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The City and the Writer: In Turin with Angie Cruz

By Nathalie Handal

 

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.

—Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

 

Can you describe the mood of Turin as you feel/see it?

Torino wears an elegant three-piece suit of the most beautiful fabric but it’s frayed at the cuffs, missing some buttons. It hasn’t bathed in days, nails and beard unkempt, comfortable in its funk. The face solemn and nostalgic for a time when the economy boomed, an air of superiority at everything that is not made in Italy, but eyes look outside, to the bigger cities that are more posh or glossed, sucking its teeth at the historic cafés and pizzerias now owned by immigrants. A stubborn city, so proud. But the heart, the heart believes in culture (the Euro kind) as if it is the air it needs to breathe. Torino complains about everything, expressing dissatisfaction. The mood is melancholic and mysterious, every piazza full of subtext.

 

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

I woke up to a woman screaming. The scream came from behind the closed shutters across from where I was staying in the heart of Porta Palazzo, a neighborhood I favor because of its large immigrant community. It was August so the city was asleep. Shutters flapped opened, two or three heads and bodies jammed through the narrow windows. In all the chaos there was a bizarre stillness in the crowd forming on the street. It was over one hundred degrees. A wail, shouting, the sounds of object throwing, the banging of pots. Then a black woman staggered out of the building. She waved her arms, jumping so high her heels tapped the back of her thighs. “Auito. Auito,” she shouted. She was screaming for help. But the men just watched her and did nothing. Some even laughed. She kept jumping and yelling, desperate. It was heartbreaking to witness. To think of all the ways a woman’s cry is not heard. Then the police came and I could finally breathe. I was relieved to see that two of the cops were women. More cop cars closed off the street. One ambulance. The men dressed in kaftans and dashikis looked on, seemingly unfazed by the police. Finally, a gurney with a man on it exited the building, bloody gauze wrapped around his hand or whatever was left of his arm.  Later I was told it had been chopped off by a machete.

 

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

Some call Turin the “magic city” because it’s linked to esoteric legends. It’s geographically situated at a point where black and white magic meet. Under Piazza Castello there are labyrinth-like tunnels and caves with high concentrations of “good” energy, and if you stand at a certain point in the open spaces of Palazzo Reale, you will be able to channel that positive energy too.

 

What writer(s) from here should we read?

Cesare Pavese, Primo Levi, and Italo Calvino all have strong relationships with Turin. When I walk Via Po and see the small tables outside the cafés, I always think of Calvino meeting his mentor Pavese, who would read Calvino’s pages. Calvino was devastated by Pavese’s loss, his dear friend, his devoted reader. Utterly shocked that Pavese took his life. In one of his letters, Calvino writes, “Pavese carried this suicide around with him ever since he had been a child, with his loneliness, his crises of despair, his dissatisfaction with living, all disguised by that mask of bashfulness and resentment that he wore. But I thought he was, despite all this, very hard and unbreakable, entrenched; the kind of person you bore in mind every time you were tempted to despair yourself, to encourage yourself: ‘But Pavese’s holding firm.’ Instead he didn’t make it.”

 

Is there a place here you return to often?

Why is my first thought food? It feels too easy because it’s Italy, but I will say Torre Cremeria Bar. They serve the best granita Siciliana. It’s the first thing I do when I arrive and then I go on the regular. The lines on hot summer days get long and to get a table among the smokers outside is also a long wait. But not even in Sicily did I have better granita. Even my Catanese friends admit it is some of the best granita. On weekends there is the Balon (one of the largest open-air markets in Europe) where all kinds of merchants and antique dealers sell their wares. It’s one of the best ways to be lazy on a Sunday, walking through the endless streets and studying the myriad of objects on the tables.

 

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

Caffè Elena is an obvious place to go. Lots of writers worked there. But if you want to go a less traveled path, why not visit Hotel Roma, where Pavese took his life? Many years ago during the Turin International Book Fair, a good friend, also a writer, wanted to visit Hotel Roma. She loves Pavese’s work and just wanted to feel the place he went to in his last days. When we asked to visit the room at the hotel, the man at reception couldn’t understand why we would even want to. He said Pavese’s death is not something they discuss. Besides, someone was staying in the room. But we persisted and he took us up to look at the room’s door. In exchange, my friend gifted him a Virgen de Guadalupe card. Even now, every time I think of that day, the journey to Hotel Roma, I think of all the people I love who struggle to stay alive. I leave you with Pavese’s last words, written on August 26,1950: “The more the pain grows clear and definite, the more the instinct for life asserts itself and the thought of suicide recedes. It seemed easy when I thought of it. Weak women have done it. It needs humility, not pride. I am sickened by all this. No words. Action. I shall write no more.” It’s devastating.

 

Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

Aside from the magical underground city fueled with ancient good and evil powers, a “hidden city” to tourists is the ever-growing city inhabited by immigrants, many from Asia, Africa, and Latin America. I think the neighborhood of Porta Palazzo is a city within the city where many shops have signs in Arabic or Chinese. Its energy reminds me a lot of the Washington Heights I write about in my novels, where different languages are spoken and food from all different parts of the world is sold. Porta Palazzo is where the big food market is set up and dismantled every day, where I’ve been warned by the xenophobic to be vigilant for pickpockets. But another hidden city is the unspoken story of the city, one an outsider can only know if they get to know Italians who’ve lived it. It’s one of economic crisis where young people will choose to get their teeth extracted at a public dentist because they can’t afford preventive or proper care at a private dentist. It’s a city where middle-aged folks are only able to get to the end of the month because they are being subsidized by their elderly parent’s pension. Where many work and don’t know when they will get paid for their labor.

 

Where does passion live here?

Because Turin is discreet and reserved, and the Torinese are said to be cortese and false-faced, passion wears a veil, I think. I found it, though, in community. In the sharing of food. In WhatsApp group banter. In the love of quality and style. In futbol. In the art of complaining—lots of passion there!

 

What is the title of one of your works about Turin and what inspired it exactly?

I’m working on a metafictional novel called Il Palazzo, inspired by my conversations with working-class Italians who have been unemployed and are resistant to how the city is changing because of the influx of immigrants. The protagonist, Stefano, is an unreliable narrator who only becomes more unreliable when we realize that a writer—an American who has moved to Turin through marriage—is actually the one relating his story. Suffering from both cultural alienation and writer’s block, she becomes obsessed with Stefano’s plight when they meet by chance one day. As he tells her his story, she records it, searching for this strange man’s truth, which may also parallel Italy’s. The book tackles translation and mistranslation.

 

Inspired by Levi, “Outside Turin does an outside exist?”

But isn’t Turin the center of the world? Did you not know all roads lead to Turin? A friend once told me this when I first visited fifteen years ago and I quickly figured out why. Many conversations end up making Turin the point of departure or orientation. It’s where chocolate as we know it was invented, it’s a hub of contemporary art, it’s the city of Fiat and Juventus. I wonder what can live outside such a vortex? Maybe the “outside” is nostalgia. Some are paralyzed by it.

 

 

Angie Cruz is the author of two novels, Soledad (2001) and Let It Rain Coffee (2005). She is the editor of Aster(ix), a literary/arts journal, and her work has appeared in Gulf Coast, Kweli, the New York TimesCallaloo, and the Virginia Quarterly ReviewShe teaches in the MFA program at the University of Pittsburgh and splits her time between New York, Pittsburgh, and Italy. Christina Gracia praises Cruz’s latest novel Dominicana (Flatiron Books, Fall 2019) as “An essential read for our times.” 


Published Sep 9, 2019   Copyright 2019 Nathalie Handal

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