Teen with spirit

Mentre dorme il pescecane by Milena Agus. 2005. French title : Quand le requin dort. Not translated into English. It means When the shark is asleep.

Chez nous, chacun court après quelque chose : maman la beauté, papa l’Amérique du Sud, mon frère la perfection, ma tante un fiancé.

Et moi j’écris des histoires, parce que quand le monde ne me plaît pas, je me transporte dans le mien et je suis bien

At home, every one runs after something: Mom after beauty, Dad after South America, my brother after perfection and my aunt after a fiancé.

And me, I write stories because when I don’t like the world I live in, I move away into mine and I feel fine.

This is in a nutshell the flavor of this odd little book, Milena Agus’s debut novel. She’s Italian and her other novel Mal di Pietre was a success in France and this is how I discovered her.

Mentre dorme il pescecane is a first person narrative and our narrator is a high school teenager. She tries to figure out who she is and that’s not easy when you live in such a weird family as hers. The father is a militant who’s into helping others but forgets to help his own children. His dream is to immigrate to South America. Meanwhile, he takes trips there for humanitarian purpose. He has a strong and lively personality. He’s the kind of person who always gets forgiven no matter what he does because when you interact with him, he makes you feel special. You know the type?

The mother is a strange and shy little thing. Her family thinks she’s fragile and protects her from everything. Like our young heroin says:

Nous aimons voir le monde derrière une couche de miel et papa dit que nous allons nous faire un diabète du cerveau.

We enjoy seeing the world through honey and dad says we’ll get brain diabetes.

She lives in a sort of fantasy world, shielded against real life, growing flowers on the rooftop and painting. She’s a mousy type with too much sensitivity for her own good.

The brother is a piano lover. He wants to be a professional pianist and spends all his time in his room, practicing, shutting his family out, avoiding the world. He’s bullied at the high school by fellow students and he evades from reality through music.

The aunt is a beautiful woman whose clock is ticking and who does her best to find a husband. The problem is she has a bad taste in men. She’s in love with Mauro the womanizer and tries to forget him by finding other men specimen afraid of commitment.

Our narrator is into a sadomasochist sex relationship with a married man and all the while being quite innocent and candid. She doesn’t enjoy it very much but the physical pain distances her from her other pains. It’s a way to try not to fall in love, not to let feelings take the best of her. All the while, she observes and analyses her strange family with the growing awareness of the adolescent.

We follow all this little world during these month that are worth years. Our narrator observes, keeps a mental scrapbook of her understanding of grown-ups and patches up for herself philosophy of life, her personal guidebook for the future.

The narrator’s voice is funny and unusual, poetic and black at the same time. She’s always moving on, she’s never desperate even when things turn horribly wrong. She’s a mix of candor and realism, of romanticism and cynicism, of acceptance and rebellion. She’s an attaching character, a bit extreme sometimes. All the characters are loveable in their way, even the selfish father or the libertine Mauro.

It’s a coincidence but I’m into teen narrators these days. Tino in Un’ anima persa by Giovanni Arpino, David in Montana 1948 by Larry Watson, Watanabe in Norwegian Wood and now an unnamed girl in Mentre dorme il pescecane. It just happened but it’s nice to read several books like this in a row and compare the voices of the character. All books are first person narrations, either writing as the events happen (Arpino, Agus) or a lot later when a need to tell memories becomes pressing. (Watson, Murakami) The writers managed to either recreate the puzzlement of young adults entering adulthood and understanding what’s behind the facade. The novels are less poignant when the narrator relates something from their past rather than showing their inner minds as the events happen. Contrary to the other books I read, Mentre dorme il pescecane is the only one not constructed around a life changing event that threw the narrator into the world of adults.

Milena Agus’s character is an odd girl, seeking good sun, proper water and enough intellectual and emotional nutriments to be in full bloom. After her, Exit Ghost with its seventy-one-years old Nathan Zuckerman and his incontinence problem is quite a change…How odd too that this book will be sitting on my shelf between the depressing Novel with Cocain by M Agueev and the cult Money by Martin Amis.

  1. July 1, 2012 at 12:49 am

    Hmm, sounds like I really need to add Italian to my languages. Reading Italian should not be a big deal, as I’m French and read Spanish and Latin, lol. thanks, sounds like a fun book

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  2. July 1, 2012 at 1:46 am

    I’m not that keen on teen narrators but this one sounds promising. Would you read another by this author?

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    • July 1, 2012 at 9:25 pm

      I read Mal di pietre (Mal de pierres) a few years ago and I enjoyed it. She has something.

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  3. Brian Joseph
    July 1, 2012 at 4:36 am

    This book sounds really good. I love stories about quirky families.

    I find that novels with young narrators can work in a special kind of way. When the narrator is young but lively and intelligent they can exhibit a fresh and clean perspective on the world. This perspective does not always need to be one hundred percent positive. J. D.” Salinger’s “Cather in the Rye” is an obvious example. It sound like this work shares some of these characteristics.

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    • July 1, 2012 at 9:27 pm

      Yes it does. She has a fresh assessment of the world of adults.
      She’s not as good as Salinger but her narrator sounded genuine.

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  4. July 1, 2012 at 9:51 am

    The moment I read “sadomaso realtionship”, it’s a no go for me. There are only so many novels a person can read about certain topics and I had my share. Other than that it sounds good, reminds me of the movie Ricordati di me about a dysfunctional Italian middle-class family.
    I still have to read Mal die Pietre and will do so soon. I’m sure she is an author worth discovering.
    Since this was her first novel I’m not surprsied she included this type of character.

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    • July 1, 2012 at 9:30 pm

      The sadomaso relationship is a small part of the book and the descriptions are limited. I’m not sure it’s enough to put you off, it’s not the main topic of the book.
      Mal di pietre is good but different, which is a good thing too.
      Why aren’t you surprised she included this in her debut novel?

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      • July 2, 2012 at 7:22 am

        Because there has been a wave of 1st novels with characters like this who were either cutting themeselves or had been abused or wre in a sadomaso relationship. I know nothing about the author but some young writers try to come to terms with things they had to go through in their lives and put it in the first book, others think they have to chose something “out of the ordinary” which then unfortunately makes it a bit “ordinary”. Book two in those cases will tell you much more clearly how talented the writer really is. I thin k in her case it is obvious by now.

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        • July 3, 2012 at 8:53 pm

          I think you have a misconception of this novel : this character is into a sadomaso relationship but she’s not dark, depressed or self-destructive or even unbalanced. She’s looking for herself and her quest leads her that way.
          I think Milena Agus is talented but I’m not sure she’ll be read next century.

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