Elena Varvello was born in Turin, Italy, in 1971. She has published two collections of poetry and two novels. She teaches creative writing at the Scuola Holden in Turin. Her latest novel, Can You Hear Me?, translated into English by Alex Valente, won the English PEN Award 2017. It is set in Ponte, a small community in Northern Italy, where sixteen year-old Elia Furenti lives a life so unremarkable that even its moderate unhappiness has been accepted as normal. But when the beautiful, damaged Anna returns to Ponte and firmly propels Elia to the edge of adulthood, everything starts to unravel...
Below, exclusively for Foyles, Elena remembers her father, who suffered from bipolar disorder, explains why no-one is ever 'ordinary' and talks about how he inspired her new book.
Author photo © Federico Botta
In a fragment of my memory, a secret place, my father and I are in his room. He is in his pyjamas, sitting on the bed, his back bent, his hands on his knees, a cigarette dangling from his lips. The room is hot and dark. I’m by the door, my hand on the handle. I’ve got nothing left to say, nothing that can help him, nothing that can soothe his pain or erase – if only – his illness. I am about to leave: I have two children to care for, a husband, a job, a home. I love my father, but I am exhausted. Right now he is depressed, he feels like a loser, he can’t get out of bed; two months ago he was euphoric, invincible – the two sides of bipolar disorder, the two extremes he helplessly navigates.
As I turn away, my father whispers something.
‘What is it, dad?’
He repeats, ‘Do you know what I am most sorry for?’
I shake my head, shrug my shoulders.
‘No one will ever tell my story.’
I wish I could say I understood what he meant, that day long gone, that I hugged him and reassured him, but I didn’t: I shut the door, leaving him alone, and ran away.
Another fragment of my memory, a year later: the intensive care unit in the hospital, my dad is dying. I am standing at a distance; I can’t bring myself to look at him. My mother gives him a kiss, whispers something in his ear, crying, then we go back to the waiting room. We know what we are waiting for.
My brother is there, sitting alone – he went in on his own and he has just come out. We exchange a few words, we even laugh a little because that’s who we are, because my father, on a good day, was the life and soul of the party, always full of laughter.
It’s almost Christmas, and yet I don’t remember it to be particularly cold. The sun is shining.
We look out the window, as my father, a few meters away, frees himself from his euphoria and desperation, from the sense of omnipotence and failure, and takes whatever path we travel on at the end, finally at peace.
My mother, my brother and I go back to the car without a word, squinting in that beautiful winter light, and we drive home.
Outside the car window nothing has changed. The shops, the cars, the fields are still there. People walk by. And yet the world has shifted, I can feel it, in that particular way it does when a person is lost forever – an imbalance of sorts, a lament, a new order to be built.
And here I am now in the small room I use for my writing. Somehow Christmas has gone by – I can’t remember how. Life goes on, unstoppable. I am sitting in front of my computer, thinking about my father. Suddenly his words on that day come back to me. And suddenly I understand.
A life like mine doesn’t matter to anyone. Nothing particularly important, nothing memorable, I didn’t leave a mark. They say we are ordinary people. Isn’t that what they call us? Do you know what happens in the end? We are forgotten, it doesn’t matter how much we loved or suffered.
But we still have stories, dad. We have stories, and in stories everyone is special and unforgettable. Stories do not tell us what actually happened – that’s just life, for better or worse – instead, they reveal the true meaning of those events, and open a space where everything is still possible. So please listen up, wherever you might be. This is what I will do: in some way, I’ll tell your story. You’ll see.
In that secret space of my memory, I look up and I realise it’s snowing. The room is cold – there’s just a small heater.
I look at the snow and I shiver, and then I think about a hot summer, a stream and a waterfall, a boy running in the night, a man sitting on a swing, lost in his mind.
This is how Can you hear me? came to life.
It took me years: writing needs time.
In those pages I write about a father and a son in a village called Ponte, in the summer of 1978. It’s not us, it’s not the life we lived – you didn’t have a van and you never went into the woods, and I am not a boy – and yet we are present. Can you see us?
There you are, smiling, telling a joke, or pulling a prank, laughing hard; there you are as you become a mystery, a man I’m scared of. There I am as I talk to you: can you hear me? And here’s what matters: compassion, love, forgiveness. Truth.
What matters is being able to see the people we love for who they are and carry on loving them. What matters is reopening that door.
We never really leave. We leave a trace behind. Every one of us is important. No one is ‘ordinary’. Every breath, every word, every movement is worth remembering. Stories remind us of that truth: that’s why I write and that’s why I’ll carry on writing.
I hope he knows, too. I hope he is pleased. If he were here, he would get up from the bed, stretch his legs, put the cigarette out and say, ‘Alright. Let’s go get a coffee.’
If he were here we would laugh together.