Reading Reports

Claudia Durastanti
Cleopatra goes to prison

Report by Morena Marsilio

Morena Marsilio teaches Language and Literature in a Liceo Scientifico, and is working on her PhD in Italian Studies at the University of Padua, focusing on themes and forms in...

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The story
This is the story of an unusual love triangle. Caterina loves two men whose fates are intertwined and counterposed: Aurelio, the youth from the estate she’s known since childhood, now detained in Rebibbia prison for incitement to prostitution and drug trafficking, and a policeman involved in the operation to combat rampant crime in the same increasingly multi-ethnic outlying neighbourhood of Rome. Caterina visits Aurelio regularly in prison, despite the fact that he badly fractured her hip in a fit of jealousy as she was working as a stripper; meanwhile, waiting for her near the prison gates is the other, her nameless lover, the cop. Cheated by the more astute Mario first in running a video rental shop then a nightclub, Aurelio obsessively tries to find out who framed him, and asks Caterina to get some information from the policeman. Upon the lines of this dual love, Durastanti constructs the story of the young woman – from her dream of becoming a classical dancer to her father’s arrest, from her difficult coexistence with her mother to her search for independence – and, at the same time, depicts a working-class neighbourhood where life is increasingly hard but from which escape is unthinkable.

The title
The title refers to the historical character whom Caterina partially resembles – indeed, she too wears her hair in a black bob – but from whom she attempts to distance herself. Like the Egyptian queen, Caterina is in love with two rivals; however, she refuses to be destroyed by this dual relationship.

The characters
Caterina is the central character in the novel, and she displays a series of physical features shaped by misfortune and indicative of a life that hasn’t been easy: the twisted bones of her feet, ruined by dance; her hands peeling from detergent use; “a hip that collapses at a touch”. Nevertheless she builds positiveness through determination and stubbornness: “I hate complaining, and that’s the strength that holds me together […] I avoid burdening anyone with my pain”. Frankness and pragmatism are also character traits, and so she speaks easily of having sex with the policeman, but hesitates when she has to comment on her inner life. Aurelio and the policeman constitute the male pivots of the plot: both were brought up on the estates, and both their lives hinge on Caterina. For Aurelio, she’s the girl he grew up with: everything they’ve shared in the neighbourhood has made them like “canaries in a coal mine”. For the cop, a rather lonely, dissatisfied young man, Caterina is the drug that makes the two of them “shining and alive”.

Language and style
The narrative is constructed with alternating chapters in first and third person, the plot moving back and forth between past and present. The rhythm of the book is austere and controlled: objectivity in physical descriptions, dialogue remarkable in its imitation of a spoken language which is never unnatural given the social marginalisation of the characters; the laconic rendering of emotions and states of mind and, lastly, the figurative restraint are signs of a stylistic mastery which gives a consistent portrait of the physical and emotional scars of marginalised characters.

In my view
The novel outlines simultaneously the character of the protagonist and that of “her” Rome, here pinpointed to the eastern working class suburbs of the city. The metropolis, “which she will never leave”, is unknown to its own inhabitants: invisible people live in shacks along the Aniene river, a proliferation of South American, Chinese and Bangladeshi establishments exude exoticism and illegality, the crumbling tower blocks betray their neglect and the Tiburtina station resembles an abandoned spaceship. In short, Rome, is a city which is falling to pieces but will never collapse: it’s been standing since the days of Cleopatra. The capital, then, is Caterina’s alter ego: the young woman moves around, a tirelesss flâneuse, with her injured hip; she comes and goes at Rebibbia as if it were home; her dream of becoming a dancer shelved, she recycles herself in precarious and unsatisfying jobs. Despite her insecurities, fears and disappointments, she succeeds in winning independence and a kind of coarse beauty.

Why translate it
The slender plot is accompanied by a strong and unifying narrative core: the non-trivialised representation of modern-day marginalisation. This is clearly evident in all the characters, without the writer pointing it out or attributing it to victimhood: Caterina, her mother, Aurelio and even the policeman keep themselves afloat in a hostile world with a dignity that’s rough yet genuine. The outlying neighbourhood too is emblematic of a self-sufficient kind of marginalisation: the shadow of the model estate disappears, similarly absent is the oppositional relationship of city centre-suburbs. The urban zone depicted here is a confirmed non-place, and the writer portrays a city much changed over time: the picturesque air of a homely estate, scattered with the occasional circus and fairground, the place where Caterina spent her childhood, is replaced by the disturbing and vicious spectres of protection rackets, frequent rioting, narrow streets punctuated by Cash for Gold dealers, betting shops and nightclubs.

 What they say
“In Cleopatra va in prigione, Rome seems to have changed latitude, slipped down towards the tropics. Bougainvillea thrives on fences, houses fill with ferns that steal oxygen in the night and the windows are sealed with mosquito screens. […] sky and sun are white as chalk and it all appears to be on the point of crumbling away”.
Longo, “L’Unità”


Claudia Durastanti was born in 1984 in Brooklyn, where she spent part of her childhood. Having concluded her degree in Rome, she moved to London. Her writing debut came in 2010 with Un giorno verrò a lanciare sassi alla tua finestra, followed in 2013 by A Chloe, per le ragioni sbagliate. Nel 2015 Cleopatra va in prigione appeared in 2015 as a short story in the anthology L’età delle febbre published by minimum fax. Claudia Durastanti is also a translator.
12 January 2017
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