“This book is about me. Sort of. ‘Let’s just say this is me,’ says the narrator of the book, which is me, sort of.”
That’s the Italian writer Veronica Raimo talking about her new novel Niente di Vero, published in English this month as Lost On Me. The book is narrated by a novelist called Veronica from Rome who spends a lot of time in Berlin and has an older brother called Christian who is also a novelist. That Raimo is called Veronica, is from Rome, spends a lot of time in Berlin and has an older brother called Christian who is also a novelist is probably meta enough, but stand by, I’m about to impose another thick stratum of meta on to this translated edition of her fourth novel.
As well as writing fiction, Raimo works as a translator, rendering novels by the likes of F Scott Fitzgerald, Ray Bradbury, Octavia E Butler and Ursula K Le Guin into Italian. Which makes Lost On Me a novel translated into English about an Italian writer written by an Italian writer who translates into Italian novels written in English. Phew. Fetch me a new meta-meter, this one’s just broken.
Lost On Me has been a bestseller in Italy since its publication last year, selling well over 100,000 copies and winning a clutch of awards at a level of success almost unthinkable until relatively recently.
Back in 2019, Raimo was among those crediting the international success of Elena Ferrante as a watershed moment in Italian literature. Having been treated initially in her home country as a writer of minor relevance, Ferrante’s startling success around the world led to a sudden re-evaluation of the enigmatic author’s place in the national canon and led in turn to a sharp increase in the popularity among readers of literary novels both by Italian women and female writers translated into Italian.
“They know now there are countries in which having someone like Jennifer Egan or Zadie Smith is normal,” said Raimo. All of which makes it wholly appropriate that Lost On Me should be published now, during Women In Translation Month.
If this column galumphs around on any particular hobbyhorse, it’s the chronic underappreciation of translated fiction, particularly that written by women. This year alone we’ve brought you Lydia Sandgren’s epic Collected Works translated by Agnes Broomé, Stolen by Ann-Helén Laestadius translated by Rachel Willson-Broyles and the Penguin Modern Classics revival of Brigitte Reimann’s Siblings in Lucy Jones’ translation. In the last couple of years, we’ve also featured the likes of Olga Tokarczuk, Jenny Erpenbeck, Dubravka Ugrešić, Dorthe Nors, Teffi, Annie Ernaux, Wisława Szymborska, Svetlana Alexievich and Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir, most of whom rarely feature outside the specialist literary press.
That’s not to toot our own horn. There is always more to do and the continental focus of The New European means there’s literally a whole world of excellent translated fiction by women out there that you won’t have found in these pages. In recent years this has been an area of huge growth, and a whole big chunk of credit for that goes to Women in Translation Month, now approaching its 10th year.
In 2014, book blogger Meytal Radzinski noticed that less than 4% of literary fiction published in English was translated from other languages. Of that tiny percentage, barely a quarter of titles were by women. In addition, of the then 21 winners of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, since merged with the International Booker Prize, only two had been women.
Determined to change those lousy statistics, Radzinski conceived Women in Translation Month, which has since grown from a social media hashtag to a major feature on the literary calendar, inspiring events and promotions by literary organisations and bookshops across the English-speaking world. Its success has been resounding, most notably in how since 2013 the proportion of works by women translated into English has grown from 26% of the total to 47% last year. Nine of the 16 authors shortlisted for the International Booker in the last two years have been women, and since 2017 the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation has established itself among the world’s most prestigious literary awards.
Hopefully, Veronica Raimo’s name will feature in either or both awards soon because Lost On Me certainly deserves to be in the running. This is her fourth novel but only the second to be translated into English after 2019’s Miden, published in the UK as The Girl at the Door, which opens with a pregnant woman living with her partner, a philosophy professor, in an eerie utopian idyll, answering the door to one of the academic’s students who tells her he raped her two years earlier.
An uncompromising look at gender power dynamics, Miden was an important step in the establishment of women’s literary fiction in Italy, which remains one of Europe’s most patriarchal societies. Similarly Lost On Me is a Bildungsroman to make traditional Italian society shift uneasily with its depictions of abortion and sexual abuse, but this is not a book that sets out to shock.
The narrator, Vero, meanders through stories from her past with a wry, dry wit, leaving the reader feeling they’ve met someone at a party who enjoys talking about themselves, but far from being an egotistical bore, it’s clear that just beneath the startling anecdotes they are deeply vulnerable.
With no real plot to speak of, Lost On Me relies on its strong voice, heaping extra pressure on to the translator. Leah Janeczko doesn’t receive a credit on the book’s cover (nor any mention at all on the press release accompanying this reviewer’s copy), but she’s done an excellent job here.
A Chicago native, Janeczko has lived in Milan for almost three decades and clearly has an ear finely tuned not just to written Italian but to the spoken language too. Rhythm is a key component to any author’s writing, especially when it comes to humour, and Janeczko retains a strong sense of timing when rendering Raimo’s jokes into English.
And there are some terrific lines. During sex with “a skinny DJ” Raimo experiences “the sensation of an ossuary coming to life against me”. An uncle’s combover “branched out over his skull like a dried-up estuary”. The occasional Americanism – “a couple hours”, “he sweat a lot” – is derailing for an English reader reading an Italian voice in an Italian setting, but otherwise this is a lively and deft rendering of a daunting book to translate.
Lost On Me chronicles Vero’s attempts to claim her own space in the world in the light of a bizarre childhood deprived of unconditional parental love. It’s easy to find her mother and father hilarious and we are certainly meant to. Her father has curious health-related obsessions: determined to keep his children free of germs, he regularly wipes them down with rubbing alcohol, and for years would not buy foodstuffs produced after the Chernobyl disaster. Perhaps oddest of all, he was constantly building walls and partitions to divide the family home into smaller and smaller spaces.
“For part of my childhood my bedroom existed only at night,” says Vero. “During the day it became a hallway again. When it was time to go to sleep at night, I would close two folding doors and pull down a section of the wall that was actually a Murphy bed.”
This claustrophobic sense of physical and psychological stifling was exacerbated by her mother, a woman who was never affectionate towards her daughter – making it clear from an early age that her son was her priority – yet tracked her movements obsessively, from telephoning at regular intervals wherever she might find her to discovering and reading her private love letters, even circling the spelling mistakes.
Vero’s quest to assert her own space in the world leads her into a life of casual untruths and deception prompted by a well-intentioned childhood lie her grandfather told, presenting her with a book claiming it was a prize in a competition into which he’d entered one of her drawings.
Withdrawn into her own mind as the only place where she could claim agency, Vero builds a life based on invention, from fibs about her father dying long before he actually did, to a career as a novelist, making up stories for a living. When her best friend moves away, she even invents a fictional life in letters to her.
“There are at least two versions of my senior year of high school: the more or less real one, of which I remember almost nothing, and the one I wrote about to Cecilia, of which I remember almost everything,” she writes. “In a certain way, it was my first novel.”
Lost On Me has much to say about the nature of truth and memory. “How can you reconcile with something or someone if your memories are hazy?
If they change in the very process of forming?” she asks. “They can take away everything but our memories, people say. But who would ever be interested in that kind of expropriation?”
But the overwhelming sense here is of a battle with the legacy of her past. Inevitably Vero doubts whether her feelings and opinions are genuine or invented, a stifled childhood having starved her of the oxygen of agency, the nourishment of self-belief and the luxury of hope.
“Anyway, who says having a talent is better than not having one?” she asks. “If you asked me now what I can do, I’d sink into the same embarrassed state I did when I was 20, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned since then, it’s that I fear the truth more than death.”
Veronica Raimo has written a darkly funny novel of rhythm, subtlety and nuance, a challenge to its translator but one risen to here with remarkable aplomb. Leah Janeczko has taken a book pitched in a fuzzy area between autobiography and fiction, maintained its innate ambiguity and given English readers the opportunity to immerse themselves in a work by a writer who deserves as wide an audience as possible.
There could not be a finer justification for Women in Translation Month than this.
Lost On Me by Veronica Raimo, trans. Leah Janeczko, is published this month by Virago, price £16.99