Hollow Heart by Viola di Grado (tr. Antony Shugaar). Europa Editions. $16.00, 176 pp.
Viola di Grado’s Hollow Heart is, for starters, extremely difficult to describe. A fearless and complex sophomore effort, Hollow Heart records in first-person the aftermath of a young woman’s suicide. Some essence of Dorotea Giglio continues to go to work, hang around her mother’s house, and at one point even travel to London for a posthumous Amy Winehouse show; all the while the decomposition of her physical body is described in vivid, excruciating detail. Hollow Heart is certainly a novel about death, but more than anything it is this tension of binaries—life/death, individual/universe, mother/daughter—in which opposites coexist and ultimately collapse that defines its character as a work.
The first binary set is more or less self-evident in that the novel is actively narrated by a dead person (or perhaps, rather, narrated by an actively dead person). While much time is spent illustrating the rotting of her flesh and description of the various chthonic creatures that make their residence therein, and her ability to interact with the living is limited, Dorotea is at least alive enough to transmit her story. This irony is not lost on her: “since I’ve died I’ve forgotten how to read” she states, “but I still know how to write. . . . It’s very sad: you write down your thoughts and before you know it they’re no longer yours.” This ability to write yet not read poses an interesting reversal of the dead’s usual ability to perceive while unable to be perceived, though it never becomes clear to what end.
The conflation and contrast between the individual and universal is more subtle and rests largely in Di Grado’s prosaic choices, but is still stated outright from the novel’s first line: “In 2011 the world ended: I killed myself.” The brief first chapter goes on to describe the movement of death from the specific to the general in gripping, colorful prose: Dorotea’s death spreads from the “grim mojito” of the bathtub, where her body lies down the streets of Catania, through an eruption of Mt Etna, and outward across the Earth. These opening pages read somewhat abstractly, and it is ambiguous just how literally the reader is meant to take them. However, in true surrealist fashion, it makes little difference whether one prefers to read the chapter literally or as metaphor. While the rest of the novel does not describe the global expanse of Dorotea’s death covered in its first pages, the opening chapter serves as something of a microcosm of the novel to follow.
Though Hollow Heart is centered on the death of Dorotea Giglio, the narrative does not much rely on or emphasize the specificity of its contemporary Sicilian setting, or even in many ways the details of Dorotea’s life or character. This may be the point: “When they’re alive,” Di Grado writes, “people are so free that they need boundaries . . . the rip-off comes when you find out the truth. There’s no wall, no dividing line, no boundary, no end. . . . I’m equal to everything.” However, this reading is somewhat undercut by the complex relationships maintained by individual dead to their bodies, as well as the individuality maintained by Dorotea in her letters to fellow dead and her relationship with her mother. Whether or not this is intentional by Di Grado (and one could certainly argue that it is), it is probably best not to look to Hollow Heart for a final message or cleanly constructed metaphysical frameworks. Its aim is to provide an aesthetic experience of the contemplation of death, rather than an argued treatise on the afterlife.
Despite certain small issues it poses to the book’s structure, the mother-daughter component is perhaps the most compelling element of the story. Reminiscent of Nobel laureate Elfriede Jelinek’s The Piano Teacher, Dorotea and Greta Giglio’s relationship is characterized by troubled obsession and a tendency toward the psychoanalytic. A largely unsuccessful children’s fashion photographer, Greta spent much of Dorotea’s childhood trying to “make her disappear entirely” through stylized shots with long exposure times, causing the young Dorotea’s features to blend into her surroundings—notably similar to the blurring of identity which she describes after her death. Dorotea commits suicide in the same bathtub she was born in, and when she finds herself as rejected and lonely in death as she was in life, plots for her mother to die in the same place. Coupled with Dorotea’s description of the anniversary of her death as a “birthday,” this creates an ouroboros-like structure in which mother and daughter destroy and give birth to one another. To the extent that Hollow Heart has a center, that center is Dorotea and Greta. All Dorotea’s other relationships—with her own body, other characters, men—eventually subordinate themselves to the mother-daughter bond.
This is particularly interesting in the case of the two women’s romantic relationships. With the exception of Dorotea’s boss at the stationery store, Hollow Heart’s male characters are notable precisely for their absence; they serve chiefly as catalysts for changes within the mother-daughter dynamic. Dorotea never knew her father, and he is described only as “a former classmate” of her mother; while Lorenzo’s rejection is somewhat superficially portrayed early in the novel as a significant factor in Dorotea’s suicide, the one time we see him in Dorotea’s memory he appears oblivious to her, a blank slate on which she has superimposed her own emotions. Lorenzo’s failure to acknowledge Dorotea’s declaration of love during their relationship—either because he has not heard her or refuses to—is mirrored in Alberto’s near-complete inability to perceive her at all after she has died. This mirroring implies a subtle yet disturbing suggestion about the nature of relationships between women and men in general: for Di Grado, perhaps, men are rarely quite willing or able to perceive women as they are. The one exception to this general rule is Mario, who seems to carry on a stable relationship with his wife despite her passing several years prior.
However, while these kinds of observations on the nature of things are repeatedly, obliquely hinted at, they never quite come to fruition. The reader can never be certain what messages are being sent or which questions should actually be considered, and often it seems that Di Grado herself is not sure either. The text offers few cues to distinguish between authorial choices intended to enlighten and those meant to amuse (or, for that matter, not meant for anything in particular)—and while textual ambiguity is hardly a sin, the combined effect of all those found in Hollow Heart is ultimately to prevent the book’s passage from good to masterful. That being said, it should be emphasized that Hollow Heart is indeed a good book, and one whose darkly quirky sensibilities should encourage all who encounter it to keep a close eye on Viola Di Grado.
Ariel Starling is a writer living in NYC.
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