Death and alienation hover like menacing theme music over the elliptical scenes that compose this disturbing 2001 novel by Italian author Jaeggy (Sweet Days of Discipline, 1993, etc.).
In a flat affectless narration that careens between numerous past and present scenes, as well as first- and third-person address, Jaeggy’s unnamed narrator focuses on a voyage from Vienna to the Greek Islands and back, undertaken with her widowed German father Johannes. During that voyage—on the Yugoslavian vessel Proleterka (meaning “The proletarian Lass”)—the narrator, who is 15 and has almost from birth been starved for human contact, becomes the willing sexual partner of any crewman who wants her (“By the time the voyage is over, she must know everything”). In skillfully juxtaposed memory scenes, Jaeggy fills in details of Johannes’s financial crises (after his twin brother’s terminal illness forces his formerly wealthy family to sell its textile factory), disastrous marriage, and ostracism from his young daughter by his late wife’s flinty Italian mother Orsola and her secret-riddled family. The narrator’s own feelings emerge from potent surreal memories (e.g., of her mother’s piano as an eerie threatening presence), brisk rejections of emotion and connection (“Parents are not necessary”), and wary characterizations of unknowable people glancingly encountered, on shipboard and in the “ruins” (implicitly compared to sites visited by the ship’s passengers) of her father’s half-buried, submissive life. The novel takes a surprising turn, long after Johannes’s death, when the now-middle-aged narrator is contacted by a moribund elderly man who claims he is her father, and offers her an alternative life (which ironically echoes the losses and sorrows that have made her the remote, stoical woman she is).
Though its suppression of emotion seems a bit studied, this is nonetheless an elegantly structured and stubbornly moving study of innocence destroyed and love denied. Very accomplished indeed.