direct, even de-fleshed; disinfected and sterilised, almost in an attempt to remove herself from the events taking place in part one. In fact, it mirrors the practice of cleaning her hands which Cecilia internalises and retains after visiting her mother in hospital (my translation): hand over hand, fingers between fingers, twice, digits on digits, closed hand over left thumb, fingertips over palm, twice, palm on palm, hand over hand. This becomes a ritual, a mantra of sorts, in Cecilia’s life following her mother’s death. 

Some time after the funeral, she discovers, almost accidentally, that erotic asphyxiation (as the internet tells her later) really enhances sex with the boy she’s currently seeing. She researches it and more around it, discovers a local group offering an intro to BDSM chat, goes along and gets involved in the local scene. Breath play – among other games the group play – seems to offer her a way to elaborate and process her feelings, while making her feel truly, and safely, like herself, as we get a glimpse of in the passage below (my translation): 

They finish their drinks, Elia asks her if she wants to play with him. They head to his place, his housemates are out. They lock themselves in his room, and he takes out the kinky bag from the wardrobe, tells her to pick anything that catches her eye. There’s a lot of stuff inside. Cecilia divides it all into the traffic light safeword system: green (yes), yellow (maybe), red (no).

In the pile of yes items she places ropes, a collar, two ball gags – one with a rubber ball and one that looks like a horse bit – leather cuffs, a vibrator; the maybe pile includes impact play tools – crop, paddle, flogger, cane – nipple clamps, once she finds out what they are; the no pile includes the whip, furry ears, a butt plug with a bunny rabbit tail attached, a dummy, scalpel and a pouch of single use needles. She rummages some more, to see if she’s missed something, and finds a colouring book. She flips through, some of the mandalas are fully coloured in, others blank.

‘That’s for aftercare,’ Elia explains. ‘One of my partners doesn’t like cuddling and prefers decompressing with that. I have her permission for others to use it, just not the pages she’s written her name on.’

Now that he’s said so, Cecilia notices the name in pencil on some of the pages. She smiles and places the book in the no pile. 

Elia does all the right things: he lets her try a number of games, they try working out together what she prefers, he gives her time to use a safeword, asks her if she’s okay. They have sex as he holds her by the collar, tugging at it, choking her breath.

After, they lie next to each other, without touching. It’s still too hot.

‘How was that for a first experience?’ Elia asks after a while.

‘Not bad at all,’ Cecilia answers. She’s still wearing the collar, she fiddles with the buckle and removes it.

‘So I might see you at the next drink? Maybe sooner?’

‘I think so.’

Raffaella Mottana does not trivialise either part of Cecilia’s story. Importantly, she does not reduce BDSM to a joke or a deviancy. She guides the reader through the same journey of discovery that Cecilia is on, with the same guidelines that she comes to learn: there is initial discomfort and hesitation, there is an ongoing learning of limits and thresholds, but also: safety is paramount; consent is crucial; personal boundaries and trust are foundational aspects for the new people that Cecilia encounters, a stark contrast with her family life, at times. It is thanks to that trust that she is able to work up the courage to try out what she really wants. What she really needs, to truly put the past behind her, shake off the haunting images of her mother in her final moments, and start breathing freely again. 

*BDSM is an acronym which includes consensual, erotic practices that fall under the categories of B/D (Bondage and Discipline), D/s (Dominance and submission), and S/M (Sadism and Masochism).

By Alex Valente

SENZA RESPIRO

(‘Breathless’)

by Raffaella Mottana

Published in Italian by Accento Edizioni (2022)

Translations from Italian by Alex Valente


Raffaella Mottana was born in 1995 in Milan. She holds a degree in Language of media and Modern philology. She attended Giulio Mozzi’s Bottega di narrazione, where she wrote her first novel: Senza Respiro.


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:

THE ITALIANIST: Riveting Italian Books You Need to Know About by Alex Valente. LA GIOIA AVENIRE (‘Future joy’) by Stella Poli

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

THE ITALIANIST: Riveting Italian Books You Need to Know About by Clarissa Botsford. THE COLOUR LINE by Igiaba Scego – Igiaba Scego in conversation with Clarissa Botsford

THE ITALIANIST: Riveting Italian Books You Need to Know About by Alex Valente. TRE CIOTOLE (‘Three bowls’) by Michela Murgia

THE ITALIANIST: Riveting Italian Books You Need to Know About by Alex Valente. LA TRAMA ALTERNATIVA (‘The alternarive plot’) by Giusi Palomba

THE ITALIANIST: Riveting Italian Books You Need to Know About by Alex Valente. LA POESIA È UN UNICORNO (‘Poetry is a unicorn’) by Francesca Genti

THE ITALIANIST: Riveting Italian Books You Need to Know About by Alex Valente. IO SARÒ IL ROVO (I will be the thorn) by Francesca Matteoni

THE ITALIANIST: Riveting Italian Books You Need to Know About by Alex Valente. INSORGIAMO (Rise up) by Collettivo di fabbrica GKN

THE ITALIANIST: Riveting Italian Books You Need to Know About by Alex Valente. GLI AMANTI SOMMERSI (The Sunken Lovers) by Mattia Conti

THE ITALIANIST: Riveting Italian Books You Need to Know About by Alex Valente. TUTTA INTERA (In One Piece) by Espérance Hakuzwimana

THE ITALIANIST: Riveting Italian Books You Need to Know About by Alex Valente. RABBIA PROTEGGIMI (Anger Protect Me) by Edgarda Marcucci

THE ITALIANIST: Riveting Italian Books You Need to Know About by Alex Valente. LGBTQIA+ – MANTENERE LA COMPESSITÀ (LGBTQIA+ – Keep it complex) by Antonia Caruso

THE ITALIANIST: Riveting Italian Books You Need to Know About by Alex Valente. LA NOTTE SI AVVICINA (Night Is Closing In) by Loredana Lipperini

THE ITALIANIST: Riveting Italian Books You Need to Know About by Alex Valente. L’UNICA PERSONA NERA NELLA STANZA (The Only Black Person in the Room) by Nadeesha Uyangoda

THE ITALIANIST: Riveting Italian Books You Need to Know About by Katherine Gregor. LA NON MAMMA (The Non-Mum) by Susanna Tartaro

THE ITALIANIST: Riveting Italian Books You Need to Know About by Katherine Gregor. LA COSA PIÙ DOLCE (The Sweetest Thing) by Mary Tibaldi Chiesa

THE ITALIANIST: Riveting Italian Books You Need to Know About by Katherine Gregorand and Lori Hetherington. IL GIARDINO DEI FIORI DI PIETRA (A Garden of Stone Flowers) by Valerio Luigi Beretta

THE ITALIANIST: Riveting Italian Books You Need to Know About by Katherine Gregor. IL GIARDINO INCANTATO (The Enchanted Garden) by Carlo Grande

THE ITALIANIST: Riveting Italian Books You Need to Know About by Katherine Gregor. I TACCHINI NON RINGRAZIANO (Turkeys Don’t Give Thanks) by Andrea Camilleri

THE ITALIANIST: Riveting Italian Books You Need to Know About by Katherine Gregor. CONVERSAZIONE A QUATTRO

THE ITALIANIST: Riveting Italian Books You Need to Know About by Katherine Gregor. CORRERE DAVANTI ALLA BELLEZZA (Running Ahead of Beauty) by Luigi Spagnol

THE ITALIANIST: Riveting Italian Books You Need to Know About by Katherine Gregor. LE MUSE NASCOSTE (Hidden Muses) by Lauretta Colonnelli

THE ITALIANIST: From STORIA DI LUIS SEPÚLVEDA E DEL SUO GATTO ZORBA by Ilide Carmignani, translated by Katherine Gregor

THE ITALIANIST: Riveting Italian Books You Need to Know About by Katherine Gregor. STORIA DI LUIS SEPÚLVEDA E DEL SUO GATTO ZORBA (The Story of Luis Sepúlveda and his Cat Zorba) by Ilide Carmignani

THE ITALIANIST: Riveting Italian Books You Need to Know About by Katherine Gregor. One year on

THE ITALIANIST: THE DWARVES’ MARKET and WITCHES’ POLENTA as told by Mary Tibaldi Chiesa, translated by Katherine Gregor

THE ITALIANIST: Riveting Italian Books You Need to Know About by Katherine Gregor. And what of Italian Fairy-Tales?

THE ITALIANIST: From QUEL TIPO DI DONNA by Valeria Parrella, translated by Katherine Gregor

THE ITALIANIST: Riveting Italian Books You Need to Know About by Katherine Gregor. QUEL TIPO DI DONNA (That Kind of Woman) by Valeria Parrella

THE ITALIANIST: From QUEL TIPO DI DONNA by Valeria Parrella, translated by Katherine Gregor

THE ITALIANIST: Riveting Italian Books You Need to Know About by Katherine Gregor. QUEL TIPO DI DONNA (That Kind of Woman) by Valeria Parrella

THE ITALIANIST: From FIORE DI ROCCIA by Ilaria Tuti translated by Katherine Gregor

THE ITALIANIST: Riveting Italian Books You Need to Know About by Katherine Gregor. FIORE DI ROCCIA (Flower of the Rocks) by Ilaria Tuti

THE ITALIANIST: From L’ARTE SCONOSCIUTA DEL VOLO by Enrico Fovanna, translated by Katherine Gregor

THE ITALIANIST: Riveting Italian Books You Need to Know About by Katherine Gregor. L’ARTE SCONOSCIUTA DEL VOLO (The Unknown Art of Flying) by Enrico Fovanna

THE ITALIANIST: From IL GIOCO DI SANTA OCA by Laura Parianitranslated by Katherine Gregor

THE ITALIANIST: Riveting Italian Books You Need to Know About by Katherine Gregor. IL GIOCO DI SANTA OCA (The Game of the Holy Goose) by Laura Pariani

THE ITALIANIST: From PONTI NON MURI by Giancarlo Ascari & Pia Valentinis, translated by Katherine Gregor

THE ITALIANIST: Riveting Italian Books You Need to Know About by Katherine Gregor. PONTI NON MURI (Bridges, Not Walls) by Giancarlo Ascari & Pia Valentinis

THE ITALIANIST: From ANDRÀ TUTTO BENE, translated by Katherine Gregor

THE ITALIANIST: Riveting Italian Books You Need to Know About by Katherine Gregor. ANDRÀ TUTTO BENE (All Shall Be Well), Writers at the Time of the Quarantine

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