Reading Reports

Giorgio Vasta
Absolutely Nothing

Report by Alessandro Beretta

Alessandro Beretta was born in Milan in 1978. He is Artistic Director of the Milan Film Festival, and he remains in constant pursuit of books, comics, and movies for such publications...

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Alex Valente (Prato 1989-) has recently completed his studies, from English Language and Literature (BA Hons, Leeds), to Literary Translation (MA; PhD, UEA). He has published translations, short prose and...

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Fifteen days travelling in the desert between the US and Mexico, to visit ghost towns, abandoned spaces, dried up lakes, and come to know the humanity trapped between hippy and fatalist idelogies that still inhabits it. It should be a journey to the edge of nowhere to watch the retreat of civilisation, stopping in anonymous motels, but what writer Giorgio Vasta and his companions Silva and Ramak starts from is an entirely different premise: a dream in which something is stolen from the author, whithout fully understanding what. That emptiness, only clearly revealed well into the second half of the book, written some time after the actual trip, is the first ‘nothing’ that draws to itseld, as if a black hole, the remaining deserted and half-abandoned places they will visit. The travel memoir, written at a later stage as a reflection in twenty-three differently dated chapters, swiftly derails from the genre’s conventions to take a double road: some visits fall under the traditional story model, others lead to symbolic openings. Between California, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, and Louisiana, in addition to the encounters with those who live in derelict places, we find fascinating reflections on the American Dream and on what the imagery of the American desert has given to the arts and humanities. For example, the visit to the airplane cemeteries Mojave Air and Space Port reveal the one told by Don DeLillo in Underworld, while others reveal how a key of American civilisation is its storifying and myth-creation: this is the case of the museum dedicated to aliens in Roswell, where in 1947, maybe, an extraterrestial encounter took place; this is the case of the Far West theme park in the ghost town of Calico. In parallel to these tracks, we find reflections upon abandoned spaces, the notion of civilisation, and the constant interrogation of the nature of travel stories, what is left of it, who are its actual protagonists, if the places visited or the visitors. The desert also enables the multi-level game of representation, where even time ends up looking warped. Along with several pages showing – in smaller print – the moment of their writing and of the re-editing of the memory, we see the addition, after the reveal of what was stolen from the narrator, a number of chapters that tell of new episodes initially neglected, now slotted into the timeline. Almost as if a journey long over could find on paper a sudden, unexpected, continuous circularity. The nostos, the return of Homer’s Ulysses, bundled up in subjectivity – probably because there is no Penelope waiting for us at home, after all.

The main character is the book’s narrator’s voice, that of Giorgio Vasta, the main traveller. He shares the story which is not merely a memoir, but a constant re-elaboration of the very idea of narrative and story-telling. Also crucial are the other two travellers, balanced between truth and fiction, forming a trio which is both dramatic and speculative: Silva, who easily reveals the editorial director of Humboldt, Giovanna Silva, the rational soul of the group, punctual in her route checking and confronting Vasta’s fears; Ramak, the trip’s photographer Ramak Fazel, the source of unlikely events, of deviations and shortcuts, of instinct. There are many core, real characters, met at different points, among whom we mention the Franciscan Brother Simon and the singer from ZZ Top. Holding different but crucial roles, on the other hand, re the fictional characters like the cannibal family the narrator is terrified of meeting, and Spike the dog, older brother to Snoopy from Charles M. Schultz’ Peanuts, a long-time desert dweller. A dog who, from the pages of comics breaks the conventions of reality in this book’s own.

Language and style
The writing style is subject to a constant contrasting movement between the narrative rhythm and that of the essay form. The result is a fascinating hybrid, as the thematic question posed in the text, that of being able capture things in language, shines through the style itself, with the use of a very specific, even technical lexicon at times when the narrator/observer is focusing on some descriptions. A language which is complex, but often juxtaposed with the simple, direct dialogues, touching upon the sense of the journey. The dialogue becomes a moment in which we come together – author, character, reader – to observe the compass of the report, immersed in the desert, quintessential archetype of the actual loss of direction.

Giorgio Vasta, already highly appreciated for his book Il tempo materiale and his ability for non-planar representation, starts from a real experience to shuffle cards into fictional story, in a new and successful way. All the questions, all the ‘movements’ that propel both the book’s narrative and its writing style, find their core in that mysterious loss, in the dream of that theft that we find at the start of the book. That absence becomes the baricentre for the entire narrative, and is placed for the most part, outside the book itself. Vasta builds a delicate balance with noteworthy narration, a rarity compared to the classical architecture of so many books. He does all of this using reality and its details as his springboard for reflections that expand onto other scenes, drawing towards him, magnetically, even more experiences and cultural memories. His reflections on civilisation, on living, on space – extremely rich even for an architect – alongside the ones on the American Dream, its rhetoric, the image of money and capital, and those on cinema and literature, are never entirely free. They are born of the immersion in the memory of the desert, which becomes the space for a journey which is both real, and of the mind.

Why translate
Giorgio Vasta’s book, more than a memoir or a travel log, is an experiment across non-fiction and autofiction, intriguing and unusual beyond Italian borders. This hybrid form is then coupled with the interest and the quality of the subject matter explored: from the desert as a place of the soul and the questioning of the power of the story, from the retreat of civilisation to the stories of those living in these places, to the numerous cultural references touched upon. The innovative narrative form isn’t an experiment for the sake of rhetoric, but rather an embodiment of a journey both real and cultural, between the American imagery tout court and the ideas of space and civilisation. An undoubtably rich text, intense, on hardly local themes, written by one of the most innovative Italian writers around. In addition to all this, in the closing section, we find the counterchorus of Ramak Fazel’s photographs and the list of motels used by the group overnight.

«Like Henry James, he has a need to reflect, connect, dig, go under, backwards and forwards, in time and in space. A real writer never represents the world as it is, but rather reveals it as incomplete just by the fact of adding something to it».
Daniele Giglioli, Corriere della Sera

«The strength of his words is in their complete mimesis, the absence of contempt, but never sacrificing a type of presence, a physicality of telling an emotional – if disillusioned – journey».
Giacomo Giossi, Il Sole 24 Ore

Giorgio Vasta (Palermo, 1970) has published the novels Il tempo materiale (‘Time on my hands’; minimum fax, 2008, Premio Città di Viagrande 2010, Prix Ulysse du Premier Roman 2011, published in France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, The Netherlands, Spain, Hungary, Czech Republic, US and UK), and Spaesamento (‘Bewilderment’; Laterza, 2010).
1 February 2017
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