“I have stuck to facts except when they refuse to conform with narrative purpose”

/ by Elisa Biagini

It’s a pleasant morning in Florence: We are seated in the garden, facing the synagogue, waiting for the Californian writer Michael Chabon and his wife Ayelet Waldam, who will also read today, to present his latest book, Moonglow. I really loved his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, where the Golem, comic books, Houdini and WWII come together. As a real fan, I am sitting in the front row, trembling with expectation.

Moonglow, a “faux-memoir novel,” as he describes it, takes place in 1989. The narrator, called Mike Chabon, is at his grandfather’s deathbed: The man had quite a life - from a poor childhood in South Philadelphia to hunting Nazi scientists, doing time in prison and inventing and manufacturing toy rockets - and the grandson wants to put everything down, before it’s too late. But more things start surfacing, dark things like the unknown story of his grandmother, a French Holocaust survivor tortured by visions of a demonic figure she calls the Skinless Horse who, after wandering off at night and burning a tree, has to be hospitalized, eventually dying young and leaving the husband and the writer’s mother in endless sorrow. Much more happens in this book and, as in previous novels, Chabon is pretty good at creating an intricate, emotionally dense prose; sad, grotesque and funny at the same time (even if, in my eyes, it never reaches the peaks of The Amazing Adventures). Once again, WWII is central to his narrative, because “everything is traceable back to the Second World War,” as he said. “That’s true not just of politics and the nations that are in contention in various ways around the world. It’s also true socially, and in the ways that we all have grown up and have been schooled to look at the world.” As well as the Shoah: “As a Jewish writer, you have to talk about it, it sucks you in, but you have to be careful about the holocaust kitsch,” referring to the many poor quality books and movies about it, that have made it hard for a writer to produce something really meaningful (and respectful).

Now, more than ever, we need to hear about empathy and its need for imagination to escape the prison of our individuality. The writer needs to put himself at a crossroads, on borders, undefined but all-containing areas. Only while mapping such imaginary places can one find the voice of the “other.” Even when writing about familiar figures or issues, we are still charting unknown territory, and a grandfather can reveal himself as a problematic superhero building a rocket to go to the Moon, or chasing a snake in Florida. And darkness is always creeping behind us. Our demons never leave us alone.

Michael Chabon was eleven years old, when he decided that the world was a broken place: “When my parents separated and divorced, it completely upended everything that I thought I knew,” he tells the audience. “After that happened, not only did I see that my world was broken but, in fact, that brokenness was everywhere, in one way or another. It really affected my way of seeing everything thereafter.”

Only words have the power to re-create worlds, to mend what was broken, and this made me think about the Japanese technique of kintsugi. This means, literally, “to join with gold.” In Zen aesthetics, the broken pieces of an accidentally-smashed pot should be picked up, reassembled and then glued together with lacquer inflected with a very luxuriant gold powder. There should be no attempt to disguise the damage: The point is to render the fault-lines beautiful and strong, remembering the history of that breakage. Life is the pot, the reassembled pieces “reinvented” memories, the words the gold. Through fiction, reality can reveal itself, in all its potentials, not just the few events that actually occurred.

In the novel’s preface, Chabon writes: “I have stuck to facts except when facts refuse to conform with memory, narrative purpose, or the truth as I prefer to understand it. Wherever liberties have been taken (…) the reader is assured that they have been taken with due abandon.” Abandon as a form of openness: The writer puts aside his agenda and he humbly listens to the stories inside the main story, letting the “otherness” seep in. Imaginary realities always precede real ones, and hence the writer’s interest in made-up places: “Scale models try to approximate a whole world, a world that doesn’t have a crack,” Chabon explains. “But, of course, the more accurate your scale model is, the more likely it is to show the cracks. The element of creating scale models, which is pretty grounded in ‘Moonglow,’ is present in nearly all of my books.”

But, in such shattered world, something whole does still exist: The moon remains the one space where there is “no madness or memory of loss,” the perfect place to endlessly dream about (even after having reached it). Its glow fuels our imagination and possibilities, our nostalgia of the past and the future.

Elisa Biagini

born in Florence in 1970, has lived, studied and taught in the United States. She earned her Ph.D. at Rutgers University, taught Italian there and also taught at Columbia University and New York University. She translated Louise Glück, Sharon Olds and other American poets into Italian for the anthology Nuovi Poeti Americani (Einaudi, 2006), and her translation of Gerry LaFemina's collection, The Parakeets of Brooklyn, won the Bordighera Prize in 2003; it was published by Bordighera in a bilingual edition the next year.

Her poetry has been translated into a dozen languages or more, including French, Spanish, German, Russian, Arabic and Chinese.

Elisa Biagini lives in Florence and teaches creative writing, literature and art history in Italy and abroad.