Italy in translation
Italy has inspired paintings, music, opera, literature.
Its cities have been said to offer a “charm of existence that words cannot picture.” [Charles Lever, 1870]
Dostoevsky wrote, “When the sun shines, it is almost Paradise. Impossible to imagine anything more beautiful than this sky, this air, this light.” He was in Italy when he completed The Idiot and also when he began The Possessed and The Brothers Karamazov.
Aldous Huxley said of his time in Italy, that “the greatest luxury of this existence is the feeling of being well,” (although he did change his mind somewhat about Florence afterwards, likening it to, “a third-rate provincial town, colonized by English sodomites and middle-aged Lesbians!”)
Whether good or bad, Italy always inspires a reaction!
Italian stories inspiring readers
Deborah Hallford at Outside In World wrote that, “translated literature should break down the barriers of geography <>, teach us about other cultures, and be an enriching experience as it opens up new horizons and stimulates ideas.” [Children’s Books in Translation, by Deborah Hallford and Edgardo Zaghini, 2005, Milet Publishing Ltd]
A three-book series I recently read in Italian does all this and more, combining the irresistible Italian mystique cited by literary greats of past and present with a part-mystical, part-magical detective adventure tour of Venice, Padova and Verona. As required, the books open up fascinating worlds, take readers to “strange lands”, and introduce them to places or things they may not be familiar with. Philip Pullman described his childhood experience of Emil and the Detectives, translated from the German by Margaret Goldsmith, in just the same way.
In the true spirit of such international literary classics, the Mystic Maeve series not only whisks you to exotic lands, it also makes sure you have fun when you get there! Readers are asked to solve riddles, hunt down clues, move between dimensions and outsmart characters from Italian commedia dell’arte or medieval history. With their imaginations set alight, they’ll feel like their feet aren’t touching the ground as they dash around in the company of new friends: a band of stray cats, a pigeon, a professor, a palm-reading granny and the protagonist herself, 12-year-old detective Maeve.
Mistica Maëva Trilogy by Laura Walter
Mistica Maëva and:
1) the Venetian ring
2) the Starry Tower
3) the Balcony of Secrets
Magical, middle-grade adventure series.
The secret to the appeal of these books, in my opinion, is how Laura Walters (an Italian Cornelia Funke?) captures her readers’ attention with legend, holds it with intrigue and adventure, then serves up a feast of architecture and history so fascinating readers will be itching for more. A rattling great Italian Tour from the comfort of the sofa. Or under a tree, or on the beach, or under the covers… in true Italian style!
Here’s a little taster from book 1.
The adventure begins…
Welcome, intrepid explorer!
A magical city and a mystical adventure await you at the turn of this page. So, pack some supplies, find a spot under your favorite tree, a sunbed on the beach, or snuggling under the duvet in winter, a sandwich or piece of chocolate in hand, and let the journey begin.
I have many things to tell you about the wonderful City of Venice.
Some are true, some are truer than true, some are, well, who knows. Venice awaits you, serene, with her calle and canals, hoping that one day you’ll come and explore her yourself.
Venice, city of canals
Mystic Maëve kept walking. She crossed the Maravegie bridge and made her way to her grandmother’s house, the home of SuperMystic herself!
Grandma Mystic lived in a tiny calle with houses along each side, only a few metres apart. They were so close that, if you were friendly with the family opposite, you could even shake their hand from your kitchen if you wanted.
Venice was full of calle like this, only Grandma Mystic’s one had two, or rather three, unusual features.
Firstly, it had no name: there was no marble nameplate at the beginning or end of the street. No amount of digging through the city’s archives had managed to uncover the unknown name. The inhabitants of Dorsoduro, the district in which it was located, had therefore nicknamed it Calle With No Name.
The second unusual, and very rare, thing about this tiny street was the archway halfway down the street, joining one side of the calle to the other. Above the arch, there was a minuscule terrace, filled with lush, leafy plants.
Thirdly, it was SuperMystic’s terrace and an aroma peppered with notes of onion and seafood was wafting down from it, filling the street below.
“Grandma must’ve made Sarde in Saor,” Mystic’s nose mused, filling her lungs to the delight of her stomach.
Someone else’s nostrils, high up on the roofs, were quivering, tickled by the smell, and their owner edged two tiles down the roof to get closer.
The smell promised wonderful things.
Sarde in Saor – sardines with onion – was one of Mystic’s favourite dishes. Her grandmother put so many onions in you could practically pave St. Mark’s square with them.
Animals, a vital part of the gang
Baicolo was two roofs and a church spire away by then, heading towards the Frari Church.
Pastrocio often flew over this part of the city, when he’d finished his shift in St. Mark’s Square.
That’s where Baicolo found him, deep in thought, perched on the drainpipe of a small townhouse beside the church.
“Hey captain, how’s it going?”
“Some days you fly high, some days you fly low,” Pastrocio replied, contemplating the sun melting into the lagoon.
“Bad day?” Baicolo asked, snuggling up on the tiles to get a closer look at his friend.
It was a singular kind of friendship, this bond between ginger cat and pigeon, but like all friendships between opposites, it was invincible.
“Ah, you know, penny-pinching tourists, no food to be had, just work.”
“Did you stick to your motto?” Baicolo quizzed.
“Yeah. Tourists crap? Crap on Tourists! I let rip on half a dozen,” Pastrocio confirmed, puffing up with pride.
It was a tough job being a tourist pigeon in St. Mark’s square. He trundled around in a group with his workmates and, at the slightest distraction, risked being trampled to death under swarms of holiday-maker sandals and shoes.
Every now and then, at the head pigeon’s signal, Pastrocio and his gang would take to the sky and perform perfectly choreographed formations.
They did it to entertain the tourists, who were then supposed to reciprocate, buying pigeon feed from the street vendors.
But the Italians, the Japanese, the Americans, the Hungarians, the French, humans on tour basically, were so busy staring at their digital cameras they hardly ever got their wallets out for the poor pigeons.
Pastrocio would get his revenge on slow days. Yelling his battle cry, “Tourists crap? Crap on Tourists!” he’d spatter jackets with a string of lurid green splodges in a multitude of shapes, worthy of a surrealist masterpiece.
The tattered and yellowed paper looked so old Maëve thought it might disintegrate any minute. Even the smallest puff of wind whispering across the rooftops might cause it to crumble. The group fell silent. The gentle swash of the canals seemed to quieten for a moment. Baicolo’s ears were as taut as when he was poised, about to pounce on a prey. Professor Brusegan adjusted his glasses, loosened the ribbon with the utmost care, and slowly unrolled the parchment, making sure not to damage it. He started to read:
Lumbering between sky and sea
between tomfoolery and sagacity,
between fasting and feast,
and between laughter and great poetry:
I’m to be found, warm on a head
that a head has none, or so it seemed
There I lie, under pristine white
with multitudinous colours teamed:
a buffoon, a wretch, a hungry peasant
He has me dance, in jest and jocularity
his semblance is of poverty, but poor he is not
for Harlequin on his head holds the key
to bring to Venice indestructibility.