Andrea Bajani: Se consideri le colpe (If You Kept a Record of Sins)
Our narrator is Lorenzo, a young Italian man. At the beginning of the book, he has just learned that his mother, Lula, has died in Romania, where she lived and worked. This novel recounts his adventures in Romania as well as his and his mother’s early life.
Lula was the youngest of three children. She had two older brothers. Though they were two years apart, they were like twins, behaving and looking fairly similar. Both turned out to be clones of their father, in that they behaved like him. Because Lula was not like them, she was considered the black sheep of the family. Indeed, they said that she had a manufacturing defect. She was always considered different, separate, from her parents and brothers. She partially redeemed herself by marrying a man her mother approved of. She then was finally damned when her husband, not long after their marriage, found her in bed with another man. Her father sent her an official letter saying she was no longer part of the family and her husband kicked her out. The man in the bed put in an appearance at her bedside when the child – Lorenzo – was born and then was never seen or heard of again.
When Lorenzo was three, Lula introduced him to his new father, Emilio. His name is barely mentioned in the book and he is always called Dad by Lorenzo and Your Dad by Lula. Emilio is a good father to his stepson and, as far as Lorenzo is concerned, he is his father. Indeed, the two are still living together when Lorenzo, by now an adult, receives the death notice.
Lula, however, is not not a particularly good mother. She meets a man, Anselmi, and they are interested in setting up a company together. They have developed a weight-loss machine. It looks like a giant Easter Egg. You go into it and come out thinner. Lula will travel round the world demonstrating it, comparing it with another weight loss method. She will bring back presents for Lorenzo from her travels.
Lula and Anseimi decide to set up the company in Romania, specifically just outside Bucharest. This is in the period after the fall of Ceaușescu. She comments on the problems they had at the frontier, as all the entrepreneurs from Western Europe were arriving in Romania, to take advantage of the more favourable conditions and cheap labour and causing delays, while, in the other direction, the Romanians were leaving Romania en masse to look for work.
Lula (and, initially) Anselmi continue to visit Emilio and Lorenzo but, not surprisingly, relations between Emilio and Lula soon become very fraught. Gradually, Lula’s visits become less frequent. Initially, she would phone every Sunday but then the phone calls became less frequent. By the time of her death, Lorenzo had not seen her or heard from her for a long while. She had promised him a special present (no, not a weight loss machine, though they did have one, which Emilio used as a storage cupboard). He finally gets a letter with a photo of his mother in a field, holding a sign that says Lorenzo. She has bought him some land, which, she says is increasing in value in Romania. He will visit it when in Romania.
There is minimal contact with Lula’s family. When he is young, Lula and Lorenzo go to visit them. They are not welcomed. The family turns up at the house after the death of the grandfather, unaware that Lula is living in Romania.
Much of the book is about Lorenzo’s visit to Romania, which is interspersed with the back story. There are four main characters in Romania whom we meet. Christian is the chauffeur. He picks Lorenzo up at the airport, chauffeurs him around and gives him the gossip. There is Anselmi, Lula’s partner both in business and in romance, though we soon learn that they were no longer a couple at the time of her death. He and Lorenzo argue both about his treatment of Lula and because he wants Lorenzo to sell him Lula’s shares.
We soon see why Anselmi has broken off with Lula. He has gone for a younger model. She is Monica and she soon turns out to be more interested in Lorenzo than in Anselmi, who is aggressive and bullying. Finally, there is Viarengo. Like Lula and Anselmi, he has come to Romania to set up a business and take advantage of the cheap labour. His business is making coffins. He was friends with Lula and they continued to see each other. There is a wonderful image of his coffin business. There before us was a meadow, and in the grass, a long stretch of coffins … laid in the sun, one after the other, like a battalion of dead soldiers, killed god knows where. They’re all of the finest quality, he said.
Lorenzo is not happy in Romania. He does not take to Anselmi, though he does get on with the other three. His mother had seemingly disconnected herself from him though we see that she was not in good shape mentally or physically. He does want to see where she lived or the people she knew. In particular, he does not like Romania. Ceaușescu is long since dead but his spirit seems to live on. When he asks Christian about sight-seeing, he is told there is nothing to see in Bucharest and then Christian mentions Ceaușescu’s People’s House. Lorenzo and Christian visit. The guides said Dictator, bloodthirsty, megalomaniac; they said Fear, said Communism, said Thousands dead, said Terror. We see a young man paint Long Live Ceaușescu on the side of the offices. Someone points out that he was almost certainly born after the death of Ceaușescu. Lula had compared the country to the Wild West and others are critical about the workers, the political siuation and the infrastructure.
And yet Lorenzo hesitates, staying longer than he planned. Perhaps he wants to sort out his mother’s affairs but he also seems to want to try and learn about this woman who was his mother but, particularly in the later years, was essentially estranged from him.
Clearly, Bajani is showing the effect on abandonment on the two key characters. Lorenzo has been abandoned by his father at birth, leaving him only his surname. Later he is essentially abandoned by his mother. Lorenzo is not overtly bitterly. Perhaps we could say he is somewhat sad about what happened. We learn little about him. At the end he is an adult but is he studying or working? We do not know because, presumably, it does not matter. All that matters is the fact of his abandonment which seems to leave him lost, adrift. Lula was also essentially abandoned, firstly by her parents and then by the father of Lorenzo and, indeed, by her husband. She tries to make something of it, with her weight loss machine and seems to succeed but, as we eventually learn, she has slipped right back.
I would mention one other character who has also been abandoned and that is Emilio, his wife essentially running out on him with another man and leaving him to bring up her son. Emilio plays a key role but yet is a shadowy figure. He seems to be a good father and a good man but, as with his stepson, we know little about him. His name is only mentioned a couple of times and we rarely see him speaking but only learn what he says and does through the eyes of Lorenzo. The only initiative he seems to take is refusing to drive Lula to the airport the last time she visits.
There are few fireworks in this book – the row between Anselmi and Lorenzo and Lorenzo setting off the burglar alarm when he first goes to his mother’s flat being the only two I can think of. Anything else that happens, such as the development of the weight loss machine and the move to Romania, takes place off-screen. However, Bajani tells his story very well as we see the sad story of Lula, Lorenzo and Emilio and,yes, the sad story of Romania.
The title, by the way, comes from Psalm 130.
First published in 2007 by Einaudi
First published in English in 2021 by Archipelago
Translated by Elizabeth Harris