I bought The Cousin, a novella written by John Calabro and published by Quattro Books, when I was in Canada, but kept it preciously for my trip to Italy. I thought it would be nice to read something set in Italy when I was there, and I was right! The Cousin is really anchored in its Sicilian setting and the narrative is interspersed with dialect. Although I wasn’t in Sicily, being in Italy gave another dimension to this novella written by John Calabro who was born in Italy and lived in France before moving to Toronto. I saw John reading from this novella at the Conference on the Short Story in English in Toronto and it really made me want to read it.
The Cousin can be divided into two parts, which are really different from each other. It is at the same time a simple book with recognisable emotions, and a more complex one.
The story is that of Sal, an Sicilian who emigrated to Canada at a young age and comes back with his wife to the country of his youth. He is reluctant to meet his family, his uncle, aunt and cousin, and we slowly discover why.
The first part of the book is mostly concerned with Sal’s emotions regarding his country and family and we slowly learn why his parents emigrated to Canada and why this return to the sources is somehow traumatic for him. He has many buried secrets and repressed issues, including marital problems, that he refuses to deal with. The narrative keeps shifting between the present, Sal’s thoughts, sometimes interrupted by the ghost of his mother asking him to forgive his uncle, and flashbacks. I thought it worked well and the descriptions of Sal’s Sicily are colourful and emotional. I loved this part, I could hear the dialogue and picture the scenery. I like shifts in narratives and it did not bother me to have a bit of work to do to put the pieces of the jigsaw together. I thought it helped to understand Sal’s state of mind as he is forced to face a repressed past.
The second part is a bit more confusing. Sal discovers his cousin, Charlie, dressed as a transvestite. The two of them go to a nightclub where Sal flirts with that beautiful (transvestite) woman, Simone. At this point, the story gets a bit out of control and the narrative verges on surrealism. Sal takes psychedelic drugs and is seen as oscillating between his attraction for Simone and the repression of these feelings for a transvestite. The end of the story brings us into a psychedelic trip in which Sal and Charlie are fighting their way inside Simone’s body. I must admit that I had to read some passages a few times as I was lost in the narrative, probably in the same way as Sal is lost in his own mind. I think this part reveals further Sal’s confusion and ambiguity towards his life and the psychedelic trip becomes a way to explores his feelings and deal with them. It becomes like an initiation and sees the rebirth of Sal, a man who still has to deal with the contradictions within his self, but who at least seems ready to do so.
Overall, I enjoyed this novella. I was touched by the way it is written. I loved the way it represents Sicily with so much colour. I also liked the way Sal’s personal issues are dealt with in an indirect manner, thus reflecting Sal’s refusal to deal with them. I was confused by the psychedelic trip but I suppose it is a graphic way to represent Sal’s confusion. Other themes are also foregrounded in this novella: Charlie is another character trapped within a conflict of the self. He feels as a prisoner of his own country who dreams to join his lover in North Africa; he is torn between his duties to his parents and his own happiness and does not seem able to conciliate the two. It is a moving story of our times about two modern men prisoners of their lives.