The Independent Foreign Fiction Award: The echo of an echo

FOR WHAT was the road I sought if not a repeat of my father's, but dug out of the depths of another otherness, the upperworld (or hell) of humanity, what were my eyes seeking in the dimly lit porches of the night (sometimes the shadow of a woman would disappear inside) if not the half-open door, the cinema screen to pass through, the page to turn that leads into a world where all words and shapes become real, present, my own experience, no longer the echo of an echo of an echo.

Talking to each other was difficult. Both verbose by nature, possessed of an ocean of words, in each other's presence we became mute, would walk in silence side by side along the road to San Giovanni. To my father's mind, words must serve as confirmations of things, and as signs of possession; to mine they were foretastes of things barely glimpsed, not possessed, presumed. My father's vocabulary welled outward into the interminable catalogue of the genuses, species and varieties of the vegetable world - every name was a distinction plucked from the dense compactness of the forest in the belief that one had thus enlarged man's dominion - and into technical terminology, where the exactness of the word goes hand in hand with the studied exactness of the operation, the gesture. And this whole Babel-like nomenclature was mashed up in an equally Babel-like idiomatic base, where various languages vied with each other, combining together as need or memory dictated (dialect for anything local and blunt - he had an unusually rich dialect vocabulary, full of words no one used anymore - Spanish for things general and decorous - Mexico had been the backdrop to his most successful years - Italian for rhetoric - he was, in everything, a nineteenth-century man - English - he had been to Texas - for the practical side, French for jokes), the result being a conversational style all woven together with stock refrains promptly trotted out in response to familiar situations, exorcizing the movements of the mind and forming once again a catalogue, parallel to that of his farming vocabulary - and to yet another catalogue of his made up not of words this time but of whistles, twitters, trills, tu-whits and tu-whoos, this arising from his great ability to mimic birdcalls, whether simply by pursing his lips or cupping his hands round his mouth in some particular way, or by using little whistles or gadgets that you blew into or that went off with a spring, a considerable assortment of which he would carry around with him in his hunting jacket.

I could recognize not a single plant or bird. The world of things was mute for me. The words that flowed and flowed inside my head weren't anchored to objects, but to emotions fantasies, forebodings. And all it took was for a scrap of trampled newspaper to find its way beneath my feet and I would be engrossed in soaking up the writing on it . . .

The winner of the Independent Foreign Fiction Award for October/November is The Road to San Giovanni by Italo Calvino (Jonathan Cape, pounds 12.99), translated from the Italian by Tim Parks. It joins The Infinite Plan by Isabel Allende, translated by Margaret Sayers Peden

(HarperCollins) and Fima by Amos Oz, translated by Nicholas de Lange (Chatto) on the shortlist for the pounds 10,000 annual award, which will be announced in May 1994. The judges this month were Beverley Anderson, Anthony Lane and Natasha Walter.

The Road to San Giovanni is a posthumously published collection of five pieces, ranging from a lyrical, elegaic portrait of the author's relationship with his father to a perceptive essay on his obsession with the cinema.

The winner of the Independent Foreign Fiction Award for October/November is The Road to San Giovanni by Italo Calvino (Jonathan Cape, pounds 12.99), translated from the Italian by Tim Parks. It joins The Infinite Plan by Isabel Allende, translated by Margaret Sayers Peden (HarperCollins) and Fima by Amos Oz, translated by Nicholas de Lange (Chatto) on the shortlist for the pounds 10,000 annual award, which will be announced in May 1994. The judges this month were Beverley Anderson, Anthony Lane and Natasha Walter.

The Road to San Giovanni is a posthumously published collection of five essays ranging from a lyrical portrait of the author's relationship with his father to a perceptive essay on his own youthful obsession with the cinema. Many of the author's celebrated preoccupations - with space, with time, with gentle human frailties - are everywhere in evidence.

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