Dario Voltolini: “Beatrixpark: An Illumination”

11/29/2011 § Leave a comment

Found in Harper’s [Readings], October 2011. From Chicago Review, Spring 2011. (Translated from the Italian by Anne Milano Appel.)

In a philosophical story like this, the thrust is often more about the “why” than about the “who,” the “what,” or even really the “where” and “when.” This is not to say that Voltolini does not have a place in mind — Beatrixpark, Amsterdam — or that he waffles on the modern-day setting, but more that the tale literally labors over the differences between the more urbane northern cities and the more provincial ones of the south, while at the same time arguing that there are in fact no such real differences between humans, only arbitrary distinctions. “Who knows what Amsterdam stood for in his eyes. A metaphor for the north, of course. But after all was said and done, north and south of what?” asks one question; others deal with the man’s unconscious skepticism, which removes him from directly experiencing reality: “He would stroll through Amsterdam as though watching a film. Do you ‘believe’ a film? . . . What difference does it make?” Voltolini is talking to you, questioning this man’s observations, and he curses so as to better ingratiate himself with the reader: “Gimme a break, provincial, middle-aged man from the south! Fuck off, why don’t you?”

If you like this sort of dense, interrogative writing — i.e., text that forces you to pause and evaluate the integrity and solidity of every sentence — then you’ll probably enjoy this short. For me, however, I’ve always preferred a spoonful of spun-sugar, which is to say, I’d prefer that such information be delivered in a funnier or simply “funner” fashion, with puns and wit and creativity, instead of leaden prose and direct questions. I already know, on the one level, that I’m reading words on a page and translating them into images; this only gets worse when I’m slowed down, in the same fashion that animation becomes cruder and cruder as you reduce the speed, i.e., the number of frames per second. The arbitrariness of the plotting is harmful, too, in that the meat and potatoes of the story are divorced from the setting: this doesn’t have to be Beatrixpark. You could think about these things anywhere, with any character, so why has Voltolini settled on this place, this character? An idea drives us to write, yes, but the trick of writing is in finding a way to frame that idea, much as an inventor is nothing without the ability to express and execute his invention. If writing is simply setting down our thoughts on the page, then we are all, indeed, writers; consequently, why should we bother to read at all?

But I digress. That isn’t the sort of story Voltolini is writing: “The man had long since given up expecting significant revelations about life and existence from the natural world.” And while it may seem as if this is a story about how things don’t happen, don’t cohere, our hero at last sees something notable: a dog runs toward two swans; one turns to protect the other, spreading its wings; a beam of light strikes it just so, illuminating the park in a a transfiguring radiance; the dog runs off; and then life continues. “Light is never really different — the provincial man may have thought — whether in the south, the north, or anywhere else.” The swan isn’t special, nor is the light, and yet sometimes things just align, and all of a sudden, you’re seeing things in a new way. How the man’s life is changed, if at all, and how it even was before, well, that’s beside the point; this story isn’t special, but Voltolini’s hoping that it at least manages to aligns for a few people (in the same way that a broken clock still manages to be right twice a day).

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