In a wine bar tucked into a medieval Siena building, Anne Michaels was eating lunch while an employee of her Italian publisher translated the first newspaper review of In Fugo, the Italian edition of Fugitive Pieces. The reviewer, in La Nazione, was listing other Canadian writers. Sandra Birdsell, Margaret Laurence and Alice Munro all showed up in his first paragraph, and then he threw in Michael Ondaatje for good measure.
Listening to the translation, the Canadians sitting with Michaels couldn't tell whether the reviewer was providing context or just showing off a sophisticated knowledge of Canadian fiction. Certainly he liked the book. The headline said, "Long life to Michaels for the good of her readers," a pleasant thought. It was even more pleasant to realize that in Italy an understanding of Canadian literature is something to brag about.
For Anne Michaels, the Italian launch of her book wasn't exactly routine, but it wasn't unique either. Fugitive Pieces has attracted more international praise than any first novel by a serious writer in Canadian history. Publishers in about 25 countries have bought rights. Several times, Michaels has had the eerie experience of hearing words, vaguely resembling her own, read aloud by strangers in languages she cannot understand--in Germany, Spain, and Greece as well as Italy.
Siena was unusual because Fugitive Pieces is in part a Toronto novel and Siena is home to the Siena-Toronto Centre. The University of Toronto and the University of Siena have been exchanging students and professors since the early 1970s, and the Siena-Toronto Centre supports and extends that relationship. It has offices decorated with Lawren Harris mountains, a library with shelves of McClelland and Stewart paperbacks, and a classroom where a picture of the 1965 Toronto City Hall hangs next to photos of the Palazzo Pubblico, the Gothic masterpiece that's been Siena's town hall since the 14th century--a juxtaposition that puts Canadian culture in a certain perspective.
Toronto and Siena are not an obvious match, since Toronto is big and Siena tiny (pop. 58,000). Toronto keeps transforming itself, while Siena seems not to have changed since I last saw it, 40 years ago; the most prosperous business is a bank that opened 20 years before Columbus sailed the Atlantic. In Toronto it's a rare house that holds two successive generations of the same family, but Laura Ferri Forconi, a tireless volunteer promoter of Canadian culture, entertained the Canadian contingent in a Siena house that's been Forconi-occupied for 141 years. A very different world--yet Siena is one of several places in Italy where names like Munro and Ondaatje are spoken with enthusiasm.
Many European universities teach Canadian literature, but often as a subdivision of American. In Italy it exists on its own: at the University of Rome, Caterina Ricciardi teaches nothing but Canadian literature, and touches subjects that might surprise Canadians. One of her students recently wrote an MA dissertation on the European influences of the poet Bliss Carman (1861-1929), who in Canada is now little more than a name in anthologies. Others write on everything from "Multiculturalism and Neil Bissoondath" to The Canadian Crusoes, a children's book by the pioneer author Catharine Parr Traill.
Anne Michaels took part, along with four other speakers, in a celebration of her book at the Siena-Toronto Centre. It was a pleasure to see Italian critics shrewdly weighing the meaning of Toronto in fiction. Caterina Ricciardi analyzed Michael Ondaatje's earlier Toronto novel, In the Skin of a Lion, and then discussed how characters in Fugitive Pieces learn to love the city's complex topography through "a continuous diving, plunging, bathing, swimming, dipping and resurfacing in space and time." Ricciardi deftly compared the way Toronto ravines appear in Cat's Eye, by Margaret Atwood ("a forbidden, mythical, unconscious space which cannot be explored") and in Fugitive Pieces ("the beauty of Toronto...Toronto's real and most authentic cityscape"). I spoke about the ravines as the subconscious of Toronto.
Michaels's own performance carried the occasion to its emotional height. Toward the end of Fugitive Pieces, the narrator, Ben, looks back on his marriage and realizes he's failed. He's not been attentive, and he's not properly used the time spent with his wife. "I wasted love, I wasted it," he says. It's a delicate moment, not tragic (like much of the story) but painfully sad. Michaels spoke those words with an exceptional passion, almost as if reading them for the first time. She didn't cry, but we could hear a sob buried in the second "wasted." Her audience could feel the regretful longing of the narrator, his desperate wish to be more worthy, his poignant desire to be a person who would never again commit the sin of wasting love.
Before she left Siena, more reviews were coming in. The Corriere Della Sera's critic wrote that the book burns the eyes but makes them see with a new brightness. He ended, "There is not one single page that is weak." That's what I think of the original. How wonderful that its quality penetrates the screen of language. In almost no time, apparently, Fugitive Pieces will be at home all over the world.