Spring 2010

 

NONFICTION

 

A Rare Work

 

by Caterina Edwards

 

My mother told me almost nothing about her childhood or her family. And what she did say – that her father died in a submarine in World War I, for example, or that she left home at ten to work as a shop girl – felt invented to me, impossible. It is hard enough to imagine a parent’s early life when you grow up in the same city, for (as is often said) the past is another country. Harder still if the past occurred in an actual other country and is thus twice removed. But I was even farther away from my mother’s childhood, for she came from a place and a culture that were deliberately denied and destroyed.

 

My mother was a Giuliana-Dalmata, born of an Italian family on the island of Lussino, which was then under the rule of Austria and is now a part of Croatia. Between then and now, the region, Istria, has been ruled by Italy, Germany, and Yugoslavia. Before Napoleon, for close to eight hundred years, Istria was a territory of the Republic of Venice. Post World War II, the Communist government of Yugoslavia decided to drive out those who identified themselves as Italian. In a few years, there was a mass exodus (l’esodo): 350,000 people left Istria.

 

I had a vague knowledge of these events. An aunt and several cousins had spent years in a refugee camp in Genova, and I’d heard a few fragmentary family stories. When I decided to write the book that became Finding Rosa which would include an account of my mother’s early life, I needed much more. To comprehend her past, I needed to know her context, the historical events that shaped her. I needed a book, an authoritative tome, an official history, but I found no text or reference work. Instead, I gathered from relatives and other Istrians around the world, many oral tales of internment and exile. Part of me continued to feel uneasy with trusting the spoken versus the written. For most of my life, ink on paper had made anything and everything real, present, and comprehensible to me.

 

Eventually, I did find some relevant and rare books in the small library assembled by the Giuliano-Dalmato club of Toronto and in the private homes of Istrians in Losinj, Trieste and Koper. And since the 1990s, since the dissolution of Yugoslavia and the fall of the Christian Democrats in Italy, the silence has been broken. Italy has instituted Il Giorno del ricordo, the Day of Memory, supposedly to honour those who were executed or exiled by Tito. Unfortunately, the ceremonies are often the occasion of political rants. And a major Italian literary critic told me recently that the subject of l’esodo continues to be taboo for most Italian publishers.

 

My mother thought books were useless. Reading was a frivolous pastime, a poor excuse for evading chores. She blamed my reading for my foolish ideas: grilli per la testa, she would say, “crickets in the head.” She also suspected correctly that I used books to keep her at a distance, to resist her influence. When I want to know the world, I continue to turn to books. But by writing about Istria I have learned what perhaps she intuited – that the real stories are often not in books. The losers of history, the marginalized, the migrants, the poor, even the ordinary, their stories are rarely laid out in black and white, rarely even heard. She would never have believed that I would find her in a book – and yet I did.

 

Elsa Bragato, Una Volta a Lussino (Once in Lussino): the author and title were printed in green on the spine and again in raised letters on the plain front cover. I was lent the book by Dr. Konrad Eisenbichler, who is both a Lussingano and an Italian professor. (He has translated into English one of the very few books on the exile: A Tragedy Revealed: The Story of Italians from Istria, Dalmatia and Venezia Giulia 1943-1956 by Arrigo Pettacco.) “It’s a rare book,” he warned as he handed Bragato to me. “Take care of it. You won’t find another copy.” The slim volume was bound in cream-coloured semi-gloss paper. Or so I remember it. I had it in my hands for such a short time, years ago. The pages were thick, textured and, if once white, now a pale sepia. They smelt of dust, disintegration, and dried rosemary.

 

I usually down a book quickly in great gulps, but the formal Italian prose slowed my reading, as did the lack of an overarching narrative or other discernable order. The text was a jumble of anecdotes, historical facts, and Bragato’s memories of her childhood and youth: picnics on the childhood and youth: picnics on the mountain, hikes on the sea path, amateur theatricals, interspersed with the strong character of the local women, and the tradition of seafaring. Good Friday parades and Easter Sunday dinners, school and the beach, figcakes and fisherman’s stew. The tone was fond and never bitter. Everything was told in a gentle, even delicate style that had no need for dates or context. By dropping explanations and connections, Bragato made clear that she wrote for the few readers who knew the island of Lussino when it was Italian and who also knew that place and culture were gone.

 

Perhaps Una Volta a Lussino could have changed Mamma’s mind about books, for it bestowed dignity and importance to the otherwise mundane details of a life she had experienced. I imagine the two of us sharing our favourite passages over a cup of tea. “Did you notice that piece on how mothers in Lussino feel it is their duty to be critical of their daughters?” she would ask. “To stop them from getting a swelled head?” And I’d be able to tell her that I forgave her the years of negativity.

 

When I mailed Bragato’s work back to Eisenbichler at his University of Toronto address, it went missing for several months. We were both in anguish until it turned up. For the book was irreplaceable, a rare link, indeed, to a distant time and lost place. And it brought me, not the facts, but the flavour of my mother’s life. I read it slowly, word by word: savouring each sip of this tisane of loss and nostalgia.

 

 

Caterina Edwards lives in Edmonton. Her most recent book, Finding Rosa: A Mother With Alzheimer’s, A Daughter’s Search for the Past, won the Writers Guild of Alberta 2009 Award.

 

 

 

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