Friday, 15 September 2017

Book Review: Twice Born by Margaret Mazzantini
Passionate love can make people do really strange things and so can the desperate longing for parenthood. Those feeling either of the two or even both may sometimes find it hard to withstand the temptation to disregard reason or even imminent danger. The urge to do whatever can help to be with the loved one or to get the yearned for child can be overwhelming. The narrating protagonist of Twice Born by Margaret Mazzantini has experienced the power of both obsessions. She travels to Sarajevo with her sixteen-year-old son who was born not in Rome where he grew up like his mother, but in the sieged city in the early 1990s. It was in Sarajevo that she first met the love of her life, an Italian photographer, who was to become her husband and it was there that she lost him again about a decade later just when she held a baby in her arms at last.

Margaret Mazzantini was born in Dublin, Ireland, in October 1961. The family of artists – the father Italian, the mother Irish – travelled a lot during her childhood and eventually settled down in Tivoli, Italy. She studied at the Academy of Dramatic Arts in Rome and performed as an actress in films and TV as well as on stage from 1980 on. In 1994 Margaret Mazzantini made her debut as a writer with the novel Il Catino Di Zinco (The Zinc Bowl). The most successful among the seven novels that followed since are award-winning Don’t Move (Non ti muovere: 2001) and Twice Born (Venuto al mondo: 2008) that have also been adapted for the screen by her husband Sergio Castellitto. Her latest published works are Morning Sea (Mare al mattino: 2011) and Splendore (2013; Splendour). Margaret Mazzantini lives in Rome, Italy, with her family. 

Sixteen-year-old Pietro doesn’t know it, but he was Twice Born during the siege of the Bosnian capital Sarajevo between 1992 and 1996. It annoys his mother Gemma that he doesn’t show interest in the circumstances surrounding his birth in a war-ravaged city abroad, nor in the death of his biological father Diego. Even worse, Pietro blames her for not giving her husband Giuseppe the love and respect that he deserves. When Gojko, an old friend from Bosnia, contacts Gemma to invite her to the opening of an exhibition in Sarajevo displaying pictures of Diego who was a photographer, she knows that the time has come to take Pietro to the place where he was born. The teenager grudgingly joins her on the trip and Gemma begins to relive the past. She remembers her first encounter with the sly poet, tourist guide and yo-yo vendor Gojko during the Olympic Winter Games of 1984, when she came to Sarajevo to follow the traces of Nobel Prize awarded writer Ivo Andrić about whom she wrote her doctoral thesis. He introduced her to Diego who became infatuated with her at once, while Gemma refused to accept that she too had fallen in love because she was soon to be married. Back in Italy, her marriage was a disaster that quickly ended in divorce. Then Gemma and Diego got married and they would have lived happily ever after if they could have had a child together. Disillusioned by a visit to a Ukrainian hospital specialised in providing surrogate mothers, they made an unplanned detour to Sarajevo on their way home although the fighting on the Balkans had already begun. Before long Gojko introduced them to punk musician Aska who was ready to have their baby for money, but war didn’t stop at the city’s borders…

From her first-person perspective the protagonist Gemma tells not just the whole story of how her son Pietro was Twice Born, but also what she witnessed of the history of Sarajevo from its big time during the 1984 Olympic Winter Games over the four-year siege of the city that cost the lives of about 12,000 people in the 1990s to the current day of the reconstructed and yet deeply torn Bosnian capital. The novel skilfully alternates present and different levels of the past bringing alive events, people and emotions. The – possible, though unlikely – plot offers a lot of unexpected twists and turns which doesn’t prevent that certain parts really drag, notably the account of Gemma’s and Diego’s Calvary to get a child in the middle of the novel. I read the Italian original and, except when Margaret Mazzantini thought it right to use vernacular expressions for some strange reason, I found the language elegant and poetic, maybe a bit too profuse and overloaded with metaphors. It certainly was a nice idea to compare Aska with the sheep from a poem by Ivo Andrić, I felt, however, that the author overdid it. Nonetheless, the story flows engagingly most of the time.

Without doubt, Twice Born by Margaret Mazzantini has been one of my more interesting and pleasurable reads so far this year although I must admit that I couldn’t fully relate with the protagonist, above all not with her obsession beyond death for Diego. As a matter of fact, I never had a particular taste for sentimental love stories and therefore it’s little wonder that I preferred by far the parts that dealt with the history of Sarajevo and the war that lastingly disintegrated the ethnic and religious groups who had been living there together in peace for centuries. Although the story is fiction, not the testimony of an eye witness or survivor of the siege, it gives a somewhat credible and very personal idea of the horrors of war from the outsider’s point of view. I would have appreciated some political background, but you can’t have it all! I enjoyed the book and gladly recommend it.

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