In honour of Women In Translation Month, we present the short story “August’s Saints” by Anne Ruchat from the collection Neptune’s Years on Earth, co-translated from the Swiss-Italian by Eleanor Chapman and Lucy Rand.
The collection, which is yet unpublished in English, is composed of twelve short stories, one for each month of the year. Set across four decades from the sixties to the early 21st century, each story starts with an epigraph detailing a real historical event — from the announcement of the Schwarzenbach initiative in 1970 to the bombings of the Gaza strip in 2008 — while offering glimpses into the characters’ everyday lives to explore the currents of time.
4th August 1995
Croatia, with NATO backing, launches Operation Storm against the Serbian rebels.
‘Today’s St. Bartholomew’s Day, and tomorrow St. Roch’s.’ I opened the glass door barefoot, still in my nightshirt – it’s been extremely hot these last few days, even here in this old house, just a few hundred metres from the lake. An unusually sweltering end to August after a cool and rainy July, but he’s wearing a thick, woolly jumper coming down almost to his knees, blue corduroy trousers, socks and closed-toe shoes. He’s just as tall as before, but hunched and a lot thinner after his heart operation. His clothes are hanging off him.
‘Today’s St. Bartholomew’s Day, and tomorrow St. Roch’s.’ It’s eight o’ clock, and he must have already come by once this morning, because when I arrived in the kitchen half an hour ago, there was a yellow flower on the door handle, one of the kind that grow wild on the side of the garden path. Just as well, it means today he hasn’t taken anything from the vegetable patch, where he often steals an iris or a daffodil or an orange canna lily, much to the annoyance of the neighbours who grow them but don’t dare complain.
St. Bernard’s Day had brought me a magnificent sunflower. ‘Today is St. Bernard’s Day, and tomorrow Pius X’s.’ He doesn’t say ‘St. Pius X’s,’ he just says, ‘Pius X’s,’ and smiles conspiratorially. He still has extremely thick, bright grey hair cut short, and, although his wife still takes care of him, like she did before, when he was a renowned architect with exacting standards when it came to elegance and smartness, he seems scruffy and happy. He has the air of someone who’s finally made peace with the world, can even hold it at bay, thanks to the calendar of saints.
His is a kindly madness, made up of flowers, fruits and vegetables, of words which have never left his mouth before and are now uttered with a childish frankness. ‘Today is St. Thecla’s Day,’ it’s thought he said last year at the end of September, when, under the pergola, he bumped into one of the people who lived in the old house, someone who used to be his friend and colleague. ‘St. Thecla, her with the big tits,’ he added dreamily in dialect, and then walked off dragging his feet along the grass and holding his hands behind his back. Who knows where St. Thecla’s big tits had sprung from, who knows how many faces and bodies the saints’ names dredge up from the depths of time.
‘And besides, he’s lucky,’ his wife said to me yesterday. ‘He’s got this big garden to walk around, where he can meet people who he’s always had around him, and their children and their grandchildren. Just think, if we lived in a normal apartment, I’d have had to put him in a clinic a fair while ago.’
But instead he’s here, sat only ever in his Landi chair pushed up against the wall, or possibly wandering around the garden. When I arrive and bring friends to greet him, if he’s in a good mood or if the person I introduce him to isn’t too suspect, he also announces to them the saint of the day. Of course he is lucky, and seems to know it, even though when the morning’s round of saints is done, he sits almost all day long with his head down on the metal chair with its round holes, positioned on one side of the large garden, opposite the house he designed for himself and his family forty years ago. A reinforced concrete cube divided into two triangles facing each other – an example of rationalist, almost autistic, architecture that students from as far away as Japan came to see.
‘Today is St. Bartholomew’s Day, and tomorrow is St. Roch’s, and this is a flower from the Bolletta,’ he says to me today, extending branch with a few shaky little leaves towards me, as if to say ‘look how good I’ve been, I haven’t taken any flowers from the vegetable patch.’
I look at his shoes. Did he really go that far down the muddy banks? The ‘Bolletta’ is the stream of water, now almost dried up, that runs through the garden to the nearby lake, carrying mice, wharf rats, and sometimes the odd ash-grey heron.
‘Today is St. Bartholomew’s Day, and tomorrow is St. Roch’s, and you’ve painted your nails,’ he says with a stern look fixed on my feet. It seems almost like a reproach. I’m dumbfounded. Is he making fun of me? Is it a return to the old moralism of youth?
‘Yes, you noticed?’ I reply. ‘I painted them green. Do you like them?’
‘Very much,’ he says looking at the ground, then immediately starts to move away. This morning, too, I thank him, I greet him, and I try to keep on course with him. No question or piece of information that strays from saints or the weather. ‘Have a good day,’ he adds. ‘It’s finally Monday tomorrow.’
It’s not Monday tomorrow, but what surprises me more is that ‘finally,’ said in that sly manner like a secret, his eyes narrow but shining, that ‘finally’ that seems like a promise. Tomorrow will be something different to this infinite Sunday of his life in the fringes. Or perhaps he simply got confused with the saints and these repetitive gestures, this cycle of faces that grow old with him. They’re the crutches of an existence that doesn’t rush, but proceeds with grandiose, melancholy irony towards its conclusion.
Anna Ruchat is a multiple award-winning Swiss Italian poet, novelist and translator. Born in Zurich, she began her literary career as a translator from the German, before making her debut as a writer with the short story collection In questa vita (In This Life) in 2004, which won the Premio Chiara, and as a poet in 2006 with the collection Geografia senza fiume (Geography without rivers). Since then she has published a number of highly acclaimed novels, short stories and poetry collections, and in 2019 won the Swiss Literature Prize with Gli anni di Nettuno sulla terra: Neptune’s Years on Earth.
Eleanor Chapman graduated from the University of Cambridge with a First in Italian, French, Modern Greek and Old Norse and is currently a PhD candidate researching in the intersection of Translation Studies and Critical Border Studies at the University of Glasgow. She translates for charities and NGOs, including UNESCO and the Italian trade union CISL, and her work has recently appeared in Dinamo Press and Freedom Press. After attending the British Centre for Literary Translation Summer School 2019, she is now pursuing her real passion: literary texts.
Lucy Rand is the translator of the international bestseller The Phone Box at the Edge of the World by Laura Imai Messina, out with Manilla Press (Zaffre) in June 2020. She regularly translates and edits for publishers in the UK, the US and Italy, and her work has been published in LitHub, Litro Magazine, Doppiozero, Cagibi and The Journal of Postcolonial Writing. She also runs a blog where she publishes reviews of Italian books that should be translated into English, at lucyrand.com.
Video art by Hyujin Kim