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Viola Di Grado: Cuore cavo (Hollow Heart)

Books narrated by a dead person are not unknown. There are three on this site: María Luisa Bombal‘s La amortajada (The Shrouded Woman), José Luís Peixoto‘s Cemitério de Pianos (The Piano Cemetery) and Flann O’Brien‘s The Third Policeman and it is used in Orhan Pamuk‘s Benim Adım Kırmızı (My Name Is Red). There are other examples.

This one is slightly different in that our heroine, Dorotea Giglio, commits suicide and she also, as we shall see, has a close relationship with her own dead body and with a few living people.

Dorotea is the daughter of Greta. Dorotea was conceived after a party when the condom used by Greta’s pick-up had a hole in it. They saw each other a couple of times more but when he learned that she was pregnant, he disappeared though, allegedly, turned up to Dorotea’s third birthday. Dorotea knows nothing about, him not even his name, and has no recollection of meeting him at her third birthday party.

Greta is one of three sisters. Lidia had killed herself, Virgina Woolf style, sixteen years before Dorotea was born, by walking into the sea, her clothes weighed down by stones. Greta has depression and we (and Dorotea) see lots of evidence of this. Clara, the pretty one, is twice married and divorced during the course of the book and looks after Greta when she is not in good shape.

Greta is a photographer, specifically of children’s fashion. However, she photographs how she wants to photograph (gloomily) and not how clients want, so has little work. However, she does adapt and makes a meagre living.

Dorotea is also depressive, and on antidepressants at the time of her death. She is a solitary girl and does not seem to fit in. When Clara, who works at a text book publishing company, gives her a book of biology when still a child, she takes an interest in the subject and that is what she studies at university. She has a few casual affairs (including fumbling sex) till she meets Lorenzo. She is twenty, he is thirty. He is an entomologist and that seems to be his main if not sole interest. He tells her the story of ascomycete, a fungus whose spores land on an insect, grow inside it and, eventually, erupt, destroying the insect. This is the first but by no means the last of the often gruesome stories about death she tells us.

Lorenzo had a fanatical love of insects and, in general, anything that expressed no emotions. We see this latter on a few occasions. He dumps her by text, making sure to use no more than seven hundred characters as there would be a higher charges for more characters.

While this does not directly lead to her suicide, it clearly helps. We get a detailed description of her suicide (the book actually starts with her suicide though the details come a bit later) – lunch with girlfriends, just before – and how she carries it out. The actual description of what she calls my death – something akin to her spirit – as it soars over Catania (in Sicily, where she lives) and up to Mount Etna and beyond is magnificent and a wonderful opening for a book.

However, it is after her death that things become interesting. She come and checks on her body, lying bleeding in the bath several times but her mother does not discover it for a while. As others (quite a few of whom we will meet) she takes a while to adapt to death but soon has developed a post-mortem modus operandi. She even tries to contact people she knew who have died, though that does not seem to work out well.

Her status is ambiguous. Her former boss (she worked in a stationer’s) can clearly see her and he keeps her on at the shop. The customers cannot see her, so she has to work at the back. Others, on the whole cannot see her, with one exception, her replacement at the shop. She remains living at her mother’s house and while her mother and aunt (who spends a lot of time there) notice things she does (moves things around, even blows on her aunt’s hair) they do not suspect that it is her.

She does, as mentioned above, keep close tabs on her body, documenting every detail of the decomposition (her knowledge of biology and entomology is very useful here). We get the details throughout the book.

More particularly, she meets other dead people and befriends them, especially Anna and Euridice the Writer. Anna died of a heart attack and is religious. Despite this she will have a sex with a dead man, about which Dorotea gives us an amusing commentary, not least because there is nothing physical to happen. Indeed, the dead hang out together and try and help the newly deceased.

Though they are incorporeal as good ghosts should be – they can walk through people and building (Dorotea pokes around Lorenzo’s flat) and be walked through – they also seem to have the ability to move physical objects and, indeed, do so, perhaps too often,

They are also voyeurs, not least because they can observe without being seen. Dorotea will watch her mother having sex but all of them watch living people.

She makes several references to women who have had untimely deaths – Amy Winehouse (she even goes to London to see Winehouse giving a post-mortem concert), Whitney Houston and, perhaps surprisingly, Violet Trefusis. Trefusis knew Virginia Woolf and both Trefusis and Woolf had an affair with Vita Sackville-West, yet Woolf, whose death was similar to that of Lidia, is not mentioned. Di Grado also mentions Sinéad O’Connor who attempted suicide but survived.

What makes this book so interesting is the way Dorotea gradually adapts to being dead and has a life (Sic), still somewhat unable to fit in, with the occasional mild obsession, keeping very much in contact with her mother, unknown to her mother, and making friends. In short she lives (?) what might be described as a normal life for a dead person, under the terms defined by Di Grado for what a dead person is.

The book works extraordinarily well, from the magnificent opening to Dorotea’s not always happy childhood and young adulthood, to her life as a dead person, adapting to it, without over-exploiting it. They lose certain skills – they cannot read and memory fades though does not disappear. Certainly, we still remember the events of our past, but not the minor details

As for eternity, life is neither good nor bad, but without the prospect of death on the horizon it’s hard to muster much interest in keeping it going. Life goes on, as people say, and death too goes on and on and on.

Publishing history

First published 2013 by Edizioni e/o
First English translation by Europa in 2015
Translated by Anthony Shugaar