We’re on the fourth day of the nationwide 'lockdown', tussling between the infinite appeal of flexible days and no 6am Saturday starts, and the absence of significant movement or regular structure. While the headlines sent the world into a tizzy – Italy under lockdown, Italy losing its sense of community, Italy’s death rates – we bought some new plants, ate breakfast in the sun on the terrace, and after I accepted the loss of gym and silversmithing classes, the disorientation and chaos of teaching on Zoom, and most of all my parents’ visit, the prospect didn’t seem so apocalyptic. Soon after moving to Castiglione d’Orcia, a small hilltop village in the Val d’Orcia, with the aim of having space to walk outside in the woods, it was announced that everything apart from pharmacies, supermarkets, news agents and cigarette shops would be closed. Until the evening before, I still had hope that my parents would be able to visit us in Siena, and that day we heard that even pedestrians were being stopped to declare where they were going, and their declarations checked. And so begin two weeks, at least, of shutdown. I have been waking up slightly disoriented, by what I am not sure, but I do not think I am alone.
I am at once rather restless, at my best when I am busy, and equally perfectionist, easily stressed by those very same things that keep me sane. In reading in a foreign language I think I may have found the key to the over-active and over-worried mind. The key, though, comes with a catch – reading Jhumpa Lahiri’s In Altre Parole in October provided the go-ahead for reading in Italian, but without looking up words it was little more than an insight into a new language and how [not] to let it literally become one’s reason for living.
Baricco’s Novecento gave me passages that I will return to time and again, but I looked up the words only at the end, more an afterthought than a journey. If a novella lends one overconfidence, a novel knocks one back in line. I closed L’Amica Geniale seven pages in, and so it has sat on my bedside ever since. Articles are manageable but short-lived and soon forgotten; bookshops as open-ended and inviting as they are isolating and frustrating, rows and rows of books, textured, coloured, and bound with the Italian aesthetic fixation, poetry and classics, novels and treatises that you can trace and flip through, with intrigue as much as acceptance that you won’t be settling into the sofa with one that evening.
I Vagabondi (Flights) by Olga Tokarczuk followed the same path, admiringly thumbed-through in a narrow, quiet bookshop in Orbetello last Sunday afternoon. Perfect warm ochre cover, the glossy title on the osteria yellow paper, an autumn-chested bird tumbling down and white daubs for just the right measure of millennial, large well-spaced pages of cream paper, and a heft in the print that carries as the pages flap like a sheet in the wind, until they fall closed with a thump in your left hand. Reshelved because it was sitting in my Amazon India cart – less beautiful but less expensive and, crucially, in English – arguably the only language in which I ought to read an International Man Booker.
Had this book been written by an old, well-off, white man, with the same first three titles – "Io sono qui" (“I am here”), "Il mondo nella testa" (“The world in one’s head”), and "La testa nel mondo" (“One’s head in the world”) – it may never have made it to my list, or from my list into my hands. Another book about how he knew his place in the world. The perspective of a middle-aged woman from Poland, by contrast, has me listening.
I did buy a book that afternoon, Antonio Tabucchi’s Viaggi e Altri Viaggi (Travels and Other Travels), a rare find when you feel you’ve spotted just what you needed to read in that moment. The next day I was gifted I Vagabondi – protagonists of some of the best ‘viaggi’. In the bookshop I had been taken by Tabucchi’s claim that travelling is a grand privilege, for to stay put is to risk falling prey to the belief that the land belongs to us, rather than being, as is everything else in life, on loan. One of three quotes on the back of I Vagabondi reads "Muoviti, vai. Beato colui che parte" (“Move, go, blessed is the one who leaves”), and on the inside flap, "Il cambiamento è sempre più nobile della stabilità" (“Change is always more noble than stability”). After reading, thinking, obsessing over what it would mean to know a place intimately, to be and live in, care for and be cared for by one place alone, these lines a day apart threw me off and drew me in.
But it is not Tokarczuk’s validation of myself that has kept me reading. She all but introduces herself as rootless but, unlike Tabucchi, does not lead with a defence of rootlessness. That same physicality that drew me to the book in Orbetello has since Monday drawn me back like the tide. One does not necessarily judge a book by its cover, but one does pick it up by it. It’s the personality that trails the book as it’s in your bag, on your coffee table, under your arm, the expression on someone’s face that determines whether you continue a difficult conversation with them.
So you choose the conversation, and you reopen the book. A novel that takes you through a single long story over 300 pages is an uphill climb. Each word you stop to look up is like bending over to pick up a pebble. You drop it in your bag, momentarily satisfied, only to look up to see the miles of pebbles ahead and you’re not entirely sure why you’re there. You are unlikely to get the brisk refreshment of crossing the hill, and, if you make it over, the bag of pebbles hanging round your neck will bring you little pride or joy.
The sections of I Vagabondi are neither standalone essays nor short stories, but stretches of reflection, history, and narrative. Each section, half a page or five, is a walk through knowledge, belonging, desire, and truth, essences and oddities. She walks as a vagabond, and in doing so allows you to walk alongside, leisurely, if you like, or if, like me, you need. This time I am looking words up as I go, precisely as they say one shouldn’t. I spend an afternoon on two pages and walk away with a hundred words. When days feel anchorless and homes scattered, it is a measured, dare I say rooted, act to unlock each section. And unlocking it is – each word a step, until you reread the pages and find yourself skipping.
Later while walking in the hills I find words drifting by – davanzale, scorgere, altrove – and somehow I’m thinking of going home to continue, an addiction hitherto reserved for art pieces, and that too not all. Self-contained and yet seemingly infinite, inconsequential yet steadily difficult, it is precisely the marathon that will see me through a lockdown.
As I lean on the kitchen counter to start writing this, we are talking of the Italian cities erupting in song and dance across their balconies, and my boyfriend’s grandfather is sat in Argentina at his 1980s synth keyboard, a WhatsApp call concert, running a playlist of tango and Spanish, Italian, and Jewish folk; a map of migration to Argentina, each chord locked in some curious part of his mind, 'belonging' for a man whose father was born on a boat, his steady occupation in the final stretch of his marathon. Wherever in the world, noi siamo qui.