Translated by Zachary Scalzo
A Window to Zeewijk
(Bordighera Press, 2021)
It’s a rare sensibility that finds affirmation in a security light. But if you ask Marino Magliani, “It’s a favor—a gift—from life. Knowing that a light will turn on as you walk by. At any time of night, without even meaning to, you must exist.” What’s more, the author-protagonist swiftly makes a connection between this flicker of assurance and his own art form: “You don’t have to write a story in the hopes that the world will stop for you, notice it, read it.” Simply inhabiting a body and casting a shadow seems, for a moment at dusk, as great a fulfillment as bringing off a terrific novel.
But then, A Window to Zeewijk casts a shadow over conventional notions of a novel. The slim text is Magliani’s first in the US, and Emanuele Pettener’s brief introduction terms him “an original, wild author.” What follows certainly bears out the claim: a sly charmer of a fiction, its pleasures delicious but out of the ordinary. Rather than rising threats or eruptions, this tale delights us with small talk, long stares, and the ruminations stirred by both. When the first chapter mentions “rings of Saturn,” the context has nothing to do with W.G. Sebald, but these first few pages have already brought the author to mind. Sure enough, Magliani’s text eventually cites the Anglo-German masterwork—likewise quiet, perambulatory, and going its own way.
Sebald’s Rings, however, drinks in the bracing air of prolonged hikes, whereas Magliani works slowly on a cocktail at his favorite hang. His Italian title, Soggiorno a Zeewijk (published in 2014), suggests a “sojourn,” more than a peek through a window, and the text ambles in streets this narrator knows well, while enjoying familiar company. Off-notes like that, every once in a while, marred Zachary Scalzo’s translation, but never so badly as to rupture the fiction’s spell.
Our protagonist is Magliani himself, more or less, a writer with several earlier “novels”—online, I count sixteen, through 2021—born not far from Genoa but based for years now in the eponymous Amsterdam suburb. Indeed, though Zeewijk visits his homeland, its dialect recalls the cross-cultural pollination of Ligurians like Christopher Columbus, and its narrow farm terraces look like the streets up by the North Sea. As a result, the very point of view upsets dramatic expectation. This man so receptive to local fillips (wow, a security light!) is himself a local.
More than that, the blocks on which Magliani strolls don’t offer the complex European strata, often soaked in blood, so integral to Sebald’s fiction. Zeewijk is a recent development, reclaimed from sea and swamp. In the opening pages we meet the narrator’s closest Dutch friend, the older Piet, and this man explains the neighborhood “was my father’s dream… the expansion of Holland.” The dredging and packing this required establishes a central metaphor, that of a life “founded on sand,” with “a flaneur of the sands” as its principal player. And if that weren’t vertiginous enough, the narrator calls his precinct, or whatever it is, “an installation,” worked up from late-nineteenth-century sketches. This urban plan named the streets not after kings or guildhalls, but after the stars and constellations: Belletrixstraat, Orionweg. When our wanderer finds himself stirred by a passing stranger-woman, he ponders: “which star did She live on?”
That woman provides a bit of plot, a lipstick-blur. She and Magliani draw closer, for while he’s too distracted to count as a stalker, he does find out where she lives. The relationship they establish, however, would be hard to match for its tentativeness.
The narrator often gets to spy on other people’s lives, actually. During sunset rambles accompanied by “the laughing seagulls, Zeewijk’s constant soundtrack,” he’s often set chuckling—if thoughtfully—because the Dutch leave their shades and shutters open well into the evening. This triggers fine and subtle meditations, on the shifts in perspective as the light changes, or the shifts in location usage as these unglamorous blocks develop:
The eye gets used to new lights. Where there used to be a full room of screaming and trembling color, a Zeepunk rumble of Nordic metal bands, you’re now lost in an unfocused penumbra of sophisticated and serious women crouched over their laptops… kitchens with electric stovetops and modern ovens, crystal objects.
A story founded in sand also calls to mind the hourglass, to be sure: a limited space that sees innumerable small changes, over and over, as “each thing is subject to time’s lottery.” A novel too has its number in that lottery, its particular grain and color. The prominent feature in this one, allowing it to end on a note both mystical and enriching, turns out to be neither a love affair nor, as in Sebald, some historic cataclysm. Rather, what matters most is friendship, the special communion it affords, one that could mean transcendence, even for “an invisible writer of sidereal prose… living in its own kingdom on the margins.”