Stefano Bortolussi

"Head Above Water"

(Reviewed by Olivia Boler OCT 12, 2004)

"Don't be afraid, Cardo," she murmured placing a hand gently on his cheek.

Hearing those words, Cardo felt a strange sensation; he knew that Sol was referring to the trial ahead, but he also realized that there was, in her words, a crucial exhortation to conquer the slippery rock face on which he had stumbled that day, after so many months of indecision. It was the rocky obstacle of his terror of having a child -- of his terror, chilling and viscous, of losing a child.

It was the rock formation, real and concrete, beneath which he had in fact lost someone."

Head Above Water by Stefano Bortolussi

The images that come to mind when I think of Milan are da Vinci’s The Last Supper and supermodels. It certainly isn’t sweet, bumbling novelists getting seduced by buff young women while rowing on the mucky waters of a manmade lake. Such, however, is the opening of Stefano Bortolussi’s Head Above Water, a slim, carefully translated novel that recently won the 23rd annual Northern California Book Award for best translation and was also a finalist in the 2004 PEN Center USA Literary Awards in the same category.

Cardo Mariano, the aforesaid novelist, is generally a good guy who in ten years of marriage has never cheated on his wife. Why this day of all days is different is a complicated issue. His wife, Solveig, a Norwegian, immediately figures out that he has been unfaithful. Instead of tossing him out on his can, Solveig with her “Nordic practicality” calmly goes home to her Lofoten Islands village so that Cardo can work out his “confusion” on his own. It’s not the act of infidelity that disturbs Sol, it’s the timing: she is expecting their first baby. And therein lies Cardo’s turmoil—impending fatherhood. In order to figure out why he is so afraid, he must delve into his past, including the childhood tragedy of his younger brother’s accidental drowning and his own father’s subsequent abandonment. What he uncovers is slightly predictable, but it’s Bortolussi’s distinctive voice, not at all lost in translation, that causes the reader to care about Cardo’s bout of self-revelation.

The book scoots along agreeably as Cardo stumbles down Memory Lane. The only weak bit comes towards the end, when a rather unbelievable coincidence occurs. Solveig, who keeps in contact with her husband via e-mail, decides to visit some childhood friends. One of them, a merchant seaman, tells her out of the blue that he knows an Italian, his ship’s cook, a man who years ago left his wife and son to sail the seas. An Italian—who left his wife and son? Well, there can’t be many of those! This must, Solveig realizes, be Cardo’s long departed father. Alice Mattison wrote in a recent issue of The Writer’s Chronicle, “Coincidence is the way of creating the illusion [emphasis mine] of simultaneity.” But coincidence can backfire if it brings the reader out of the story’s dream. Despite this flaw, this is a well-done translation (by Anne Milano Appel), and Cardo’s journey is a refreshing, absorbing read.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 3 reviews


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About the Author:

Stefano Bortolussi was born in 1959is an Italian novelist, critic, translator, and poet. He also writes a monthly column for Italian Esquire and works frequently in theater and film.

Anne Milano Appel holds an MA (1967) and PHD (1970) from Rutgers University. She has been working full-time as an Italian-English translator since 1996. For her translation of Head Above Water, she won the 23rd Annual Northern California Book Award in the Translation category and was a finalist for teh 2004 PEN Center USA Literary Awards.

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