BOOKS / My heart doesn't belong to Daddy: Dina Rabinovitch talks to Cristina Comencini about her acclaimed first novel

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The Independent Culture
Cristina Comencini's first novel deals with father-daughter relationships - and when her own father, a film director, read The Missing Pages (Chatto, pounds 9.99) he telephoned his daughter at once. 'I'm in shock,' he said. 'This pains me.' Cristina, in turn, telephoned her mentor, the Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg. 'Come on round,' said the older woman. 'We'll talk about it. My father didn't speak to me for a year, when I wrote about such a relationship.'

The Missing Pages is about a father who has three daughters but is unable to show his feelings. He has spent his life trying to understand life, without letting sentiment obscure the issues. Such rationalising provokes a maelstrom of emotions in his daughters.

Having been close as children, the girls become increasingly jealous and antagonistic with each other as they get older. 'Because of the father's silence,' said Comencini, 'they ask themselves: does he love me. This sets one against the other.'

Things begin to go wrong when the youngest daughter, Federica, the one of whom the father feels most fond, the one he teaches on his knee - suddenly stops talking. Her throat seizes up. 'Purely psychological,' pronounce the doctors.

Incensed by the diagnosis, the father takes his mute daughter away on a holiday. What follows does not really say anything new about father-daughter relationships, but is gripping nonetheless. The writing is easy, sliding past the eyes like silk down the catwalk and making this reader, for one, jump up and down with glee.

The Missing Pages was published to 'enormous acclaim' in Italy, with an introduction by Natalia Ginzburg, the last piece Ginzburg wrote before she died. (Remarkably, Comencini's publishers over here have managed to omit the introduction from the English edition.)

But what of the writer? Comencini is instantly recognisable against the country-house interior of London's Four Seasons Hotel. Muted Italian fawns and greys, sharp trousers, soft jumper, chiselled features and easy hair - classical grace against the chintz. The second of four daughters with a strong father, Comencini married young, at 18, to get away from her privileged, protected home. Educated at the French Lycee in Rome, she polished off an economics degree - a would-be writer who took economics because 'I wanted to understand reality' - just before giving birth to her first child. She worked as a business journalist for a while, before starting to write screenplays for Papa.

'My father is like Forte (the father in the novel), of course,' said Comencini. 'He is from the North, a very silent who has difficulty expressing his feelings, even though he is an artist. What happens is he doesn't express himself in private life; only in his movies. He is a man with four daughters, and he specialises in films with young boys as the hero - he made Pinocchio, for example - this is about himself, don't you think? For a daughter, the father is important, no? If someone is silent, you have to discover him.'

Her other legacy from her father is her bilingualism. Her father had lived in France, and sent her to the lycee. This has been a real asset as a writer, she says. 'I'm between two cultures,' she said. 'My Italian is different from other writers of my generation - my sentences are shorter. When you have one other language that you know as well as your mother language, you can work on the language that you write in, to clean it, to simplify it.'

Comencini's second marriage began four years ago, when she was 32. As she puts it, 'my life matured, and I could begin writing'. She sent the novel to Ginzburg for the simple reason that all the Italian publishers are in Milan, not Rome, but Ginzburg lived right in the centre of Rome in a house with many flights of stairs, and a great many cats. Ginzburg liked the book a lot, and found a publisher for Comencini. These things happen.

Now, as a writer, she is on her own. She remains nervy of reviews, but the success of the first novel seems to have given her courage. The only part of the book which was criticised in Italy (and which I too thought too cinematic) was the sub-plot about the daughter and a young boyfriend, Mario.

Comencini says: 'Originally the part about Mario was 40 pages longer. Then Natalia told me to cut it - she said that was another book, really. So I made it shorter. Now I find it a bit disconnected from the rest of the plot. The reviewers were critical, but I think it's very important to the story - everything happens when she meets this young boy, it's a love story without names, a world where words don't count. I know so many teenagers like that - they stay together without words.' Next time, one gets the impression, the writer will rely on her own instincts.

Unscathed by family reactions to The Missing Pages - her daughter, Julia, has a similar problem with her father, while her teenage son is embarrassed at having a suddenly famous mother who looks more like an older sister - Comencini has decided to become a writer full-time. She has, in fact, already finished her second novel. It is called Family Passions, and this time, it is about her mother's side of the family.

'They are Neapolitans, very warm, very passionate - this time I will really have trouble,' the author says, smiling.

(Photograph omitted)

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