Interview with Giacomo Sartori

Interviewed and translated from the Italian by Anne Greeott

  Photo by Justin N. Lane

You have described The Anatomy of the Battle as your most important novel. Since our readers only have a brief excerpt in English, could you describe the qualities of the novel that make it so important in the context of your career?

In the initial plan, this novel was only meant to be the story of the last phases of my father’s illness when he died of a tumor in the last year of the last century. But then in the process of writing, the importance of his previous existence and especially of his fascist training became evident, even just in order to understand his behavior during his illness. By studying fascism, which I knew very little about, I understood that many qualities I had attributed to his personality or to chance were actually related to the particular historical era he lived in and to his visceral involvement in the ideology of the Mussolini regime. Like many others born in the early 1920s, my father was profoundly shaped by the recent trauma of the first world war when fascism was taking root in Italy and gradually silencing any opposing voices. Very few families cultivated a democratic culture which might have constituted an antidote to this. And at the same time, while writing I realized I had been influenced myself, albeit indirectly through him, by that historical period and that upbringing. And so the existential and political positions I held onto, which were the very antipodes of his, were actually closely related to his. And my viewpoint wasn’t neutral either; it was very connected to his experiences and to the second world war and to the modalities by which Italy had come out of fascism without really breaking from it. I thought I had freed myself of it, but it wasn’t true then, and maybe it still isn’t now. It was a true and proper revelation, a work about myself.

It was a true and proper revelation, a work about myself.

Could you comment on the complex development of the narrator’s political identity? How do personal and family identities interact with public and political identities in the novel?

The narrator in the novel, which is to say the son, does discover that things are much more complicated than he thought and he realizes that the layers of History, family history, politics, the psychology of various family members, family ties, and ideologies, are profoundly and inextricably intertwined. And I would say that at the center of my novels there’s always this grappling of the individual with reality, with History, with events, with the ready-made explanations represented by ideologies and political views. In practice we human beings are always unprepared for what happens, and only in hindsight can we construct justifications and reasons for it. While we’re living the events we’re almost always defenseless, at the mercy of our bodies, emotions, and of uncertainties. And then little by little we use rationality to put things in order, to construct reasons that help us live. That psychology is just a way to rationalize whatever is half-formed or nameless. But there’s always a mistake, or anyway a limitation, in doing this. And yet it’s all we can do. It’s the only way can we express our greatness and our bravery, our moral and political coherence.

Given that you hope to publish this novel in the US, what implications might The Anatomy of the Battle hold for the currently polarized political climate there?

We are united by the same illusion of being sheltered from the greatest tragedies, of being forever free of them.

I’m part of a generation that is very fortunate on several counts because it hasn’t experienced war directly, even though the weight of the two world wars that devastated Europe was still great. In contrast, during the same era the United States participated in several wars, although not within its own national borders. Nevertheless, I believe we are united by the same illusion of being sheltered from the greatest tragedies, of being forever free of them. We were in a manner of speaking a planetary aristocracy, and we fully enjoyed our privileges. In my view, it is becoming increasingly more difficult for the West to harbor this chimera. The tensions and changes, the migrations of entire populations, and the aspirations of poor nations toward greater well-being all manifest for us as distress and instability, which drives people to populism. History, especially European history, reminds us of the dangers we may face if we don’t know how to respond without overreacting. Literature can perhaps serve to remind us of this, to keep track of the lessons of the past. At the roots of fascism and of the current populism lie fear and irrationality, a strong pull toward a frenzied interpretation of reality, and the inability of democratic political systems to give answers or to factor in these elements. Many of the fears and weaknesses of people in difficulty are perfectly legitimate and cannot simply be mocked or stigmatized by an elite who cannot understand. They must be addressed.

We’re steeped in a trivialized romanticism, and so we love to believe that art is the expression of impulses and riches that belong to the individual alone

Could you discuss the rapport between art and science in your life? How do the two roles of agronomist and writer inspire and inform each other?

Like my brothers and many family members I have scientific training, or more specifically, techno-scientific, since I’m an agronomist. What fascinates me about science is the thirst for discovery, for finding answers to unresolved queries. This doesn’t apply solely to the great geniuses as someone outside of science might suppose, since even the humblest researcher knows the thrill of grappling with problems still in process, of entering untrodden territory. And this work is often undertaken with humility, which derives from an awareness of one’s own limitations, and of the limits of one’s own knowing. You always need others, since even Einstein wouldn’t have become Einstein without the help of highly skilled mathematicians. And you are always aware that your own discoveries will quickly be surpassed. This aspect is disguised in the current world because we prefer to see science as omnipotent, as only a means of providing tools for our own ever-more-sophisticated comfort and well being. This is the ideology of Silicon Valley and of the computer engineers, the technophiles, but not of science in general. The experience of someone who lives science is often very different, as mine is very different. Regarding art, which I live by engaging in writing, things are a little different because when you create you don’t know who you are or what you’re looking for, what you want. You don’t have any handholds, you go forward by intuition, out of necessity, out of stubbornness or desperation. The profound reality of humans is this, and any profound artistic form can only be an acknowledgement of this unknown dimension which is ultimately spiritual, and which bonds us with all other humans, with all beings. We’re steeped in a trivialized romanticism, and so we love to believe that art is the expression of impulses and riches that belong to the individual alone, to the Artist. When I write, though, I utilize language, which does not belong to me, but rather to everyone else, and which ultimately prevails over me. Writing is an intrusion in the mystery and I like it very much, but then I feel the need to re-entrench myself in the certainties of science, in its codified manners of proceeding.

I believe literature becomes interesting when it manages to free itself from the banality of everyday talk

Are there elements of your writing which have proved challenging to translate? Which elements of your style do you consider most important to bring across in a translation?

My use of language is very deliberate because I believe that literature becomes interesting when it manages to free itself from the banality of everyday talk, when it manages to extract a meaning from words that isn’t formulaic or superficial, which our ears aren’t sensitive to in everyday life. And this entails a lot of work. At the same time the language in my writing stays rather plain, not overly polished, not complicated. Of course Italian often has uncertainties and vagueness which are not easy to transpose in languages that are much more precise, such as English.


Frederika Randall's translation of an excerpt of Giacomo Sartori's The Anatomy of a Battle can be read in the print edition of The Arkansas International 2.

Novelist GIACOMO SARTORI was born in Trento, Italy and lives in Paris. His day job--agronomist and soil specialist--shapes a distinctive, concrete style. The auto-fictional Anatomy of the Battle draws on personal experience to portray Italian fascism as experienced on his own skin. Other novels include Rogo, Cielo nero, Autismi, Sono Dio.

ANNE GREEOTT is an instructor of Italian for the University of Arkansas. Her translations have appeared in Poetry Northwest, World Literature Today, Gradiva, Italian Poetry Review, Bitter Oleander, and elsewhere.