My cousin Rachel

There is a cosy little cinema tucked away from the main complexes in one of those alleys only locals wold seek. I even like its name – Lighthouse.

From time to time, when a promise of a good story coincides with a session only few people would attend, I treat myself to sitting for couple of hours or so in an almost empty theatre transported into whatever world opens before me.

I judge how good a movie was by the length of time it takes me to return to the world around me.

Which some might call the real world but to me ‘real’ has always been rather fluid notion.

Who is to say that the world we think of as ‘real’ simply because we can touch it –  is any more (or less) ‘real’ than those worlds we cannot touch – but are rather touched by?

It was with those thoughts, or some variation of them, that I went to see ‘My cousin Rachel’.

If I am to summon it in one sentence – I would say that it is a story of possibilities. It has been described as a mystery, a speculation, even a dark thriller … but to me none of those descriptors really fits.

To me the whole story – the one viewer is openly presented with as well as the one hidden and only hinted at, are the tales of possibilities. Probabilities, risks and chances, a woman determined to be a master of her own destiny is prepared to take in order to accomplish that goal.

When a wealthy but rather lonely country gentlemen (Ambrose) leaves his picturesque Cornish estate to travel to Italy to improve his health, leaving behind his young cousin (Phillip) who he has raised alone since the youngster was orphaned as an infant, the lives of them both are set to change forever.

In Italy, Ambrose meets and falls in love with Rachel, a beautiful and mysterious woman with, it is said, a somewhat excessive past. The letters Ambrose sends to his young cousin in England alternate between state of newlywed’s blissful happiness to cruel sufferings inflicted on him by his wife and his tormenter – Rachel. Some of the letters seem written in secret and haste beseeching Philip to come to Ambrose’s rescue as soon as he possibly could.

Confused and angry, Philip travels to Italy resolved to rescue his cousin from whatever evil has befallen him there.

But he is too late.

Ambrose is dead and Rachel is gone to an unknown destination.

Or so an elegant Italian lawyer tells him. He is the only one left behind to sort the dead man’s affairs.

Lawyer’s attempt to explain how very seek Ambrose was and how his illness caused him to hallucinate and even display violence towards his wife, are met with Philip’s deep suspicion and an open dislike.

Bereaved and outraged, Philip returns to England only to learn that despite all the suspicions – legal papers prove that Rachel did not benefit from the death of her husband. Not even a small living allowance had been provided for her as it was customary for a widow.

Philip’s conviction that Rachell caused his cousin’s death to inherit his wealth no longer holds any substance.

Were Ambrose’s frightened letters really just hallucinations of a man dying from a brain tumour?

But it will not be long until news of Rachel’s arrival to Cornwell estate stirs new theories.

Phillip’s determination to meet Rachel with nothing less than open hostility soon melts like a left-over snow under an early spring’s gaze.

Philip, a dewy-eyed youth whose experience with women do not extend further than a comfortable companionship of his wholesome childhood friend, a daughter of his godfather and guardian, who, by everyone’s account, he should one day marry, is bewitched and besotted by Rachel within days of her arrival.

Exotic, secretive, seductive Rachel.

Woman determined to live her own life on her own terms.

Woman who, in the 19th century England, refuses to explain or justify her actions to anyone, least of all a man.

When Phillip arranges for a generous allowance to be provided for Rachel – she is outraged.

When his guardian warns him of a significant overdraft she had rapidly amassed, Philip’s answers is to double the allowance to cover the overdraft.

When he gifts his late mother’s precious pearl neckless to Rachel for their first Christmas together, she returns them to his guardian to assuage his disapproval.

While Philip cannot wait to reach the age when he will be able to make his own decision, which for him means transferring the estate to Rachel who, he believes, should be its rightful owner after Ambrose’s death, not to mention a story of an unsigned will, Rachel describes Phillip as “a glorious puppy, miserable and wet-nosed, looking for its mother.” When she kisses him goodnight and tells him to “go to bed like a good boy” there is no escaping Oedipal reminder.

And still, once they become lovers, Philip is certain that they will marry soon.

It takes his wholesome childhood friend who is suffering silently while watching her beloved felling ever deeper under Rachel’s spell, to explain that Rachel is not likely to marry him since that would mean, by the provisions he made himself while arranging the estate’s transfer, that she will be answerable to him as her husband.

Philip, as any man of his time and no small number of contemporary men wold, found the idea that Rachel would value her freedom more than marriage astounding.

Still he brings her all the jewels he can lay his hands on in a scene that artfully portrays youthful extravagances born from the first passionate love.

It would be some time before Philip found that Rachel returned all the jewels to his lawyer.

Were they not to her liking? Or perhaps not opulent enough?

After all it is said that she is a woman of refine taste and unbridled excesses.

Is she really after the whole estate so to be as wealthy and therefore as independent as any man? So that she can do as she pleases including inviting her Italian lawyer friend to stay on the estate for as long as he wishes. Something, painfully jealous Philip would not allow.

When Philip starts suffering from the symptoms his dead cousin once did, while Rachel continue to brew bitter testing teas for him, it all points to one conclusion – Rachel is plotting Philip’s death in much the same way she did Ambrose’s. Only this time all the necessary legal papers are well in order.

On an early spring morning, as bright as bluebells growing in the nearby woods, Philip arranges for his wholesome friend to visit them and sends Rachel riding towards paths known to be treacherous at that time of year.

As soon as Rachel leaves the house, Philip and the young lady rush to search her room. But they could not find evidence of any wrong-doing.

All they found is the letter from Philip’s lawyer itemizing jewels Rachel returned to his safe-keeping.

And the letter she wrote to her Italian lawyer friend, who turned out to be gay, seeking his advice on whether to bring Philip to Italy with her.

Then there is a commotion in the yard outside and summons to hurry. Rachel has been found dead at the bottom of a cliff thrown off her horse on a path made slippery by the early spring.

Woman who seems to have heartlessly plotted to kill two men only to advance herself – dies while riding along the path suggested by the one of them.

Was it a chance?

Who is to blame?

Was she really poisoning Philip and Ambrose before him?

Or where they both so mesmerised by her unusual beauty, strength and independence, so rare in a woman of her time, that they eventually become ill from their futile attempts to rain her in? To conform to the world they know it as real.

In the last scene of the movie, Philip is seen sitting in his carriage on a bright summer day driving in a company of his wife – yes, his wholesome childhood friend and their two cherubic looking children.

His internal dialogue reveals he is still wondering whether or not Rachel was a poisoner?

And he still suffers from migraines.

Last credits drifted away, music stopped and the small theatre descended in complete darkness before I drag myself into the ‘real’ world – cold and wet winter night in Wellington.

Mal di pietre (The House in Via Manno)

The House in Via Mano (published in Italy as Mal di pietre), is Milena Agus’ second novel. The novel won three Italian literary awards and has been a bestseller in Italy, France, and Germany.  I read somewhere that a film adaptation of the novel is to follow.

I did not know anything of what I just wrote above when I first came across the tiny volume (120 pages in total). What attracted me to it was the volumes’ cover that looked oddly familiar. And that it was written by an Italian woman, (Milena was born in Genoa to Sardinian parents, and now lives in Cagliari where she teaches at secondary school).  In one of my previous lives I lived in Italy for almost two years, the place left a permanent mark in me.

The House in Via Manno is one of those books, and not that there are many of them, every mother should gift to her daughters and make sure they read it. Because it is an exploration of womanhood in the truest sense possible; through the search for perfect love, told in a powerfully whimsical voice of a highly skilled and truly honest writer. TheHouseinViaManno_LR_titlecover

A young Sardinian woman narrates the life of her paternal grandmother; her Nonna. Nonna is an unforgettable character; bewitchingly beautiful, hopelessly romantic … a dreamer with fierce loyalties and unbridled passions.

Nonna is also somewhat crazy, or everyone things so, especially her mother to whom Nona’s unusual and eccentric behaviours brings nothing but worries and shame in the small Sardinian village at the beginning of the Second World War. But Nonna is on the quest to find perfect love and nothing will deter her from it. Worse yet, she freely expresses her passionate feelings to any number of young suitors who are initially attracted by Nonna’s beauty, but soon stop turning up. Nonna is a gifted writer!

In May 1943, Nonna married Nonno and along the way, against the struggles of war, the stunning beauty of Sardinian landscapes, a magical story is told of a family, love, loss and mysterious Veteran, the man of Nonna dreams whom she meets in the autumn of 1950. But nothing can possible prepare the reader for the last few pages and surprise they hide!

I read the book in a night. Once I closed the last page and traced my fingers over the cover, I realized why it looked familiar. Flowery pattern climbing upwards forming a border remained me of a tablecloth my Nonna used to spread over our kitchen table on Sundays, or when we had visitors. And then I remembered that my own grandparents also married in 1943 … and all the stories they told during those years I lived with them, which was all my life, before crossing the oceans.

Small anniversary!

Zagreb

It is today; three months to the day the first spark illuminated the Lantern … and since then so many wonderful, kind and generous souls have passed by, or stopped below the Lantern’s glow. For that I thank you with all my twinkling heart. The Lantern’s heart twinkles with, and for you all. And for all of those who may yet come to pass. Because whenever anyone finds even just a tiny flicker of solace in the Lantern’s glow, she sparkles brighter! To honour the Lantern’s origins, her Croatian roots and her love for all humanity, below is the poem after which the Lantern was named. It says it all … all that the Lantern stands for in this world of ours.

Because the Lantern now glows in an English speaking land, English translation is first, and the original follows. I have translated the poem in English today … it was an experiment and a challenge from which I have learned a great deal.

The poem ‘Gas Lantern on Gric’ (Plinska lanterna na Gricu) was panned by a Croatian poet; Vjekoslav Majer (1900 – 1975). Majer’s gas lantern stood on Gric; the old part of Zagreb. The Lantern’s background and logo are from the same place. This part of Zagreb known as the Upper Town of Gradec, (or Gric as it was called) originates from 13th century. The place has a very interesting history.

If you would like a glimpse of Zagreb as it was when Majer wrote this poem:

Gas Lantern on Gricu

Here I am;

an old-fashioned gas lantern.

Even Matos was standing below me,

cursing and despairing over this city.

Snow sweeping his raglan.

Often he would vanish

into the night cussing.

But I would only smile,

because I knew, he would return.

To stand here for a long time,

so long that his shoes freeze to the ground.

In the morning when I shrivelled and died,

city lied under me red and silent;

and I did not know whether dawn was bleeding over the hill,

or whether Matos had lost a verse by verse in snow.

Then, the war arrived.

The whole day music was screaming from the city,

Oh how sad trumpets cried against my glass!

Standing below, old Gric’s crones wept desperately,

drying their tears and staring towards Italy.

And many I knew when passing beneath, I never

saw again.

Now only rats pass through their chests.

For the first time I was ashamed of people.

After the war,

many plum gentlemen were passing by,

with fat, red necks,

and many with hunger sleeping in their faces.

Oh yes, lots of new things arrived to this city,

I know; someone will remove me too.

And when the fitter’s hand touches me,

My glass would clink for the last time.

And so you know; that would be my old, honest heart

breaking for

Gric.

Here I am;

an old-fashioned gas lantern.

************************************************************************

Plinska lantern na Gricu

Tu sam laterna plinska,

vec starinska.

Poda mnom jos je Matos stajao

I nad tim gradom zdvajao I kleo.

Snijeg je po njegovom raglanu meo.

Cesto bi kunuci nestao u noci,

a ja bih se tiho smjeskala

jer znala sam, on ce opet doci

I dugo stajati tu

Tako da mu se katkada cipele vec

primrzle k tlu.

A jutrom kada bih se smreskala

I ugasla

poda mnom grad bi lezao crven I tih;

tad nisam znala da l’ zora krvari po brijegu

ili je to Matos izgubio stih po stih

na snijegu.

Na to je dosao rat.

Cio dan su iz grada glazbe jecale.

kako su tuzno medu mojim staklima zvecale

trompete!

Babe sa Grica poda mnom su stajale,

suze brisale I zdvajale,

prema Italiji zurile.

I mnoge, koji poda mnom su bili,

nisam nikada vise vidjela.

sada im stakor prolazi kroz grudi.

Tada sam se prvi put zastidjela

Ljudi.

A nakon rata

Mnogo je debele gospode poda mnom proslo

tustoga I crvenoga vrata,

ali I lica na kojima spava glad.

Da, mnogo je toga novog doslo

u taj grad,

pa znam; I mene ce netko da makne,

i kad me se ruka montera takne

zabrencat cu jos zadnji puta muklo.

Tad znajte; to moje je staro I posteno srce

za Gricem puklo.

Tu sam laterna plinska;

starinska, starinska.