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

She carefully pulled the tray out of the oven. She had burnt her wrist last time, and the scar was still visible on her pale skin. ‘You’ll see, it’s a special secret recipe of her mum’s, you’ve never had anything like it.’ His words to the guests were clearly audible; there was only an archway separating the dining room and the kitchen. She imagined the smiles of the guests, endeared by the proud husband, yet another step towards her being the perfect housewife. As she made her way back to the table – dish in hand, melted parmesan aroma wafting from the first layer of sauce – she saw her guests look at her in the same way that they might look at a dolphin at the aquarium, ready to do tricks for treats. A choir of oohs and aahs accompanied the unveiling of the meatballs scattered over the pasta bake, her mother’s secret, and a few saffron threads. She had secretly substituted the latter, for years now, with the more practical sachets of ground saffron. Nothing is how you tell it, she thought as she served portions of pasta to the old TV producer sitting next to her, at her husband’s request. ‘He really likes you,’ he’d said. It was unrequited, even more so when he’d graze her knee with his hand, as if she wouldn’t notice. At least she wasn’t in her chair much, commuting between table and stove to ensure the success of this Sunday lunch. A weekly ritual, burdensome to arrange and she wouldn’t have said no to some professional help, but her husband thought himself too much of a leftie to pay someone to serve him.

This summer, Michela Murgia passed away. She announced that she had terminal kidney cancer back in May 2023, in a lengthy interview with a hapless journalist who was unable to ask anything more than the basic questions. Also in May came the release of her latest, and last, book: Tre Ciotole: Rituali per un anno di crisi (‘Three bowls: Rituals for a year of crises’).

A full translation of the first story in the collection, ‘Espressione intraducibile’ (‘Untranslatable expression’), by Anne Milano Appel, can be found here – and is definitely worth the read. Also included in Appel’s translation is most of the second story, ‘Nausea’, which includes the three bowls that give the title to the book. The passage I translated above is entitled ‘Family relations’, and highlights the unreliability of narration, the realities of cancer and how it affects different people differently, and who gets to claim their own narrative: the narrator’s actor husband ignores the lecherous behaviour of his producer friend, or maybe gains something from it; the husband is now on his second bout of testicular cancer, and makes no secret of it this time; the narrator cheats on him with his close lawyer friend, also a regular guest at the Sunday lunches.

The people in Murgia’s stories belong to many different realities, and are all connected in passing, casually, accidentally, offering different perspectives on the same issue, or entirely different issues altogether as they bump into each other and move away. 

What I find particularly fascinating about the book is that even if I keep calling it a collection of short stories, others call it a novel; neither is wrong. There is a single story being told throughout the text: the story of the people living in a country – Italy – during a series of difficult years: politically, with a resurgence of mainstream fascism; societally, with the COVID pandemic ravaging the population in early 2020 and civil rights coming into question almost immediately; climatically, with floods, earthquakes, landslides, droughts becoming more and more frequent with each passing year; economically, along with the rest of the world, as the rich get richer, and everyone else is left behind. The thread that connects them all is made up of these minor and major crises running through the country, unravelling assumptions, connecting unexpected micro-realities, tying together the disparate, flawed humanities of the characters – such as that of the narrator in ‘Change of Seasons’, the last story in the collection (my translation below):

The afternoon drew on, and the clothes were taken away, one after the other, and with them the memories embroidered on them. She lost almost immediately all interest in remembering who took which outfit or piece, not feeling up to a past that wasn’t hers. As the sun crawled down through the trees she counted the last few items left on the branches and entertained the magical thought that they had somehow chosen to not leave, discouraging in some mysterious way any external interest. Just like those she hadn’t hung up, just like the house, just like the car, just like everything else, they stayed with her.

When the last guest left with their cloth treasure, she sat under a tree and cried, quietly, between the far-reaching shadows of the trees. The wind died down, leaving the clothes rigid on their hangers, shed reptile skins of the snake her sister had been; coils upon coils of venom and warmth.

Full disclosure: I translated one of Murgia’s short non-fiction books, How to be a Fascist: A Manual, back in 2019. I talked about it at length too. I don’t think I’m speaking out of place when I say that Three Bowls is her most accomplished piece of writing, which anglophone readers might find already in the likes of Rachel Cusk’s Outline or Kim So-young and Julie Pickering’s translation of Yang Kwi-jia’s A Distant and Beautiful Place. Michela Murgia, by drawing from personal experience without making it about the author, has woven a series of connecting stories that do so in a casual and natural way; she chose not to ignore the peak of the COVID pandemic, nor the changes it brought to how people connect, choose their affections, form their families. For this, and for her uncomfortable, strong voice on the Italian literary (and political) landscape, capable of annoying almost anyone and everyone at different times, she will be missed.

By Alex Valente

TRE CIOTOLE 

(‘Three bowls’)

by Michela Murgia

Published in Italian by Mondadori (2023)

Translations from Italian by Alex Valente


Michela Murgia was a playwright, essayist and columnist, after a varied career in a number of jobs, from call centre operator to power plant director. Her first novel Il Mondo Deve Sapere (The World Needs to Know, 2006) was a satire about exploitation in a telemarketing call centre, and her most popular book, Accabadora (2009) was about euthanasia, adoption, and non-conforming families.


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 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?

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

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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

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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

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