by Allison Grimaldi-Donahue
Walaschek’s Dream by Giovanni Orelli, translated from the Italian by Jamie Richards, is an extended ekphrasis, a piece of writing based on an image. This may be a well traversed form for poetry but an ekphrastic novel, is a relatively new concept for me and something I find quite exciting. Orelli has given readers a renewed sense of meditation when looking to visual art for inspiration—through this meditation, he creates a dreamscape of some of the 20th centuries’ greatest minds. The story is based on Klee’s painting Alphabet I and moves from there to many diverse topics and tangents; but it is the O in the painting which is a central point and the site of recurring philosophical dialogue:
-So your O is everything and nothing?
Klee opened his arms. Clever and honest as he was, he said:
-Sometimes I envy Mondrian—the ascetic, the pure, the geometry of his straight lines. What does it mean? people say, bending over the placard while the sweat-soaked paterfamilias searches in the catalogue purchases at the entrance.
This book was a challenge in every sense. It is a rather plotless tale and wanders to and fro with little indication of the road being travelled. This second part, this wandering, is not something I am generally opposed to—I eagerly site Diane Williams as one of my favorite American authors writing today, and as a reader I like to find my own ways into a text. Giovanni Orelli’s book Walaschek’s Dream is a different kind of wandering, however. Where many authors are testing what can be done with less text, with scarcity, Orelli seeks to discover what density can offer: this is a “more is more” trip into modernism. First published in Italian in 1991, Orelli’s novel or dreamscape feels much earlier, as if it were written in the 1930s but with knowledge from the future.
I think it is difficult to situate a Swiss writer within his or her context. Does Orelli belong to his national literature or to his language tradition’s literature, Italian? This writing on a border or between two cultures is something Swiss writers have, perhaps, always had to grapple with, though I think an Italian Swiss writer may feel this more than others. Writing from the point of view of the minority language in the country, the Italian Swiss are neither here nor there and the space they occupy is often ignored within both Swiss and Italian contexts.
This question of Swiss identity is fascinating, within the content of the book, in Klee’s character and in terms of language. That Switzerland has four official languages: German, French, Italian and Romansh implies instability and pluralism.
Yes, Klee declared, I’ve been labeled a degenerate artist by the swastika squad. I am one of those, I believe, who are convinced that the language of the German people must now be rebuilt from the ground up, making a tabula rasa of what the Nazis have pumped full of their drug. Germany has to start from scratch, from the a priori of reason if reason is what led to the sea of swastikas you saw waving in the wind before an enrapt Cologne as they celebrated one of their rites; if reason is also what led to the perversion of the pure meaning of words like Blut, blood or Boden, soil. Words that in the eighteenth century were used to describe wines. We must start from zero.
Not only does this passage get to the heart of the novel, of the meaning or lack thereof to be uncovered in 20th century history, but it also returns to the O in Alphabet I.
This text feels like it belongs to a modernist period a hundred years past. As I read I couldn’t help but think of Italo Svevo’s famous novel The Confessions of Zeno. A friend of Joyce, Svevo used the passage of time and psychology to inform consciousness. Despite the general serious nature of the novel there are playful elements, images, jokes, the visual play in certain chapters. One of the most interesting and fun parts of the book come in the form of imaginary soccer teams, teams made up of artists, thinkers, as well as real soccer players. As a metaphor it works well and offers a unique way of thinking of the world and our communities and conflicts.
The translator Jamie Richard’s work on this text should be applauded: the text is full of complex language play and includes a fair number of foreign languages within it. I especially appreciated the choices made to allow in bits of Italian from the original text, allowing the reader to feel the rhythms of the people and place. (And I must add, after all this work, Dalkey Archive really should have included her name on the cover.)
I did have moments reading this book that brought me back to certain questions I never stop asking: how do publishers decide which books in translation to publish? how is a group, whether that be a language, nation, gender, orientation, etc., represented through the choices of publishers? is there a way to change this? Perhaps Orelli’s novel is a good indication of where Switzerland has come from but I am unsure if it is any sign of where the nation is going. As Europe changes and grows (as it must) the intellectual and creative hub that Switzerland was post-WWII fades further into the background and I am curious to know what energy and drive has remained in our current state. This deeply European dreamscape will have to take in more influences from all directions if it is to remain relevent; then again, it could be precisely what Klee’s O represents— an eternal openess.
Walaschek’s Dream does not give away answers: it basks in the mystery of history and of language. Orelli, like Klee, has created a work that cannot be defined or given a single meaning except, perhaps, that history is made up of facts and fictions, realities and dreams, and it is open to everyone to decide the difference, if there is one.
Allison Grimaldi-Donahue is a writer and translator originally from Connecticut. Her fiction, essays and translations have appeared in The American Reader, The New Inquiry,Omega Metatron, and tNYpress Eeel. She was awarded an NEA Translation grant to the Vermont Studio Center for her translation work on Davide Orecchio’s novel Città distrutte. Sei biografie infedeli. In summer 2015 she was a Katherine Bakeless Fellow at the Bread Loaf Translators’ Conference. Allison is contributing fiction editor at Queen Mob’s Teahouse, an online literary and arts journal. She earned her BA from St. Michael’s College, an MA from Middlebury College in Italian, and an MA from the University of Toronto in Comparative literature. Allison is also pursuing her MFA in fiction and translation in the low-residency program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She lives and works in Bologna, Italy.