Limbo, by Melania G. Mazzucco, translated by Virginia Jewiss, Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Limbo is a marvelous book: tough, rich, complicated and surprising. For a North American reader, it offers an unusually frank and unromantic view of life in contemporary Italy, as well as a very different perspective of the ongoing military engagement in Afghanistan. Well, several very different perspectives.
Mazzucco is a writer of depth and breadth, an artist of muscle and nerve — a sort of Italian Rachel Kushner (and if that doesn’t mean anything to you, run out and get anything you can find by Rachel Kushner). She sets up a simple enough story. Sergeant Manuela Paris, wounded by an IED, is home on leave. She is hailed as a hero, but that means little to her. She is broken in body, on crutches and in pain, struggling to recover enough — and soon enough — to go back to her unit and the troops she leads, which is the only place she really feels like herself. PTSD is taking its toll; she has to be drugged to sleep, she can’t tolerate crowds, she jumps at every loud noise.
She is living with her dysfunctional family — sleeping in her niece’s bed, suffering her mother’s nagging, her grandmother’s religious disapproval, her vulnerable sister’s inappropriate behaviour. It’s crowded. In search of peace and quiet, she spends hours on the balcony, smoking, a habit she picked up after her injury. She stands in the dark, trying not to remember, idly observing the silhouette of the guest in the hotel room opposite.
Like Leonardo da Vinci, who created the Mona Lisa by applying many ultra-thin coats of paint to gradually build the famously enigmatic and dreamy image, Mazzucco writes her story in layers, slowly building the portrait of a life with subtlety and skill. The story is still being revealed right up to the very end, but she is so masterful that the reader never loses patience, never feels Mazzucco is holding out, never loses the thread. That is, never loses any of the threads – for, the reader realizes, this story is not so simple after all.
As a soldier, Manuela constantly strives to find a balance between the mission her country requires her to serve and her commitment to peace, between her always already stigmatized femaleness and her identity as a military professional. As a woman she sees herself in the silent Afghani mother who brings her baby to the Italian camp for medical treatment, realizing belatedly that this drawn, worn, wrinkled person is probably the same age as she is. As a child of poverty, she knows that the future dreams of generations of her family ride on her success, and her disability threatens them all. And as she unexpectedly falls in love with the mysterious stranger from the hotel, all of her identities are suddenly beside the point, even as love reveals her to herself.
Limbo is a powerfully complex exploration of the ramifications of war, of the ways warped family dynamics shape people, of love. These universal themes are set in the distinct and vivid settings of a dust-blown, destroyed Afghanistan and a small-town Italy riven by economic collapse, racism and criminal violence. Amid this bleakness Mazzucco makes us see the strength and brilliance of one woman’s sense of self. Like the Mona Lisa, Limbo seems to glow from within.
Elise Moser’s YA novel, Lily and Taylor, was named to the ALA’s list of Best Books for Young Adults in 2014. She is the editor of Salut King Kong: New English Writing from Quebec.
– photo: Ricymar Photography, Flickr Creative Commons