Thoughts: Oublier Palerme, by Edmonde Charles-Roux

I thought this book, the last in my little run of French books on my TBR, would be, if not easy, then a nice, gentle comedown after the uncomfortable fascination of Le Roi des Aulnes. It… sort of was?

You know how you can read a book in your native tongue and understand the nuances, understand the tricks the author is using and what they’re trying to accomplish and how it works? How you can analyse word choice and symbolism and appreciate beautiful abstract statements that touch deep parts of you that more straightforward language can’t seem to reach? You know what it’s like to read a proper classic and really appreciate top-class writing?

Now I know, deep in my heart, that these are things that every other language in the world can evoke. But seeing it done is a whole other thing altogether. Not quite understanding it is a weird feeling, like a kind of awe.

Part of the reason Oublier Palerme was more difficult to understand in places was the sheer quietness of it. Le Roi des Aulnes wore its symbolism very much on its sleeve – when Tiffauges wanted you to understand how clever he was, he would tell you. Gianna Meri, the narrator of Oublier Palerme, was a much shyer woodland creature. There were things she didn’t want to talk about, that maybe a native francophone would have picked up on much better than I did. There were times when I knew something was afoot, but couldn’t guess what.

So with all my defects as a reader in mind, on to the story itself.

Oublier Palerme is about Gianna Meri, Sicilian emigrant to New York in the 60s (or is she really? Her life felt so temporary there, I was never sure if she intended to live in the US permanently, or if this was a deliberate device by the author, that Gianna couldn’t commit to her self-exile, that she would always have these ties to her native land pulling at her). I mean, it’s mostly about Gianna Meri. I’m getting ahead of myself.

The first chunk of the book is really and truly about her, describing her life in New York as a travel writer for a glossy women’s magazine where her purpose is to evoke hunger in her readers (literal and metaphorical – she writes often about food). She lives sometimes with Babs, one of the other writers at the magazine and a pretty, shallow socialite, and sometimes with Babs’s Aunt Rosie, who’s under the mistaken impression that Gianna is some kind of countess based on the sight of a monogrammed handkerchief. We learn about Gianna’s Sicilian life in pieces as we go, and we learn very early on that Gianna has run to New York to avoid something that she can’t stop seeing and hearing everywhere, around corners and in innocuous conversations. Right at the very beginning, we learn that she meets a man called Carmine (or Carminé – the Kindle version on the UK Amazon shop is inconsistent throughout and it drove me up the wall) Bonavia, but you can forget about him for about half the book.

Oublier Palerme is a tale of two stories. And I don’t think they were integrated together very well. As someone who has won zero Prix Goncourts, I’m aware that my opinion isn’t particularly weighty, and as a non-native speaker this might absolutely be a difference in culture talking, but the two story threads, of Gianna and Carmine(é), were dropped in huge tangential chunks. Their stories sort of linked together in that they’re both Sicilian and Gianna’s father was the doctor for the local Baron’s grandson, while Carmine’s father was one-time best friend of the Baron’s son and forced into emigration after a fierce argument. The big picture as a whole is wide and deep, but getting there requires too many long tangents off the path we’re put on at the beginning of the book, which is Gianna’s. The end of the story is practically 100% Carmine, and things that Gianna the first person narrator shouldn’t have known at all, to be honest. Though Carmine’s story was by far the more action-packed, because I’d been primed by the beginning to expect Gianna to be the protagonist, I couldn’t quite settle with him – I was always expecting a deeper significance to pop up, or for Gianna’s thread to go somewhere. Despite the incredibly brief mention of meeting Carmine at the beginning, the story wasn’t framed (at least to me) as Gianna telling Carmine’s story.

As always, in trying to explain the little nitpicks I’m making them sound bigger than they are. I really liked a lot about Oublier Palerme – Gianna’s voice was chatty and wry and very readable (when she wasn’t being coy), and her descriptions of homesickness really resonated with me. Her descriptions of the feelings of isolation and miscommunications, of wanting to convey things and not being able to, brought back memories of my year abroad in Tokyo as well as some times here in Germany. She never mentions the language barrier specifically, but I know what it’s like to be surrounded by people speaking a language that isn’t your mother tongue, how easy it is to get lost or tune it out, how loud and easy and safe your mother-tongue-thoughts are, and you feel just slightly out of kilter with everyone. The scene where she’s talking to the cab driver and she wants to tell him stories about Palermo and plays out the conversation and eventually lets the moment pass in silence was really intense for me. I know that feeling.

Her clashes with Babs and Aunt Rosie (and her sarky little asides) were well done too, pure culture shock of the kind you don’t get very often nowadays purely due to globalisation. There was a slight element of “not like other girls” about Gianna from time to time, but the nature of Babs and Aunt Rosie made that sort of inevitable. I felt like I should have wondered why she was even living there in the first place, if she disliked them that much, but she didn’t dislike them entirely. She was comfortable with their flaws, and she was using them as a distraction, throwing herself into the total opposite of what she’d left behind. No, “throwing herself” is wrong. Gianna remained distant through the story. She couldn’t let go of Palermo.

Possibly my favourite thing was the thread of escape running through the whole. Gianna is escaping her unspeakable past, of course, and Alfio, Carmine’s father, escaped his problems by running to the US. Even the Baron finds his way to New York in the end, chased into exile after displeasing the Mussolini regime. That’s not really the Baron’s biggest escape, though. After his wife left him for Caruso (yes, that one) he couldn’t listen to music or bear to see Caruso’s face or hear mention of his name, until in his extreme old age, he comes to New York and the Italian quarter, and is forced by circumstances to see him everywhere, in sausage brands and as busts displayed in full view and as music floating from a window – and he realises it doesn’t hurt him anymore. It’s not necessarily the forgetting of Palermo, but how characters react to being unable to forget it. Gianna eventually finds her voice as well, and finally seems to settle if not happy, then content. Alfio remains happy to have left – he doesn’t forget, but he certainly wouldn’t go back. And even Carmine, born and bred in New York (I think, he might have been just very young when the family emigrated, argh) can’t shake off Palermo, and goes to visit the place he’s heard so many things about…

But that’s a story (that perhaps would have been better left) for another book.

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