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Two Stories by Marina Mizzau
translated by Blossom S. Kirschenbaum

The Succulent (A Story) | Deafness

MARINA MIZZAU lectures in psychology and communications at the University of Bologna. Publications on literary and psychoanalytic themes include ECO E NARCISO: PAROLE E SILENZI NEL CONFLITTO UOMO DONNA (Boringhieri 1979) and L'ioronia (Feltrinelli 1984); her two collections of stories are COME I DELFINI (ESSEDUE 1988, recently reissued) and I BAMBINI NON VOLANO (Bompiani 1992). Two other stories from the first collection, also translated by Blossom S. Kirschenbaum, are included in NEW ITALIAN WOMEN (Italica, 1989). A film titled from another of those stories, HOW TO MAKE A MARTINI, is scheduled for release in the spring of 2000. Translator: BLOSSOM S. KIRSCHENBAUM, until recently based in Brown University's Department of Comparative Literature, has taught also for Rhode Island School of Design, MIT, University of Massachusetts, Clark, and elsewhere. She has translated novels by Giuliana Morandini (I CRISTALLI DI VIENNA as BLOODSTAINS, New Rivers 1987), Paola Drigo (MARIA ZEF, Nebraska UP 1989), and Fernanda Pivano (COS'E PIU LA VIRTAU as WHAT'S VIRTUE NOW, forthcoming). Her most recent translation, in CHELSEA 66, is the story "Sigismondo and Vittorinia" by Stefano Benni, whose collection of plays TEATRO (Feltrinelli 1999) she will discuss at the New York conference of the American Association of Italian Studies in April 2000. Italica Press, which included translations of hers in its 1989 anthology NEW ITALIAN WOMEN, will this year publish her essay on Ginevra Bompiani along with Sergio Parussa's translation of Bompiani's L'ORSO MAGGIORE (as THE GREAT BEAR).

The Succulent (A Story)

by Marina Mizzau Translated by Blossom S. Kirschenbaum

It's there, sadly withering, in a pot of earth as dry and dusty as its leaves.

"But succulents don't need watering." That point was discussed at the start, and now no more is said about it.

Here's where it all began; when he said succulents don't need water, she objected: he couldn't mean that totally and unconditionally, in an absolute sense of no water at all. Never mind how much water such a plant does in fact require, they couldn't reach an agreement. For this and also for other reasons, it was therefore decided that the plant would be his responsibility. At least taking care of it would be up to him.

Why "at least"? This much, at least, she could ask of him. Finally she had asked. But then, while she was on the verge of explaining things to him, before she had quite begun to have her say, he again spoke about the plant, making it seem that the plant was the only problem.

From then on, he was the one to take care of it. Then it turned out that she too would sprinkle it, to relieve its wilting. He said it was on account of her interference that the plant languished, and therefore he gave it no water at all, for otherwise it would have drowned to death. But she did water it, because had it been left to wait for him, the plant would have died of thirst. Did she have to let it die as the basil had died? The basil hadn't died of thirst. But the case at hand had nothing to do with the basil or its manner of dying. In fact, so far as what she told him was concerned, whether or not he had watered the plant was irrelevant, as was his having pinched off the basil's low-growing and uppermost leaves.

So what then was the matter?

Impossible that he really didn't understand the more general terms of the question; he must be just faking incomprehension. But after she'd had her say, impossible as it might have seemed, he still did not understand, or pretended not to understand, and there was no basis for deciding between these two possibilities. Even this point an object for discussion: whether in fact he was that way, uncomprehending, or whether he just found it convenient to pretend to be that way. Once she admitted, given these two options, that in neither case was it possible for her to accomplish anything, then asking him "So why continue the discussion?" seemed provocatively to take precedence over simply not continuing the discussion, a response he was just as provocatively forcing on her. Anyway there was no further use to keep on talking about it; and this very futility had

been set up by him (as always, would she have had to make that explicit?). Hence her decision to drop the subject could result not from free choice but only from surrender.

Yes, surrender, because the phrase "it's useless to talk about it," conceived by her as a way of getting back at him, even if later on as a rejoinder to some future twist or turn on his part in the debate, could never be used. He had beaten her to the decision against resuming the debate.

Thus their two silences reflected back and forth, but they were extremely different silences. Only one of them was speculating about the other.

The succulent was now no longer even mentioned. Only, at times, she changed its position. She placed it well within view, and she went so far as to hover in front of it, lingering, ostentatiously bending over it with a reproachful glance which obviously had nothing to do with it.

The plant will have its water, for she hasn't the heart to leave it to its fate just to make him feel guilty or teach him a lesson. It will have plenty of water, so that it will drown to death, it's less sad for it to die drowned than to die of thirst, let it die rather as a gesture of excess generosity than of crimped stinginess, for love and not for indifference. Then too, no one knows what has been going on. Adroitly she will simulate death from drought. A diabolic project, indefensible, that could however be altered for a happy ending. To act for the good of the plant while wiping out traces of the right care: she could water it properly and cover up the wet soil with dry dirt, adding little pebbles, and no one would be the wiser.

Yet what point is there to act for its benefit? He will saying; not say, thinking: see, I don't water it and it does just fine.

Besides there is also the possibility that he might do the same thing, that he might soak it without letting on, to refuse her the satisfaction, confirming in her the idea that he does not water it just to spite her, that his sadism towards the plant disguises his sadism towards her.

At times she is tempted to stop short, to turn back, simply to ask: "Did you water the plant?" --to ask without innuendo, without heaping on accusations and resentments, without making a negative response by way of punishment, without feeling duty-bound to make a positive response, without manifesting the nobility of the very act of pardon. Simply to ask: "Did you water the plant?"

It can't be done. Accents inevitably fall on words, inflections thicken their import. To cancel sarcasm would be tantamount to letting her pleas rise to the surface. And, vice versa, from behind suppressed resentment emerges affectation.

Neutralizing every tone makes for an artificiality that itself is loaded with implications.

Moreover, even if it were possible to say something like "Did you water the plant?" without saying a hundred other things, what would be gained? Enough that she should give the plant water, if she must always be the one to make the effort to take care of things. Because the real problem is this, the problem of responsibility, or at least it was this, before others got all twisted into knots on top of it.

What's not possible with words may be possible with deeds. Today--a sudden inspiration--she put the plant in front of him, like a natural invitation to water it, without saying anything, but also without making a big deal of it. An uncalculated act must be ‹

not only free from sly winks, but also detached from every ambiguous allusion to "let's start all over as though nothing had happened." Then she withdrew, without waiting to see how he might respond. She allowed herself the magnanimity of not embarrassing him into surrender, without abetting him in an avoidance of consequences. And what if he had done his duty, yes, but with ironic ostentation, as if demonstrating that he did not believe in the honesty of her intentions?

That way would have been worse than useless.

And the alternative, what would that accomplish?

Friends sometimes stop in front of the plant and make comments. "It seems dry. Don't you water it?" asks someone. "Succulents don't need water," pronounces someone else with an air of imparting information hard to come by, "maybe you give it too much."

She says: "Let's drop it." Obtuse or scatterbrained friends think that she's talking about the plant. The intelligent and discreet ones hold their tongues or change the subject. Some say: "I get it, let's change the subject." Another one says: "That plant isn't ‹

loved, plants need most of all to be loved." The same one adds also, "Plants need to be talked to."

The temptation to use analogies is strong. She resists however, and says only: "Maybe it would be satisfied with a bit of water," but she says it as if she wanted to express only skepticism, cynical materialism with regard to love and to conversation about the vegetable kingdom, not as someone who has wished to take advantage of the situation. She hopes this shading will be registered and appreciated. Maybe to confirm that he says "We don't care much about plants." But doubt remains about whether this lie (mainly if not entirely with regard to the consensual plural-pronoun "we") ought to be taken as an offer of complicity and solidarity, or rather as a chilling symptom that truly from the other point of view there exists no problem, and in the same vein there do not exist, between the two of them, parallel memories and feelings.

"House plants always cause problems," a rash guest is saying, presumably about questions of a technical sort.

This time she really can't resist temptation. Before someone else can say "like animal pets," and plants get naturally set aside to make way for dogs, she comments: "You may well say so." With this insinuation given in a playful tone, which offers criticism together with selfñcriticism, she solicits from the true recipient of ‹

the remark an equivalent sign of ironic support.

Instead, it's not forthcoming. No complicit smile. If there is agreement, one of its conditions is that nothing should capture it.

The succulent by now must be quite dead, at least to judge from a distance. She hasn't the heart to approach and ascertain, for then she would have to make decisions. And at least those should be made by him; but certainly he will not do it, because to act would mean to deal with everything that went before. He would therefore behave as if the plant had never existed.

Every so often, always without looking, she pours a bit of water in the pot where, perhaps, the plant may still be.

In each other's presence they avoid the area around where little by little the remains of the limp and decomposed plant are commingling with the earth around it. If byaccident the glance of one strays in that direction, those will be the glances to avoid intercepting, and in that unexpected rejection, which each one notes as a reflection of the discarding of the other's thought as it touches the unspeakable, an agreement results, itself ineffable like everything built upon it. At least so it seems to her.

--Translated by Blossom S. Kirschenbaum

Here is a second story by Marina Mizzau, translation by Blossom S. Kirschenbaum. The original, called "Sordita" (Essedue Edizioni, © 1988)--accent grave on the final "a")-- is like the first taken from the collection of stories COME I DELFINI (Verona: Italia)

Deafness by Marina Mizzau

He had just tossed his things onto the bench near the front door and was in the bathroom washing his hands, when the unending barrage began again. It produced its usual effect on him, rigid body and paralyzed mind. "How'd it go at school?" asked his mother. Almost simultaneously his father asked "Nothing new?"

They still haven't figured it out, the boy thought, and he adopted his first ploy, which was to pretend not to hear. It wasn't that he did this for spite, as they said, or that he didn't like speak, as, in a kinder way, they presented the matter to outsiders. On the contrary, he did like to, but they just couldn't understand that stories had their time and place, they had to take shape slowly in the privacy of an inner dialogue before emerging into the open, before being offered to others.

"Well?" his father welcomed him as he came in, conveying with this abbreviation that the original question would not be repeated, and therefore also that the missing reply had been interpreted as a simple delay.

The boy mumbled under his breath the curtest phrase.

"What's that?" asked his father already with the lightly ironic tone of someone alluding to a ritual repeated time after time.

"Nothing," the son summed up dryly and, displaying a raging hunger which in fact was genuine, he filled his plate and attacked it, to signal that for the time being he would be busy.

Yes, something had happened. It had been an unpleasant event, an injustice endured from his teacher after a confused and equivocal exchange of words, and only the right word could have restored the true meaning of the story, so that he could have taken ø‹

some comfort in return and for that matter gratification too. He felt he couldn't afford the risk. He tried inwardly to make his tale coherent while he emptied his plate, but he didn't succeed, and anyway he would rather have concentrated first on the food and then thought about the rest, everything in its own time, especially because his mother was insisting, with irritating affection, "Well, go on, tell."

The more exasperated he got, as the ritual went on and on following out its inexorable stages ("how come you never tell us anything," "you know we like to know what's happening with you," and even, dreadfully menacing in its reassuring intention, "it's not just out of curiosity that we want to know, it's that we really care," as if such phagocytic caring were more harmless than simple aseptic curiosity), the more that story retracted inside him; it became paltry and insipid, a trivial incident, a demonstrable chaos of uneasy and discomforting sensations; and so deeply mistrustful had he become about the chance of being understood, that what came out of him by way of preface sounded, even to his own ears, incomprehensible.

"Speak up," said his father, "and look in my face when you speak."

The boy raised his head and began all over again, aloud but hastily.

"Speak clearly and don't swallow your words," interrupted his father.

The boy said something else, again in a low voice that trailed off.

"Eh? Eh? What's that?" cried his mother.

"Come on, speak plainly. But be clear," his father urged.

The boy resumed speaking, in a low voice, with his head down,

swallowing his words.

"Can't you say the same things aloud and clearly?" his father made a show of asking.

"Nothing. I said nothing happened," concluded the son.

Later on the grown son continued to speak in a mumble, swallowing his words, breaking off phrases in the middle or letting them fade off into an indistinct murmur.

"What did you say?" asked the girl. They were in a pizzeria, and the noise around them made conversation more difficult than usual.

The youth did not repeat.

"I said: what did you say?" insisted the girl.

"Oh, nothing, it doesn't matter," said he, and he stared into space.

"Can't you repeat it?" said the girl in a mildly irritated tone, this time.‹

"I didn't say anything important," said he, still staring off into space.‹

"Everything you say is important to me," said the girl delivering a kind of gift-offering that set off his irritation.

"Then why don't you just listen?"

"I didn't hear you. I didn't understand."

"It's because you're not interested in what I say," said he.

"Otherwise you'd understand. If you care about what somebody's saying, if your mind's not always wandering and thinking about other things, if you're receptive ¿…

The girl decided not to get caught up in the argument, this time. "So then, what'd you say?" she said in a detached tone.

"Pittosporum, I said they're called pittosporum, those plants there," he announced, so as to be sure she understood that he was making it up on the spot.

She pretended to believe it. "So what then?" she asked provocatively.

"That's it," said he.

The son was now teaching in an elementary school.

"In what region is Vercelli located?" he asked a child.

"Piedmont," said the child. Then he added in an inaudible voice, smiling, something else.

"What's that you said?" asked the teacher.

"We were there in Vercelli, with my grandpa," repeated the child, a bit louder, but with downcast eyes.

"I didn't understand," said the teacher, who this time had understood but thought that it was educational to take this tack.

"And look me in the face when you speak. Say it again."

"Nothing," said the intimidated child, "it wasn't anything that mattered."‹

"Say it aloud anyhow," said the teacher harshly.

The child began to cry.

Still later the adult son found himself again in his father's company. The son spoke more and more softly; he whispered, avoiding the glance of his interlocutor.‹

"Speak up," said his father, "I'm deaf now," and he really seemed to feel no bother about saying so.

His son's glance became even more fugitive and he murmured: "You're doing it to spite me."

"What'd you say?" cried his father.

The son, modifying both tone and concept, in a voice barely a bit louder said: "If you wanted to hear me you'd be able to, it's just that you don't at all care to know what I'm saying."

"Either you speak incomprehensibly, or you talk nonsense," complained the father.

This time it was the son's turn to win. All the pieces fell into place. "Then you do hear me, you're not deaf," he said.

"What did you say?" cried the father.

Translation Copyright © 2001 by by Blossom S. Kirschenbaum. From a collection of stories COME I DELFINI (Verona: Italia ) by Marina Mizzau. All rights reserved.

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