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Interview With Erri De Luca

By Kourosh Ziabari

23 November, 2010

Erri De Luca is an internationally-renowned Italian poet and writer. "Corriere della Sera" literature critic Giorgio De Rienzo has called him "the writer of the decade". He started writing since he was 20; however, his first book was published in 1989, when he was 39 years old. Upon graduating from high school in 1968, he joined the newly-established far-left, extra-parliamentary organization of Lotta Continua. The political activities of the organization were terminated early in 1976. Erri De Luca speaks several languages, including English, French, Hebrew and Yiddish.

He is the author of several books including "Montedidio" which has won him The Prix Femina award. Erri De Luca has translated several books of Bible into Italian, including Exodus, Jonah, Ecclesiastes and Ruth. His works have been translated and published in various countries such as Spain , Iran , Portugal , Germany , Holland , USA , Brazil , Poland , Norway , Danmark , Romania , Greece and Lithuania .

De Luca joined me in an exclusive interview and answered my questions on his works and his views on literature, culture, politics and society.

Kourosh Ziabari: What made you interested in literature for the first time? You published your first novel when you were 39; however, you had experienced various professions and jobs before that. You experienced carpentry, masonry and apprenticeship and then moved to writing. What were the first motives which moved you towards literature?

Erri De Luca: I owe my approach to my father's library. I spent my childhood in a small room with books to the ceiling, I slept surrounded by books. I've been reading and writing since I was a kid, books have been the best company. I published my first book late because I wasn't looking for a publisher. I wrote and write personal stories, always with me telling the story and I thought these would never interest anybody else.

KZ: Our world is filled with materialistic approaches to life. Morality is losing its place in the interpersonal relationships. People disregard the principles of honesty and decency very easily. Is this world compatible with the ideal world which you have portrayed for yourself?

EDL: I'm used to sit at table for lunch where one eats the fruit of one's work. At these tables, which are the majority on the planet, my principles are not ideals but daily practice.

KZ: Naples is the prominent setting of your novel. Its people speak a variety of Italian language which is even unintelligible to a number of Italians. What's the significance of Naples for you? How do you seek your desires and ambitions in this ancient city?

EDL: Naples is my place of origin and Napolitan my mother tongue. Italian came later, with books and conversations with my father, who wanted to teach me perfect Italian. In Naples , I had my sentimental education - not to love, but to the sentiments of compassion, anger and shame which are the fundaments of any human being. Naples is not a birth town, but it is a "cause town" and I am one of its effects.

KZ: You speak several languages including French, English, Hebrew and Yiddish. How is the sense of being a multilingual writer? Jock London believes that every book is a gateway to a new world. Do you agree that every language is also a gateway to a new world? With several languages which you know, do you usually feel that you live in different worlds ?

EDL: I learnt languages to read them rather than to speak them. My desire was to follow the authors of pages which touched me in their vocabulary and their combination of syllables. Thus I find a personal extract, a glass [of wine] and I go directly to the source. The world which attracts me is that of an author rather than of a people. That's why I'm not interested in geographically visiting countries whose language I know. I can read in Russian out of love for its poets and writers but I have no desire to find myself in Odessa or Moscow . With the languages I have learnt I have no need to move from where I am.

KZ: Some people believe that the Iranians and Italians are very similar to each other. They say that among the European citizens, Italians are the most similar to Iranians. This similarity can be found in the appearance, social interactions, character and dispositions. Have you ever noticed any similarity between the people of Italy with the oriental nations?

EDL: I find common ground with all people with feet in the Mediterranean Sea . I recognize all trees, goats, dry walls and wrinkled faces. For thousands of years we have mixed, via invasions, immigration, epidemics, wars. Iran and the East are a key premise of our civilization, the first layer, the first seed of our bread.

KZ: Iran and Italy are home to two of the most important ancient civilizations in the world; Persian Empire and Roman Empire . Although the political developments have separated the two countries, how can the cultural ties serve to bring the two nations together and benefit them mutually?

EDL: Iran is the most important country in world politics today. Iranians must know that their decisions with respect to pacific development will be decisive for the next decade. Iran is today, even more than in the past, on the front lines of history. Everything that happens in your country will affect the four corners of the horizon [the rest of the world]

KZ: An Iranian critic of your novel has said that the bitter comedy of your novel "Montedidio" is inspired by Italo Calvino. What do you think about it? Has Calvino ever inspired you in your writings?

EDL: I am not a reader fascinated by Calvino or by 20th century Italian literature in general. I know I owe much to Napolitan literature, its theater, its songs, and to other foreign litteratures which educated me in my youth thanks to my father's choices and tastes.

KZ: In your short story "The Trench", you've tried to show the difficulty of earning a living and portrayed the complexities a low-ranking laborer faces in dealing with a low-rate job. In one part of your story, the protagonist states: "why in the world should a human being have to earn bread for his children with a noose around his neck? For me it was a question of pride, but for him it was only bread, and still he had to soak it in that salty water of ours, which tasted so much like tears." I think it's the essence of your story. What's your own idea? Why is our life intertwined with difficulties and complexities so inextricably?

EDL: I write stories of my life and the one you bring up is simply a tale of a slice of experience on a construction site in France . Nothing to add, maybe something to take out. My life shares with the majority of other lifes, anonymous and normal. The fact that I am able to write stories does not change that biographic fact. I am someone from the ground floor and my stories are the same.

KZ: Have you ever had the ambition of winning the Nobel Prize in Literature? What do you think about this award? Has it been always awarded to those who deserved it?

EDL: Often, the Academy has rewarded names unknown to me and I was able to discover them thanks to these choices. So I enjoy their literary tastes, most of the time. For my part, I don't think that I am under consideration for the Academy.

KZ: Dario Fo was the last Italian writer to win a Nobel Prize in Literature. What do you think of him and his works?

EDL: Dario Fo is an international personality, one of the few Italian personas appreciated worldwide, and he deserves the honor conferred by the prize.

KZ: How much time do you dedicate to studying the world's literature? How many books do you read in a year? Do you have a special criterion for the geographical distribution of the writers of whom you read novels and literary works? How much time do you spend on reading Italian literature?

EDL: During the day, the time to read and write is squeezed in a small space. I read old works, poetry from all over the world and I don't follow Italian literature.

KZ: Are you among those thinkers who believe that artistic work is solely produced for the sake of pleasure, or the art itself? What's the ultimate objective of art? Is it aimed at entertaining the addressee? Is it aimed at creating cosmetic beauty? Which sort of literature do you prefer; a literary work which is created for pleasure or a literary work which is admired for its moral points?

EDL: Literature is for me the best dialogue. I prefer it to any other art form. It should keep its reader company, save him time, be worth the time spent with a book. Literature's sole responsibility is to create desire to reopen the book. In difficult circumstances, under dictatorships, it can also have the responsibility to save speech. In jail, a book is a fortune and a huger capital for resistance.

KZ: And my final question. What's your recommendation for those who want to become professional readers of literature? What are the best ways for comprehending the essence of a literary work, whether it's in the form of poetry or prose? How can a good reader relate to the core of what the writer intends to convey?

EDL: A book is always half of the trip from a writer and a reader, who must complete the work by mixing it with his/her life, moods and needs. A book is a meeting, with no utilization guide, and thus always different, failure or success. Every book is ultimately led by its reader, linked to his/her experience, friendly to his/her human adventure to enrich it. No formula and no advice - "have a nice ride reader" is what I tell myself when I open a page and begin to read.