24 January, 2011

'See Naples and Die' - Penelope Green

It was en route to reviewing this book that I came to my musings on the travel writing genre in the previous post. Many of its elements, good and bad, tick the boxes of the classic characteristics of the genre.

The fact of moving overseas for a dramatic change does not imbue the traveller with the skills of a writer. Notwithstanding the fact that many, including Green, who release travel books have a background in journalism, it's a huge challenge to filter an intense set of experiences into a coherent story with a point.

Green is not as new to the style as her name suggests. She has produced three books about living in Italy, the first about her time immediately after arriving in Rome, friendless, jobless and languageless. This is the second, and it's followed up by a third account of living on an island off Naples with her Italian partner (who she meets in this book).

Her purpose in this second instalment moves beyond mere recounting of a foreigner's experiences abroad. Naples is a complex, scary, passionate, intimidating and beautiful city, and Green wants to use her time there to understand it. She uses her contacts and journalistic nous to interview many prominent Neapolitans. Coming to terms with the city - and its equal parts chaos and charm - is a neat allegory for a woman in her 30s trying to choose the right track on which to set the wheels of her life.

It's tough, though, producing a book like this. You need the reader to understand your environment, but too often Green recounts anecdotes without weaving them into a greater narrative. The book wouldn't be interesting enough if it were simply a set of stories about meeting friends in bars - that would amount to a set of emails from a travelling friend - but it wouldn't be a travel narrative if she simply presented her research into the Camorra and Naples' insidious criminality. It's hard, too, to balance details of a one-night-stand with a local against interviews with the city's mayor and her plans for another term in office.

You can tell, too, that while the book purports to be a chronological report of her first year in Naples, it jumps around a lot more than that. And fair enough - this isn't a set of emails sent weekly to friends and family. This is a compilation, a condensed version of events, and it's fine to conflate something that happened in April with a related encounter from October. What's curious is that every 'real-life' figure Green encounters - by which I mean a public figure, rather than one of her friends - is re-introduced at each mention. Rosa Russo Iervolino, for example, is always introduced with the apposition 'mayor of Naples'; whereas I'd lost track of her first-name-only friends by about the third chapter. The repetition makes it easier from an editor's point of view, but it also removes the reader from the conversation, because it's like the author can't remember what they've already told you.

The language issues always intrigue me in a story like this. Green more than once bemoans her 'deteriorating Italian' - her work in Naples is editing English-language articles for a Mediterranean-news website. Yet she's interviewing the mayor, senior church figures, lawyers, victims, and recording their experiences with dextrous language. I'm so curious as to how that comes about, and wish the narrative would 'lift the veil' once in a while to mention the whirr of the tape recorder in the room, or explain what's been paraphrased, not to mention who did the eventual translation.

The book is somewhat overrun with Italian translations, much like a guidebook. Years ago in Italy, it amused my travelling companion and me no end when the Lonely Planet guide bothered to translate Piazza di San Marco to St Mark's Plaza. Some of Green's translations are similarly obvious, though she does also make an effort to include and explain aphoristic gems from the Neopolitan dialect.

To give credit where it's due, Green does undertake a heroine's journey. She decides upon commencing her job in Naples not to focus on socialising with her work colleagues - she'd rather keep that relationship professionally separate. That's commendable - I'd be grabbing at any chance of companionship that was on offer. Obviously Green is made of stronger social stuff than that, and gathers an admirable posse during her time including, inevitably for the genre, an Italian love (Alfonso).

I think some examples of travel writing are better for those who haven't ventured far from home. A lack of empathy can imbue these tales with a fantastical, gripping element. If I'm honest, I can't help feeling a level of competitiveness when following a heroine's travel journey, and sometimes what I want is exactly what wouldn't sell books - more of the fear and failings that must accompany the author's audacity and success.

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