Art Will Be Saved

Meeting Philip Ó Ceallaigh

And, like holding the boy’s hand, explaining words gave him a place in the world. He delivered simple blocks of meaning and watched the boy play with them, turning them around as he would solid objects, examining them for use.

Philip Ó Ceallaigh, The Pleasant Light of Day

I re-publish a conversation I had with Philip Ó Ceallaigh back in Bucharest in December 2017 as the Italian translation of his second collection of short stories, The Pleasant Light of Day (Penguin, 2009), is being launched by Racconti Edizioni. Actually, the young Rome-based publisher successfully kicked off its publishing activity with Ó Ceallaigh’s previous collection of short stories, Notes from a Turkish Whorehouse, (Penguin, 2006). In Bucharest we met at Senecanticafe, one of the many co-working spaces then springing up in town.  Native of County Waterford, Ireland, Philip has lived in a number of countries and experienced very different kinds of jobs before stopping in Bucharest to become a full-time writer. Welcome back to Italy, Philip.

How much of the guy living at the tenth floor of a Bucharest suburban block is still You today? Is there anything belonging to that period that you happen to miss now?

Now I live on the eighth floor, similar block, another part of town. (floor may have changed, e.d.) So I don’t need to be nostalgic.

Which were your reading back then? How crucial was and is poetry for you?

Then I was reading the writers who became important to me when I was first developing a style, seeing how experience could be rendered – Hemingway, Miller, Bukowski, Celine, Hamsun, Carver. I wrote poetry for a while and was very interested in how language could be heightened and focused, but when I took the lessons and brought them to prose, I saw no reason to go back to poetry.

Your choice to deal with words,  searching ways to empower them, reaching back to their roots, while living at the tenth floor of a Bucharest block suggests the attitude of an ascetic monk. How much of this impression holds true?

Many fun-loving degenerates have lived on the tenth floor.

You have lived in Ireland, Spain, Russia, the United States, Kosovo and Georgia, then picked up Romania as your place for focusing on writing. Does Romania prove a convenient place for that kind of exercise?

I do think most of our existences consist of noise and agitation. With a little sense and detachment we tend to say less. Bucharest then is a nice big manifestation of the human condition – it’s particularly noisy and senseless, an accumulation of badly fitting parts, failed intentions, everybody rushing around with their desires and ambitions, colliding with each other, getting frustrated and angry and disspirited. I never planned to settle in Bucharest permanently, and I never planned to write about Bucharest. I have nothing to say about Romania in my fiction; it is not my chosen subject. But I do set my stories in a real physical space. I mean, as I write, as I imagine action, I generally see it taking place in streets I know, in apartments where I see the layout of the rooms. In this sense I’m very located in Bucharest. Notice I say Bucharest, not Romania. But it’s very much my Bucharest, the proccupations and sensibility are mine, I’m projecting my own sense of what life is on those specific pictures of life which I draw using the material I have before me.

Your cynicism reconnects to ancient roots: it literally explains your vagabond lifestyle. The effect on your readers is powerful, they trust your words and empathise with your quest. Any role a writer can play in our society today? Do you feel lonely or belonging to a community? Which?

I was very moved by Kerouac when I was still a teenager, and later I began to read about that community of writers that later became known as the Beat Generation, and I liked to imagine how it was with Ginsberg and Kerouac and Burroughs and others all in one room in New York, all young and curious and enthusiastic about their work and the idea of writing. How they were friends and helped each other and got drunk together. I like the idea of that kind of society between artists. But I’ve never felt that kind of thing in my own life. Never sought it, perhaps because I’ve never felt its attainability. I have a few friends who are writers, but we’re spread thin across the globe. I have two friends in Bucharest who are writers. One is well known, the other is not and has never shown anybody what he writes. I have very little sense of my role as a writer. What attention other people will pay to what I write or what sense they make of it seems accidental to me, outside my control. I just make the stuff.

The view from the tenth floor also triggers considerations on the power of money or, alternatively, on the effects of its lack. In fact, how much can we actually afford not to care about money?

Money is like sex. When you don’t have any, or are excluded from getting any, it is a dominating anxiety. Money has its own eros. More so in society like Romania, where there is a desperate insecurity about social standing that has everyone trying to stomp on everyone else. It infects me more the longer I stay here. I’d like to say it affects me, but it’s uglier than that. It infects me. Because if your common, public space never provides you with enjoyment and security you feel compelled to secure these things privately, so you can have control over your life.

Your stories generally feature solitary men with women playing marginal or sometimes literally instrumental roles. Are you also interested in writing about female characters or you consider them like novels, i.e. not your bread?

It’s not male or female characters that interest me in their maleness or femaleness. It’s the interaction between them. And that interests me very much.

Sex is a recurring element in your stories and often described as a tricky language: temporarily healing but complicating things in the long run. Many of your characters – who are mostly male – seem to experience that dissatisfaction. Is that all or would you add something on the subject?

We are combined of the animal and the rational, as that Greek guy pointed out a long time ago. So life will continue to be tricky. Woof-woof. Or as the dogs say in Romanian, ham-ham.

You are a keen observer of Western societies, especially so in The Pleasant Light of Day. You observe issues and hypocrisies and don’t fail to describe how creepy Western imported models have provoked extra damages to social peace and stability here in Romania. How much longer do you think it will take for the Romanian society to get rid of corruption ?

I can’t tell. I couldn’t have predicted the things that happened in 2016. We were all very optimistic at the end of the 20th century. I don’t know that things are falling apart, but they seem to be fraying at the edges. We can’t take anything for granted, least of all the idea that Romania will become a less corrupt country. Romania was corrupt even before the communist period. But younger Romanians are certainly less scared, less passive, less sneaky than the generation that came before. The people born in 1990 are very different to those born in 1960. They’ve seen another world.

Accelerating new technologies, social networking, globalised consumer models, all seem to produce growing unhappiness and frustration. We grow more and more passive users, to the point that our mindsets follow standard patterns instead of actively searching our own ways. Are we still in time to steer clear of all this and free ourselves from those invisible chains?

I do what I can do. I see most of the people on the metro are playing electronic games on their phones. There are a few people reading books. What we need is everybody with a smartphone and everybody on medication for depression, anxiety, general sadness and apathy. Then we won’t need stories or novels. Just better designed computer simulated realities. And then the barbarians will come over the border – people with real lives and appetites, who make babies by accident due to real fornication – and we’ll start anew. They’ll sing songs as they roast pigs – or us – over their fires. Somebody later will come along and make lyric poetry from these lusty songs. And so it goes, art will be saved.

Both Notes from a Turkish Whorehouse (2006) and The Pleasant Light of Day(2009) were contemporarily available in their Romanian translation, whereas on last October Racconti Edizioni translated into Italian Appunti da un bordello turco (2016). Reception of your books has proved enthusiastic, you also won prestigious prizes. What kind of feedback do you receive from common readers? Can you detect any major difference in the reception of your work among English, Romanian or Italian readers or, on the contrary, any recurring pattern?

Romanians tended to see my work as descriptive of a social reality, journalistic. English speakers as imaginative, exaggerated, fantastic. I’m talking mostly now about the first book, Notes from a Turkish Whorehouse. Irish reviewers tended to be troubled by the immorality, misogyny of some of the characters, and by extension the cynicism of the author. Ireland is the only place where I’ve had really bad reviews. As someone who doesn’t have a clear idea of who my reader is, I’ve been pleased by the reception of the book in Italy. Firstly I’ve had a lot of luck in that the publisher is a publisher only of short stories, so the work is targeted at those who appreciate the form. Not having an idea who I’m writing for, I just imagine I’m writing for human beings, and that the stories work as stories no matter where you are from, and that they’ll still be stories years from now.

Your attraction for the past leads to a kind of continuum between your fiction and non-fiction work. You wrote long compelling essays on whole disappeared Bucharest quarters, particularly about the Jewish area in Unirii. Which are your current fields of study, amid fiction, non-fiction and narrative journalism, where do you feel more drawn at the moment?

I’m interested in history, or rather how the past is erased and replaced with fictional versions of the past. You would think a reckoning of the past is what is most needed in a society that has experienced genocide and totalitarianism and destructive nationalism – but these traumas make the reckoning even. Each generation moves forward in a fog of forgetfulness and denial. I’ve just finished writing a book in which I use the lives and the writings of a number of authors of fiction in eastern Europe to try to evoke this lost, buried past. In the case of Romania, I focus on Mihail Sebastian, who I’ve also translated into English –  For Two Thousand Years was published in English in 2016. I don’t know when my own book will be published. It might not be.



By Tom Porta

And I asked myself about the present: how wide it was, how deep it was, how much was mine to keep.

Kurt Vonnegut


All’ampia virata verso terra ne segue un’altra che lo riallinea alla costa. L’altimetro segna cinquecento piedi, gli occhi da vecchia aquila benedicono il cielo, la terra, il mare. Il tempo. Quanti, in cinquant’anni, i passaggi su quella distesa liquida, su quella lingua di sabbia che connette alla città degli uomini e di nuovo su quell’altro mare di colline? Un tempo al comando di un jet supersonico con sedile eiettabile, equipaggiato con casco e tuta anti-G, ora in sella a un ultraleggero che consuma come un’automobile e prevede soltanto di allacciare la cintura, al paracadute mancherebbe lo spazio tempo per aprirsi. 

Pomeriggio di aprile, il sole è sul punto di scollinare, lui prende nota di tutto: segreti e limiti della nuova macchina. Laggiù, sempre più spesso, tutto è noia. Non domani che festeggeranno tutti assieme, lui, lei, i figli e i tanti nipoti (quanti ora?). A modo suo anche lui ha contribuito: ha ordinato ravioli in abbondanza e domani, dopo il pranzo rituale, porterà in volo il nipote più grande. 

Un colpo metallico interrompe la progressione di ogni pensiero: il montante di un’ala si è spezzato, l’aereo è in stallo. Lucido deve ricalcolare tutto e contemplare le circostanze oggettive in cui sta uscendo di scena: in una vigilia di Pasqua, prima di una festa grande. Inutili gli affanni, le bugie, le migliaia di chilometri percorsi per sentirsi sempre nel flusso della vita. Sente di dover chiedere perdono e sa che non sono suoi quegli occhi sbarrati, quella gola riarsa, quel filo di sudore che improvviso scende lungo la schiena. Lui è altrove. Laggiù: dove il molo finisce e il mare ha inizio. Eccoli, suo fratello e lui,  ragazzi tuffarsi in sella alle biciclette, Kira scodinzolante dietro e attorno risate, grida, spensieratezza. Futuro soprattutto. Si è fatto buio, il ritorno a casa la sera con biciclette sempre più arruginite e lei che non fa domande. Sorride. 

La stufa a carbone dell’ufficio tiene il freddo fuori dalla stanza. “Mentre godevamo una bella veduta sull’Oceano Atlantico, faticavamo a renderci conto che nelle successive 48 ore avremmo dovuto passare attraverso una delle peggiori tempeste nella storia di tutti gli osservatori”. 

Sulla spiaggia deserta il bagnino Paolo smette di rastrellare la sabbia finissima per capire cos’è stato quel secco boato sul mare: qualcosa è successo oltre gli scogli. Rapido digita il numero di emergenza con un senso di presagio che non vuole mollarlo come il cane col suo osso. Nella quiete del tramonto volteggiano e stridono i gabbiani, attratti da quell’uccello metallico passato al mondo dei pesci. Cantano la vita e la morte, fino a quando a disperderli non sopraggiunge il martellante ronzìo di due elicotteri. 

Il cielo quasi sereno lascia presto il posto alle nubi. Verso sera la nebbia oscura la sommità e congela, fino a formare uno strato di ghiaccio. I gatti dell’osservatorio si accucciano tutti intorno alla stufa, il posto più caldo.

È la retina bianca che gli fascia la mano sinistra a intenerirmi. Placebo per un dolore che altrimenti dilagherebbe. Tiene assieme parti, argina ogni minaccia di caos e ripristina l’ordine. Le belle mani di mio padre, non mi sono mai stancata di ammirarle sin da bambina. Mani abituate a indossare guanti, in alta uniforme, in tenuta da volo, in tuta da sci, in versione giardiniere od operaio, intente a potare o a raschiare antivegetativa blu dalla chiglia di uno scafo, mani sempre in movimento, affusolate e sicure, profumate ed eleganti, mani impreziosite, d’estate, da una fuga di peluria bionda che al sole brilla e profuma di salsedine, mani lavate con la meticolosità di un allegro chirurgo che si appresta alle manovre della sala operatoria: schiuma su su fino ai polsi e infine un’asciugatura sommaria sul primo pezzo di tela disponibile, mani amiche, che non hanno mai dovuto sfiorarci, perché a punirci è sempre bastata l’angolazione drammatica del sopracciglio, compreso quel lunghissimo pelo ribelle che tante donne invano hanno  cercato di estirpare. 

Generale pilota perde la vita precipitando in mare con un ultraleggero. Per un paio di giorni la notizia circola su scala nazionale,  quindi decanta in tragedia che colpisce una comunità, infine in disgrazia che si abbatte su una famiglia. La valanga di messaggi di condoglianze che ci investe – telegrammi, biglietti, vere e proprie lettere – proviene da un’umanità assortita. Sono pesci grandi, medi, piccoli: la marea umana da lui incontrata nel flusso dei giorni senza esserne mai stato travolto, più volte avendone risalito con aerodinamico sorriso le più calde correnti. Ora ciascuno ce lo restituisce a suo modo: ne emerge una figura futurista che fa vibrare l’assenza di colori e di suoni.   

“Tu sarai sempre la mia preferita!”, è la dichiarazione che solenne ci serve in tavola alla fine di un pranzo domenicale ben riuscito. “Stai scherzando, vero?”, si limita a protestare l’altra più solare e sfaccendata delle figlie. Gli occhi verdi da gatto di nostro padre scintillano, la festa prosegue. Ora quel viso è per noi irraggiungibile, fasciato in un tulle bianco che suggerisce frivolezza e levità di pas de deux. La scatola cranica ha subito un trauma tanto forte che il caos ha finito per prevalere, né l’estetista dei morti, né il pietoso fratello chirurgo – dove conduce l’abisso dell’amore fraterno? – hanno potuto porvi rimedio, “ho cercato”, ci ha detto lo zio senza riuscire ad aggiungere altro, perché quel sabato il mare ce l’ha restituito alla sua maniera. 

Alcuni scienziati rimangono svegli quella notte a controllare quel che sta accadendo. Il vento si fa più violento e alle 13 e 21, lassù su quell’osservatorio in alta quota, si registra il valore record: vento da sudest a 231 miglia orarie, 372 km/ h. Il più alto mai registrato sulla superficie terrestre. “Non c’è alcun dubbio che un super-uragano sia in pieno sviluppo”, scrive Pagliuca la mattina di giovedì 12 aprile 1934. Dura solo un giorno. Cade un po’ di neve e segue una tremenda gelata. Poi tutto finisce. 

Lo stesso giorno in cui mio padre viene alla luce in una stanza sul porto di Ancona, oltreoceano, nel New Hampshire, il diario dell’Osservatorio di Mount Washington registra lo sviluppo di un super-uragano. “Un altro maschio, Elvira, e quanto strilla!” Prima ancora di tagliare il cordone l’ostetrica lo adagia sul petto della madre. Spossata, lei accoglie su di sè quel fagotto ancora umido: a un soffio dal suo, sente quel piccolo cuore battere all’impazzata. No, non è stato cercato questo secondo figlio, ci ha pensato il caso. Avrà bisogno di tempo per abituarsi di nuovo a tutto. Due maschi. Giocheranno a calcio, andranno in bicicletta. La faranno impazzire. Sorride.