Sunday, May 12, 2013
Dear Mother (Primo Levi)
I haven't been able to determine whether "Cara Mamma," the Primo Levi story from which the following excerpts are taken, has been translated into English. In any case, I came across it in a French translation, on a website with a Japanese-English name, and it's written in the form of a letter home from an ancient Roman soldier stationed in Britain, so we're well into international waters here.
I beg your pardon if I haven't written you after receiving the letter that you sent me last March, and which arrived just as the spring was reaching its end. In this country, spring isn't like it is back home; here, the seasons have no frontiers, it rains winter and summer, and the sun, when it shows itself from behind the clouds, is as feeble in summer as it is in winter — but it rarely shows itself.
If I've been slow to respond, it's because the public scribe to whom I've addressed myself in the past has died. After so many years and so many letters that he wrote for me, we had become friends and I didn't have to explain to him each time who I was and who you were, to tell him where you live, where our village was and what it was like, and everything that one needs to know so that a letter could speak as a messenger might speak.
The public scribe who transcribes my words today arrived a little while ago. He's a wise and educated man, but he's not Latin, nor even a Briton, and he still doesn't know much about the way they live here, so it's I who am helping him more than he helps me. He's not Latin, as I said, he comes from the country of Kent, which is to say from the south, but he has always worked in public service, and he speaks and writes Latin better than I do, now that I'm beginning to forget it. He's also a good magician, who knows how to make it rain, although that's a task that I am equally able to perform, since it rains almost every day. [...]
Imagine that everything here is different from the way it is in Italy: the vegetation, the sheep, the sea, the houses, the clothing, the fish, the shoes; so much so that one is naturally drawn to call these things not by their Latin names but but the names they use here. Don't laugh if I talk of shoes; in a country of rain and mud, shoes are more important than bread, to the extent that here in Vindolanda one finds more tanners and cobblers than soldiers. For three quarters of the year we wear hobnail boots that weigh two pounds each — everyone, even women and children. [...]
Dear Mother, write me and tell me the news from home; the postal service is quite good, your letters reach me in less than sixty days, and even your package arrived in just over sixty days. Here, one is in wool country, but the wool here isn't as soft and proper as the kind you spin. I thank you with all my filial affection; every time I put on my shoes my thoughts will be of you.
The above translation, which is now two removes from what Levi wrote, is mine. The "original" text (with the same ellipses) can be found at A Nice Slice of Tororu Shiru, where it is accompanied by a brief note and bibliographic details.
Update (2015): An authorized translation of this story will presumably be included in the three-volume set of The Complete Works of Primo Levi to be published by Liveright later this year.