Claudia Durastanti’s Strangers I Know
Translated by Elizabeth Harris
Strangers I Know
Claudia Durastanti may be a new novelist as far as most Americans are concerned, but Strangers I Know is actually the Italian author’s fourth novel, her first to be published in translation in America. Originally published in 2019 as La straniera in Italy, the book was a finalist for the Premio Strega. Durastanti, 37, was born in Brooklyn and is a translator herself, having rendered F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby and other books into Italian, but it’s the award-winning translator Elizabeth Harris who has translated Strangers I Know. Although Riverhead labels and markets the book as a novel, it’s more of a memoir about the author’s relationship with her deaf parents, a story told, she says, “through the perspective of deafness on the one hand and migration on the other.” Durastanti herself calls her book a “sort of non-fiction novel.”
One reason for calling the novel “non-fiction” might be that Claudia’s mother hates fiction. Whenever she and her mother watch something, her mother always asks, “But is it a true story?” In answer, Claudia lies, because if she told mother it was a fabrication, she’d lose interest, and they would never be able to do anything together again. “Her ‘But is it a true story?’ has plagued me forever,” Claudia says.
“While I was trying to create order through writing, they [her parents] were still in contact with the stars, with the ungovernable, always drawing me back to the suspicion that words only mean something if they’re literal, and anything left over is a great waste of time and emotion: life is a silent, hypnotic seduction, and all the rest is failure.”
The novel’s original title La straniera translates literally as “foreigner,” “outsider,” and “stranger,” but the Italian word denotes a feminine gender as opposed to the masculine lo straniero. In the novel, Durastanti mentions a book from the late 1930s called Cudzoziemka by the Polish writer Maria Kuncewiczowa. That book, about a woman named Rose, was translated into Italian as La straniera and in England into English as The Stranger, without a hint to the feminine gender. So, when Camus’s L’etranger was published in England it was originally entitled The Outsider (and is sometimes still called that) to prevent confusion with the Polish book. Although Durastanti doesn’t say so in her book, its title, if translated as The Stranger, could have been confused with Camus’s “Stranger.” Durastanti and her translator struggled with that potential confusion and the title’s imprecision regarding gender. So, apparently, since the novel is populated with and driven by female immigrants, she has called it Strangers I Know, acknowledging the immigrants—the strangers and outsiders—in her story, most of them women; and it is probably a better title than, say, The Foreign Woman, or The Female Outsider. Durastanti writes:
There are many heirs to these strangers, including me, but since we’re not in exile and have no common cause that defines our leaving, any word that does define our condition proves to be offensive—the cosmopolitanism of our privilege, an outrage—because it concerns a migration we’re almost always free to choose, a migration that never founders.
Durastanti considers her book an “adventure tale told through personal essays.” But calling this book an “adventure tale” is a bit of a stretch, since almost all stories include some component of adventure. This book is more of a philosophical meditation, though there are elements of adventure when the family migrates back and forth from America to Italy, and when Claudia, mostly on her own, travels in England, Scotland, and India. Likewise, there are brief glimpses into the escapades of Claudia’s deaf father that include being tossed into a Slovenian prison.
Durastanti says, “The story of a family is more like a map than a novel.” And in a sort of literary mapping, she groups her essays into six different, unnumbered chapters: “Family,” “Travels,” “Work & Money,” “Health,” “Love,” and “What’s Your Sign.” “Travels” is divided into subchapters: “America,” Italy,” and “England.” Each of the chapters includes essays with such names as “Mythology,” “Women Night Warriors,” “Bones of Molasses,” “The Purple Rubber Band,” and “A Worthless Novel.” I dwell on this because during my reading, many of the essays (or story components) seemed disjointed and could be read, with few exceptions, in a different order and suffer only minimal impact. Durastanti intends this disjointed state of narrative and calls it “shapeshifting text.” This heterodox book breaks many literary conventions, making it occasionally hard to follow. Orthodoxy, unlike it was for William Warburton, isn’t my doxy, but this heterodoxy can get confusing and sometimes paradoxical. The book’s action takes place mostly in Italy and in Brooklyn, where Claudia’s grandparents immigrated. Like her grandmother, Claudia was an “accidental American,” born in America during her mother’s trip there. Claudia was five in 1989 and in New York when her mother and father divorced in 1990. Mother was something of a deaf hippie and father was a scoundrel, but quite a lady’s man. Claudia writes, “By day my father built houses; by night he wrecked marriages.” Soon, mother took Claudia and her older brother back to Italy.
The future and the past, the 1950s through the 21st century, seem to coexist in Durastanti’s world. Occasionally, the book transports the reader to other subjects to discuss music and sound and the absence of sound in the musical experiments of John Cage, who “invent[ed] new sounds … and needed to understand the silence surrounding them.” Likewise, there are occasional brief meditations about time and space: “I’m moving outside of time, I’m moving forward to go backward; every day feels like a negotiation to get through, to verify my existence without the body of another beside me.”
“Mythology,” the first essay and the one essay that must be read first, sets the tone and shape of the book. Mythology, like most family histories, shapes the stories Claudia (the author and the character) tells. All over the world and throughout history, family members have recalled the same story differently—with slight discrepancies or discrepancies big enough to drive a generation through. And so each of Claudia’s parents tell different stories about how they met. Mom says she saw a boy trying to jump from the Sisto Bridge in Trastevere. Father says he tried to save her from an assault by two thieves in front of the Trastevere station. No matter the story, both parents contend they saved each other’s lives. “Though their marriage ended, she never regretted pulling him off that bridge: he was deaf, like her, and their relationship held something closer, something deeper, than love.”
Many of the other essays, seeped in emotion, are nicely written, for instance:
Writing yourself means remembering that you were born with rage, that you were thick, steady, flowing lava before your crust hardened and cracked and allowed some sort of love to emerge, or that useless power of forgiveness came and smoothed you over, leveling out all your hollows. Rereading yourself means inventing what you’ve gone through, identifying each layer you’re built upon: the crystals of joy or loneliness beneath, the result of some evaporated memory, everything that’s been carved out, then flooded, only for you to realize that time’s not healing after all: there’s a breach that can’t be filled. The only thing time will do is carry dust and weeds along with it, until that crevice is covered over and transformed to a different landscape, distant, almost a fairy tale, where you no longer recognize the language spoken, that might as well be Elvish.
Reading the book (regardless of whether the text shape-shifts) has an emotionally hypnotic effect, and despite its starts and stops, its digressions and regressions, it hardly matters whether it is a true story, as Claudia’s mother would have it.