Beyond the raw emotion and deft psychology contained in these stories, each of Mozzi’s parables drifts into the tall grass of that other garden—the garden of creation, of story-telling, of finding the right word. —Tom Faure
This Is the Garden
Translated from the Italian by Elizabeth Harris
Open Letter Books
Paperback, 121 pages, $13.95
What is a garden? For Adam and Eve, it is the warm kingdom of innocence from which they have fallen. For Candide, it is the final plot he must dedicate his life to cultivating. For Giulio Mozzi, the garden resembles a Borgesian labyrinth—a mysterious, perplexing place in which people constantly write, read, and rewrite the ever-shifting planes of some elusive salvation. Mozzi’s garden is both the sandbox of the imagination and also an idyll his sad, thoughtful characters can never seem to achieve.
Mozzi’s This Is the Garden is easily the most rewarding book I’ve read this year. First published in 1993 (and winner of the Premio Mondello) and translated this year by Elizabeth Harris for Open Letter Books, these short stories each explore a combination of metaphors that plague and sanctify the human experience: the word, the letter, the sheltering garden, and the postlapsarian dream of succor.
The first piece in this brief, eight-story collection gives us a petty thief writing to his most recent victim. He is returning two letters he found in the purse he snatched. While detailing the thought process of a criminal observing potential victims, he digresses into disclosures such as that letter-writing seems more honest than the ephemeral, blunt honesty of direct conversation: “I don’t want you to get the wrong idea about me, and perhaps that’s making me too verbose; my apologies.” Such an existentially conscious and narcissistic character offers his victim enough gems about the letters that perhaps she’ll even forget her material suffering:
“Anyway, since your friend’s descriptions were completely unreal, I took to them at once. Children view reality this way, too, and I’m not sure if it’s instinct or habit that makes adults tell fairytales and stories to reinforce this idea of the world as somehow magical, or if adults are too lazy to explain the way things really work.”
A perfect opening to a story collection, “Cover Letter” tells us what to expect: very fine sentences, outcast characters, tacit ruminations on everything from first impressions to deontology and consequentialism, all held in check by a steady hand. Control is the order of the day and it is mesmerizing to see how much Mozzi packs into just under 120 pages.
His Kafkaesque characters—old, young, male, female, adroit, spacey—do not know what plagues them, necessarily. The second story, “The Apprentice,” tells of a young man who wishes to be more than just a delivery boy, but rather a true apprentice who might grow in time into “a man, a worker.” He experiences the joys and pitfalls of laboring for an uninterested boss who might hold, not only the keys, but the existential manual, to his future. He suffers the futility and anomie of his work, furiously certain that “he’s certainly much more than nothing, even if he doesn’t know what.” The boy haplessly considers the merits of punishment as biblical path to salvation, recalling the garden in which men first foolishly attempted to be like gods.
Each of these stories does indeed evoke or otherwise explicitly depict a garden, but the collection is not purely religious in nature. It’s thoroughly human, it’s Kafka, it’s experience of love and the puzzles of human connection and communication.
“To Mario, the dreams you can’t remember are the most important kind—they protect your vital secrets.” Mario is whiling the time on a five-hour train ride that reminded me in its style of Venedikt Erofeev’s masterful fugue Moscow to the End of the Line. “Today, Mario is headed to Rome where, perhaps, a woman is waiting for him. A few days ago, he got a letter from her saying: ‘I miss you’ and ‘I wish you were here.’ But the letter didn’t say: ‘Please come.’”
“What he thought were her dreams turned out to be his instead.” What a line—and Mozzi offers many like this. “Trains” is my favorite for its relentless burrowing—again, a Kafka reference of Mozzi’s—into the seismic trepidations of the romantic experience.
Beyond the raw emotion and deft psychology contained in these stories, each of Mozzi’s parables drifts into the tall grass of that other garden—the garden of creation, of story-telling, of finding the right word.
“You might say that in some letters, maybe all letters, the important thing is only said after the final sentence, in the silence that follows.”
Or: “I ask myself what compels all this to hurl itself headlong into something so precise and defined as a story that has a beginning and an end. I think there must be some kind of grudge against reality in all this.”
But fear not—Mozzi does not stake his claim to meta-narrative navel-gazing. The experience that fascinates him most seems to be more primal, more guttural: a person’s simple search for how to speak to another, for how to begin, for how to end: “There’s something I keep trying to say, that grammar won’t permit, won’t allow.”
“I’ll never forget this pain. I beg you, all of you here, and I think I’ve finally managed to say what I had to, after all this hemming and hawing that was more from fear than anything else, because just bringing up certain things is scary, I beg you, please, try and understand my pain even a little, or at least try to accept it as something that could happen and could be true. The books I’ve read have taught me many things, but above all, they’ve taught me to preserve my life and to tuck my voice away inside my life and keep it safe—my voice, unique and private: my unique treasure and my health. I love you all.”
This is not easily digestible and forgotten. Mozzi’s is a European sentence—meandering, introspective, borderline Proustian at times. It is a sentence that demands its place on the page, that, without meaning to, reminds us of how many sentences don’t merit the space we give them. His words breathe in the vastness of their own possibilities, do not want to waste their breath.
“There have been many times, during intense conversations full of affection and emotion, with people I loved very much or at least wanted to love very much, that my words slowly disappeared, until all I had left in my head was one tiny phrase, or a few phrases, incongruous, but full of meaning, mysterious phrases, impossible to say. And in those moments, you can almost hear your brain creaking, straining to raise too great a weight. To say these words, to transform their mystery into a simple sequence, compressions and decompressions of air, to hear them disperse, scattered, useless, this would have been too much. As I stop writing this letter, I apologize to you that I can’t even sign it. Good luck.”
But to rave about the maestro’s sentences is insufficient—what of plot, drama, explosions? There is plenty of that here, in Mozzi’s dream garden. The conflict is buried deep in and burrows deep into the psyche of these perturbingly mundane characters. Mozzi’s little gem is not called This is the Garden, but rather This Is the Garden. The first thought upon finishing the last story of the collection is: ah, yes—there—I must return.
Tom Faure is an MFA in Fiction student at Vermont College of Fine Arts. His work has appeared in Zocalo Public Square, Splash of Red, Chattanooga Times Free Press, The Journal News, and undergraduate magazines at Columbia University. He lives in New York, teaching English and Philosophy at the French-American School of New York.