After Alienation

Tonino Guerra, trans. Eric Mosbacher, Equilibrium

Moist Books, 152pp, £10.00, ISBN 978-1913430016

reviewed by Jessica Sequeira

For years I had an Il deserto rosso poster on my wall, and for years I wanted to be Monica Vitti, with her piercing look and black sweater and air of mystery (and in this film, the technicolor-tinted russet hair I coveted). I loved the way the actors and images subtly captured the melancholy of inner worlds, as well as those moments of solitude and awareness beyond words. People merely sitting on a bench, or looking at one another, conveyed infinities. This delicate form of alienation, this dance between two beings who are comfortable with not quite understanding each other, is no longer so attractive to me, partly because it’s so difficult to square with the humour and open communication vital to sustaining lasting relationships. But the attraction of this angst, and the beauty of it, remain clear in my mind. Especially the images.

Despite lingering memories of war, and abundant domestic misery — or perhaps because of them — alienation came to seem almost glamorous in the middle of the last century. Nothing made sense; absurdity reigned. Existentialists like Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, along with observers of the bourgeois such as Alberto Moravia, were only too happy to lend their pens to an analysis of postwar decadence.

The movies made alienation glamorous, too. Plots featured friends seeking a lost companion on an Italian island, with the object of their search growing less and less important; an industrialist family that went to parties and acted in complicity with the Nazis; a woman who discovered her lovers in the company of a prostitute; wealthy and jaded socialites dancing in a fountain; a disillusioned director who attempted to escape a locked car in a tunnel; bicycles that were stolen and desperately tracked down; Monica Vitti on her knees in a black wig, sliding a compact across a checkerboard floor. . .
Equilibrium, Italian writer Tonino Guerra’s first novel, was published in 1967 by a Milan publishing house, and came out in UK translation two years later. Now it’s being reissued and marketed as the first in new publisher Moist Books’ ‘Trilogy of Alienation’, featuring three (by the looks of it, unrelated) authors. Here there’s a possible mirror with Antonioni’s ‘trilogia dell’incomunicabilità’, composed of L’avventura, La notte and L’eclisse. Alienation may not be what the majority of the world is yearning for right now, but a friction between past and present can be productive. In its exploration of the broken connection between outer signs and inner worlds, Equilibrium offers a language for thinking about some of the challenges of our time.

Guerra is known for his close collaboration with Michelangelo Antonioni, as well as for the scripts he wrote for renowned directors Federico Fellini, Luchino Visconti, Andrei Tarkovski and Vittorio De Sica. When he began to write, alienation was in the air, and he helped to further consolidate it in the film industry.

And so the fact that reading Equilibrium is an experience like watching 1960s art cinema doesn’t come as a surprise. Not only did Guerra work on many now-classic movies, he also thought visually in his written work, from his poems to his scripts to this novel. A lyrical image is developed before an abrupt jump cut to the next. Atmosphere, more than plot, is the point; Equilibrium is of a kind with French nouveaux romans, rather than novels that build to a logical climax and resolution. Objects—cabbages, watches, matchboxes, stones — get their moment in the zoom lens, assuming a significance that grows disproportionate, and perhaps threatening, but never too much so. The pacing is simultaneously languorous and restless, like a galloping dream.

This isn’t to say anything goes. There’s a clear, almost schematic structure to the work. Chapters alternate between contemporary Milan — where the narrator works as a graphic designer, fights with his wife, makes love to a woman on a revolving chair, and wanders the city talking to strangers—and wartime Italy, where he’s a prisoner in a German concentration camp, subjected to humiliation and interrogation. There he takes part in random sexual episodes in a farmhouse, tries to cross a river, wakes up stripped of clothes, witnesses several brutal deaths, and lives in fear of a camp commandant who rips apart cabbages with a hook.

Poetic verses divide sections and give atmosphere. Gradually the two realities merge into one, with the narrator locating doubles everywhere — in his wife and mistress, in the place he lives, and so on. As the reader quickly understands, the equilibrium suggested by the title is either false or wishful thinking. In the introduction, Michael Bracewell writes that Equilibrium is ‘an account of a mind unravelling in its attempt to understand itself.’ His expectations and memories play tricks, in an intimation of paranoia and madness.

Meanwhile the narrator continues to recount events in a neutral voice, more report than confession, in what comes to seem a parody of composure. Mosbacher’s precise, fluid yet anti-sentimental translation captures the author’s distant tone, with its preference for stiff separation ('did not') over contractions, formal words like 'perhaps' over 'maybe', passive tenses over active ones, and short jabbing sentences without commas or semicolons to buttress continuity.

The word ‘equilibrium’ itself appears just once in the book, in the following paragraph:

Every so often I raised my eyes and looked at people. A multitude of faces displaying a paltry equilibrium in the light of the UPIM shop windows, a cascade of light that settled even on their ears. A multitude of mouths well able to say the words soap, toothpaste, even bath-salts. People with x-ray plates of their chest and pelvis in their pockets, complicated bone structures entirely devoid of adventure. Only the advertisements shrieked PERBORATO, TRISMACCHIA, WASHES WHITER, SUPER, OMO, OLA, KNORR. I wondered whether the whole of man, the whole of man... Other thoughts came... his shouting at the lions, his love of the clouds. . . But instead the body is thrown away like cigarette stubs, or arms when windows are broken.

The masses are interested in shopping and being like everyone else, the author suggests. Deliverance, for Guerra’s narrator, lies precisely in his lack of equilibrium; it’s what justifies his continued survival. Excess stability is complacency; the sharper attention of the mind fractured into alienation is a step to liberation.

Alienation, in this novel, is thus both a symptom — rejection of the postwar and capitalist realities of mass consumerism and dehumanizing conformity — and a source of potential, since it pushes the individual to become conscious of his condition, and his relationship with life-forms beyond himself (‘his shouting at the lions, his love of the clouds. . .’). Guerra employs fragmented and estranging images that make people start to appear like objects, like the things they buy. Yet his protagonist’s answer isn’t nostalgia, but a shift toward a different and more productive form of estrangement. Since we can’t go back with ease to any ideal and innocent formulations, we must learn to relate to the artificial and natural worlds surrounding us with new awareness.

The narrator’s job as a graphic designer is significant. This is the quintessential ‘contemporary’ job, the swilling of stuff to fashionable contemporary Milan — a city where Coca-Cola is drunk, cigarettes are smoked, and people jet away for the weekend on Alitalia. It is a quick-moving, trendy, fickle career, swift to judge even typefaces. Cairoli, Haas and Helvetica are dubbed either acceptable or ‘on the way out’. But it’s also a job that links the outer world of symbols with the subconscious.

Graphic designers are liable to see signs where there are none, the narrator remarks. In order to sell ‘sectional kitchens’, he comes up with the idea of fragmented letters of the alphabet which must be assembled in the observer’s mind, like the kitchens: ‘You grasp it a minute or so afterwards. But once you have grasped it, you remember it for the rest of your life.’ He tries to convince his boss: ‘The message will explode in their minds later, at home, or in the tram. It will be a kind of indirect publicity, as it were. We’ve had enough of clarity. Clarity in words and clarity in life. More than enough.’

‘Indirect publicity’, rather than clarity — the idea is fascinating. Professionally, as a designer, Guerra’s protagonist seeks to order the world, and looks for moments of ecstasy and grand narrative in the chaos of postwar Italy. The nirvana of the kitchenette! The goal is elusive, yet perhaps more accessible than any such illumination of his own story, the given materials of which he similarly seeks to order and reorder. There are silences in his tales, gaps, fabrications, impossibilities. In autobiography and in historical narrative, just as in consumerism, the moment of complete sense is infinitely deferred.

Guerra’s own personal history involves time at a Nazi concentration camp after he was arrested for partisan leaflets stuffed in his pockets. There he discovered the power of recounting anecdotes in his native dialect, to fellow Italian prisoners. In his art, he was never much drawn to speaking of himself in a chronological way, but his various poetic exercises with images and words — the same stories with transposed characters, backdrops, fashions, typefaces, accents — are a complex means of getting at the disorienting feel of lived experience.

Each scene is luminous and whole in itself, but how do they fit together? And how can we keep these images from slipping away? An investigation into how outer signs become meaning in our minds, and how inner signs affect comprehension of surroundings — this is fertile territory for literature, then and now. Beyond advertising, it might apply to buried memories, dream fragments, historical cuttings, frozen snapshots, trackings of döppelgangers, metaphors dredged from the fertile earth of subconscious, and much more. There can be horror in the objects we don’t understand, when the mind perceives them as senseless or menacing. Yet there can also be joy. ‘There was a month of good weather / and the monk kneeled down in the courtyard / waiting for the books to give some sign of life. / And finally one morning the pages started / to rustle slightly in the breeze. / It sounded like a swarm of bees had arrived on the roof / and he started to cry because the books were talking,’ Guerra as poet wrote elsewhere in his ‘Canto Nine’ (translated by Adria Bernardi).

Equilibrium, about malaise, sexuality without love, bewilderment, scorn, constantly thwarted relationships and a man trapped in his own head, speaks in a deep way to our ongoing search for intimacy, tenderness, communication, and different attachments to objects and nature. Even now, it’s a far more satisfying read than many rushed-to-publisher analyses of the current situation.

I wonder how we might draw on this graphic designer’s understanding of symbolic connections to investigate alienation through a richer understanding of its contradictions. Alienation can make us consider our relationship with the structures we take for granted, and see nature as something present, imposing, different from us, meriting recognition. As the narrator says:

Nature had changed completely, it had turned into what we ourselves manufactured: walls, posters, machinery and car interiors. That was the nature we lived in nowadays. It was a mistake to try and form a relationship with nature of the old type, made out of stones and rocks and the sky overhead. Perhaps it could be done, but one would have to start all over again from the beginning, learning, for instance, to sit on stones, stakes, and even on sharp points. But that would be a long story, taking us right back into prehistory.

We can’t return with ease to ‘nature of the old type’, it’s true. Yet the easy disposability of bodies and the bureaucracies forged to deal with them, during situations of war and threats to public health, encourage a new consideration of the relationship between our human selves and everything else present in this world.

Just a few years prior to Equilibrium and Il deserto rosso, Monica Vitti starred in L’avventura, the first in Antonioni’s trilogy. In one scene, we see her wake up, troubled by the uncanny sound of rushing wind. Leaving her bed, she goes to the window and pulls open the squeaky wood shutters. Sun over water, clouds in light-filled sky — a sublime that speaks to things beyond her. She can’t bear the sight, and turns from it back to the room, with a shudder. After alienation, what? Maybe a respect for the power and autonomy of majestic forms greater than ourselves (in nature, in biology, in aesthetics), an awe that sets human concerns in perspective and moves us to treasure the care of others, and the retrieval of such images, over devastation.
Jessica Sequeira is a writer and literary translator. Her books include A Luminous History of the Palm, A Furious Oyster and Other Paradises: Poetic Approaches to Thinking in a Technological Age.