If You Kept a Record of Sins by Andrea Bajani and Elizabeth Harris (translator)

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If You Kept a Record of Sins by Andrea Bajani and Elizabeth Harris (translator)

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: There is a small chance of you disliking our characters here, but this unusual read where a man sends a message to his deceased mother packs many a strong visual element in the most padded of punches.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 200 Date: March 2021
Publisher: Archipelago Books
ISBN: 978-1939810960

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This was an incredibly readable novella, but one that left me a little conflicted. We start as our hero arrives at Bucharest airport, and before we even know his gender or the nature of the person he's addressing in his second person monologue of a narration, we see him picked up by his mother's chauffeur, and carted off to do all the necessary introductions before said mother is buried the following day. The mother was a businesswoman, who clearly left northern Italy and settled in Romania with her (night-time and business) partner, and feelings of abandonment are still strong. And so we flit from current (well, this came out in the original Italian in 2007, so moderately current) Bucharest, to the lad's childhood, and see just what he has to tell her as a private farewell address.

And this is where the confliction lies. The piece seems so heartfelt, such a bitter elegy, but at times the bitterness seems really unfounded. Our narrator at times appears to have been what might be summarised as an Oedipal plonker, literally wrestling with his mummy when she's cleaving herself from the family she's built, and clearly hating the fact a new man came along so much that to this day he can hardly ever mention him by name – it's 99% "your partner" instead. How very dare she fail at the marriage (not the only time, we find out). How very very dare she be an Italian woman who is also an entrepreneur and not a stay-at-home feeder of mummy's boy.

What the piece also annoyed me with was the racism in here. This, I admit, is a bit more of a character's voice than the author's, but it does smack of anti-Eastern Europe bigotry when not only Bucharest but Poland and several other countries get lumped in as excessively poor, and a place where the mother can do virtue tourism, doling out charity en route to making a fortune with her Brundle-capsules – half-sauna, half womb-like things supposed to work as weight-loss machines. The chauffeur becomes a fixer struggling to get the funeral done right, and because it's not Italy it's not the sending-off anyone would want. Bucharest is a place of beggars, stray dogs, and skinny secretary characters discussing Italian men's taste for pussy as an opening gambit.

So, there's confliction. Especially as this can be a wonderful read. It feels quiet, with this measured monologue guiding us through everything. It lumps us with really quite emotional scenes – the narrator as a young boy finding his own mother to have a feeling of abandonment too, as an intercom separates them from him ever knowing his grandfather in a one-off attempt at a visit; the chauffeur's last shared cigarette with his employer – but cushions them all in a measured, calm envelope befitting the fact this is a man talking to his estranged and very dead mother. It does get a little bit woolly, in a way that feels almost par for the course, when he overstays his intended brief time in Romania, but it's a book that is full of the shockingly memorable, and for a caustic lament of a bloke still quibbling about the end of his childhood decades on, is really entertaining. Four and a half stars, and I wish it well.

Further reading featuring an Italian source novel where the characters speak to the dead? It can only mean one thing – The Phone Box at the End of the World by Laura Imai Messina.

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Buy If You Kept a Record of Sins by Andrea Bajani and Elizabeth Harris (translator) at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy If You Kept a Record of Sins by Andrea Bajani and Elizabeth Harris (translator) at Amazon.com.

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