THE DAYS OF ABANDONMENT
by Elena Ferrante
There sometimes erupts in our midst a voice so powerful that it cannot be ignored. That speaks in words rooted in reason, yet appeals unabashedly and undeniably to emotion. That questions and answers, pleases yet puzzles, appeases then assaults, scorns and shocks. That carries us aboard a roller coaster of discovery and sensation, motoring relentlessly and ruthlessly through the tortuous bends not only in the story that it is narrating but in our own lives as well, revealing us to ourselves. And that continues to echo in our minds long after it has spoken its last.
Elena Ferrante is one such powerful voice of contemporary fiction. A voice that I had been hypnotised by in her Neapolitan series, leading me on to The Days of Abandonment. A comparatively slim offering but just as compellingly hypnotic.
The storyline is threadbare. One April afternoon, Olga, a woman of 38, finds herself suddenly and inexplicably dumped by her husband Mario. A man whom she had loved sincerely, for whom she had put her own career on hold, with whom she had two young children, and who had grown to become the fulcrum of her existence, exits. At first in denial, she persuades herself that this is at most a temporary aberration, or an “absence of sense” as he had occasionally shown in the past, and that he would inevitably return. His wilful duplicity is however revealed when she discovers that a pretty young woman has been in his life for some years. Age supplanted by youth in man’s quest for (carnal) gratification.
Grappling with her changed reality, she is frequently accosted by the memory of the poverella from the neighbourhood where she grew up, the abandoned wife who slides from happy well-being to impoverished desolation and ultimately commits suicide.
The days and months that follow are a painful but failing struggle to retain a semblance of normalcy, to go through all the routine steps of living each day, both for herself and for her children. And then one horridly hot day in August, the day after a bizarre sexual escapade with her cellist neighbour, she finds herself physically and mentally trapped in her apartment. Suffering from a deep derangement, disturbing hallucinations, a spiralling down into a dark abyss of rage, anguish and despair, she battles through and thankfully resurfaces to retrieve her sanity. This newfound mental equilibrium, though precarious, is supported by a clear realisation that she no longer loves her husband, and by a desire to return to the essence of her earlier self by effacing all of his impressions on her personality.
Ferrante places the woman’s psyche under a gigantic microscope, ferreting out with forensic precision its multiple layers, facets and complexities. There were several instances in the first half of the book when I felt like screaming at Olga in frustration. Woman! Get a grip! And a life of your own! But therein lies Ferrante’s genius, ruthlessly exposing the man centric whorls of the protagonist’s life, her pitiable lack of self-esteem, her defining her very raison d’être through her husband, and her abject confusion on desertion, and then delving so deep into her agony that one suspects it to be her own. One needs to have both loved and lost to depict in such elaborately textured and resonant detail all the nuances of that suffering.
The writing is brilliant. Simple language, raw at times in matching Olga’s naked pain and anger, hard-hitting in the portrayal of man-woman relationships, examining the mother and child dynamics without placing motherhood on its customary virtuous pedestal, and rutally explicit in describing sexual episodes. Little actually happens in terms of events or narrative, Mario and his girlfriend hovering mostly on the periphery of her real space though completely swamping her mind and heart. Yet there is a pace in the writing that keeps in step with Olga’s accentuating mental turmoil, shifting gears from an even rhythm in the opening chapters, upping the momentum when she gives in to a maniacal rage on seeing Mario and Carla together, and then hurtling through during the crescendo of her near breakdown.
Yes, there were times when I felt it all to be a relentless onslaught of details, when I (prudishly) squirmed at the sexual imagery, when I wondered, good so far but where exactly is this headed? But this isn’t the usual narrative. Nor is it a new one, this track has been trodden many a time before. No, this is a mirror that shows a woman what she truly is, how and why she thinks and feels the way she does, how and why she submerges her own persona to accommodate another’s, how and why she is confounded when the anchor that she has moored herself with is suddenly wrenched away and she is cast miserably adrift, and what then. The mirror is neither flattering nor sympathetic.
There were so many concepts thrown up, so many expressions and phrases that made me go, Wow!
Cutting oneself to pieces to look for something within, which could, in fact, be a calling card for Ferrante’s writing.
The preference for stability in affections and the threat of sinking through the security net of relationships.
Or, disparagingly describing grief as gaudy.
Or again, reality without rouge.
What is the face, she asks, but a disguise of our living nature?
Or again, her crazed fear that the “odour of motherhood” had ruined her appeal.
Or then the passage where she comments “What a complex foamy mixture a couple is,” assimilating each other’s attributes.
Her brooding that her children would become a “half-caste din”.
The casual remark that she loved the dog Otto but only after his death.
So so many….
Hold that mirror and look if you have the appetite for reality. Reality without rouge.