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Marino Magliani: Soggiorno a Zeewijk (A Window to Zeewijk)

There a few kind of books, marketed as novels, which involve the author or the author’s alter ego looking at a small part of the world as a poet/philosopher/people watcher. The author gives us a poetical description of the landscape while at the same time, giving us often fascinating insights into the land and the people and, indeed, even the world in general. Two obvious examples – both German – are the late W G Sebald (who is mentioned several times in this book) and Esther Kinsky. Both have produced some wonderful books which are well worth reading. Marino Magliani is in the same mould.

Magliani himself adds one other – Roberto Arlt, whose sketches Aguafuertes porteñas, most of which first appeared in the press and has not been translated into English (but has been translated into French, Italian and Portuguese). The Spanish title means Porteño Etchings (porteño is the Argentinian term for someone who lives in Buenos Aires). It is clear that Arlt’s work had some influence on Magliani when writing this work. I have a copy of this work in Spanish and, though I have not read it, I dipped into it before writing this review and it seems to be often acerbic comments on various characters of Buenos Aires, which is not really Magliani’s style.

Magliani has travelled around, living in Spain, Norway and Latin America, before settling in Ijmuiden, on the Dutch coast. This book is set in both the Netherlands and in Liguria (the area round Genoa, in the North-West of Italy), where he is from. Magliani worked a variety of odd jobs, including dock worker, in his travels and we find him here doing the same thing unloading fish, a very cold job (as the fish had been stored in frozen conditions in the ship) and very hard work. He shares a flat with an Argentinian called Pedro who is a fottografo. This is a clever play on words. Fotografo is the normal Italian word for photographer, while fottere is the normal word for to fuck. Pedro’s photography is primarily pornographic.

Magliani jumps around in this book, in regards to his career, his book writing (he frequently describes what and why he wrote and his issues with publishers, Dutch and Italian, which in itself makes fascinating reading) and location, as we jump between Liguria and the Netherlands, though with by far the greatest part of this book,as the title tells us, being set in and around Zeewijk.

In Zeewijk he has a long-standing friend, Piet Van Bert. Piet is one of those salt-of-the-earth characters, a good man but very much his own man, who accompanies Magliani around the area and explains it to him. He also acts as Magliani’s interpreter as he is the only one, it seems, who can understand Magliani’s Dutch. Piet had studied architecture but is now unemployed and spends his time as a flâneur, making him an excellent companion for Magliani.

We learn a lot about the history of Zeewijk, how and why it was formed, and, of course, this is all connected with the nature of Dutch geography – canals, sand dunes and the sea . Indeed he compares the shape of landscape to both Liguria and Southern Norway. Piet Van Bert’s theory: no single part of a dune keeps its shape as is for long, but it still retains a primal essence. “For long” is meant not in archaeological terms, but in purely human ones. A season, a cycle of seasons. This changing nature is transferred to the town itself, where buildings do not seem to last very long and are frequently torn down and/or moved. Inevitably, he compares this to the situation in Liguria.

I have mentioned that Piet was a flâneur and, of course, so is Magliani (and the others who write this type of book.) However he does not use the French term, but a Ligurian dialect term, scutizusu. A scutizusu is the necessary destiny that precedes the writer: a collector of oddities and a compiler, even in their youth, of imaginary lands, images, and stories. An explorer of private terrains, the scutizusu is the boy who asks his father who that land belongs to, how much money their family has, how many olive trees they grow, where the borders of the valley lie.

One of the things the pair do is hang out at the local shopping mall, people-watching: I’d stay there for hours and study the flow, the behaviours of the various fauna: the elderly who loved to shop for groceries early in the morning, the students on a break in their school day, the late-afternoon crowd, and the steady streams of bachelors just before closing, clad in their orange coveralls and rubber boots. Of course, as a normal healthy heterosexual male, he spots her. He will look out for her again but does not find her.

A Dutch publisher asked him to write a book about the Netherlands and he chooses, as his subject, the twin styles of Zeewijk’s interiors and Liguria’s vegetable gardens, not an obvious choice but one that turns out fascinating to us. (A possible title is—was—Etchings and Land Registries). He admits to having always been a snoop. He hates passing by people’s windows and not looking in so now he does. He develops this further by writing notes and holding them up to the windows, hoping for a similar response from the occupants. We get an interesting view of the people of Zeewijk with this approach. At the same time (though much less) we get an interesting view on life in Liguria.

Of course we learn about other aspects of Zeewijk culture. You only go out at night to walk your dog so Magliani going out walking at night without a dog is considered odd. Excuse me, sir, your dog? I am my dog, I respond. Then there is Luilak, an April Fools type tradition of egging people’s windows.

As he and Piet are natural flâneurs/scutizusus, we learn a lot more about Zeewijk, its geography, its architecture, its people, its culture, its life, most of which is fascinating. The fact that he has stayed there shows that he is attracted to it, even the fog. Fog. The great grey of the North stays even at night. How much I miss this when I’m two months into a trip to Liguria!

Magliani, like Kinsky, Sebald and Arlt, is a natural story-teller, by which I mean he can see stories everywhere in the world around him, whether it it is looking through people’s windows, hanging out at the shopping mall, traipsing round the vegetable gardens of Liguria, struggling with writing his books and getting them published or simply spending time with Piet. Like the works of Sebald, Kinsky and Arlt, this book is joy to read.

Publishing history

First published 2014 by Amos
First English translation in 2021 by Bordighera Press
Translated by Zachary Scalzo