Fear of Paradise by Vincent Engel
Translated from the French by Richard Kutner
Publication Date: May 19, 2015
Also available for the Kindle
Fear of Paradise is a story of longing and missed opportunities, separation, the passage of time, and the unforeseen consequences of innocent decisions. Set against the rise of Fascism in 1920s Italy, Vincent Engel’s haunting novel takes us on a journey through a wild and romantic landscape where two lonely adolescents forge a strange and wonderful friendship. Between the sea and the forest in the heart of Puglia lies the village of San Nidro, a village frozen in time. Here, Basilio and Lucia swear their love and loyalty until an irreparable act sets them on a collision course with the tragic reality of history.
For additional information about Vincent's book, please visit his website at:
Publication of this book was made possible by a generous translation grant from the Service de la Promotion des Lettres of the Fédération Wallonie-Bruxelles.
About the Author
Winner of many literary awards, Vincent Engel is a Belgian author of novels, novellas, essays, and plays as well as a professor of literature and history at the University of Louvain. His writing examines memory and the often conflicting links between rebellions and revolutions. Mr. Engel's works form a body of fiction in which each book is part of an ensemble, yet remains an entity unto itself, with the landscape, history, and culture of Italy at the forefront.
Since 2008 he has pursued his dramatic writing vigorously, notably in collaboration with Franco Dragone, a director known for his innovative approach to theater in his work with Cirque du Soleil.
Vincent has written fourteen novels published by major publishers in France, Belgium, and Quebec. In addition, he has co-written film scenarios and has published a biography of the Belgian priest and cosmologist Georges Lemaître, creator of the Big Bang Theory.
Fear of Paradise is available from Follett Library Services, YBP, Coutts, Brodart, Baker & Taylor, and Ingram Book Distributors.
About the Translator
Richard Kutner has a bachelor’s degree magna cum laude in French literature from Yale University and a master’s degree in education from New York University. He has been doing creative translation from French to English and English to French for many years, including film narration and subtitles, song lyrics (for Disney and Larry King Jazz), short stories, and children’s books. His first translation of a novel, Fear of Paradise (La peur du paradis) by acclaimed Belgian author Vincent Engel, is being published in the US by Owl Canyon Press in May 2015.
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Fear of Paradise
He had come down to the beach. He needed to feel the burning grains of sand under his feet, then the salty coolness at the water's edge. He needed to turn his back to the steep cliff, to the grey stone and greenness. To drown the images of the village and its inhabitants in the serene grandeur of the sea, the white of the houses in the blue blending of sky and waves. He needed not to be where people thought he should be, where they were waiting for him. Where the one who no longer existed was lying— the one who would never return to this beach. The one who would never again need anyone else.
There was no wind. Basilio sighed. The wind would have helped to sweep away the thoughts that tormented him, that prevented him from abandoning himself body and soul to contemplation and forgetting, from being only a gaze toward the horizon. Growing up would bring him complete control—control that could lead his mind to silence, extinguishing the incessant yammer of a worried woman. At least he hoped so. When the wind did blow, it helped only to a certain extent. Fragments of thoughts attached themselves to him one after another, like twigs and dead leaves blown by the sudden gusts.
On the beach, the sun was forced to merge its heat with the almost imperceptible gentleness of the breeze. The tongue of sand that extended left and right to infinity seemed like a tired mermaid come to rest here, leaning against the stone shoulder of a sleeping giant. Basilio loved this little corner of the world, this white slash in the flesh of the sea, this edge of the earth where he was pushed from behind by the crushing immobility of what had been, of what he was supposed to be in the eyes of others, and where, right in front of him, lay the immensity of dreams.
He felt like walking into the waves, submerging himself for second after second, until the burning in his lungs made him burst through the foam—a game that made his mother crazy. Basilio laughed beneath the water at the very thought. But today, Annunziata had enough reasons to complain. Basilio sighed again and shrugged his shoulders.
“You can cry, you know ... ” Valentina had let her hand glide over his adolescent cheek. Since she never took offense at his silence, she could tell him anything, even that at that very instant his face looked like the rocks of the cliff. Basilio was the only one who could understand the smile hiding behind the young woman's fatigue and sadness. Valentina's body was already draped in black, like almost all the women of the village, of the entire countryside. In San Nidro—in all of Apulia—the women were shadows, fingers of mourning pointed toward the sky, who dragged themselves over the land waiting for the inevitability of death. But Valentina didn't want to die. And, to remember her past happiness—to conserve, if not its flavor, at least its promise—she had, in a secret place in her heart, made Basilio a lighthouse in the storm.
He placed his hand on Valentina's, who suppressed her emotion at the thrill of his touch. They stared at each other a moment in silence, in the doorway of the house.
“Don't listen to them. Don't be too brave.”
Basilio backed away and closed his eyes to the closeness of this woman, who smelled of oranges and abandon as she passed him on her way outside. She was soon engulfed by a white blaze of sunlight.
“Where were you?”
His mother grabbed him as soon as he had set foot in the kitchen.
Three old village women had come to add their tears to hers. It was good to mourn together, right for the afflicted ones to share their pain with those who, for the moment, were spared by destiny. Passing from one tragedy to another, weaving them into the fabric of the everyday, offered to sorrow the comfort of habit. Everyone cried for everyone else; no one found herself crushed by the weight of a drama that was hers alone to endure.
The visitors arrived quickly. The buzzing silence that accompanied them was filled with compassion and diverse musings about life and suffering. Urged by his mother, Basilio snaked between the neighbors and returned to the bed of the one he had left less than an hour earlier, called by the sea, the beach, and his solitude.
He had the impression of being at the market, without the cries of the hawkers, in front of Giorgio's stand. Today, death and sadness were for sale. Basilio blinked in the semi-darkness. His father hadn't moved. He would have to get used to this indifference, to this heavy silence, to this mass that no longer seemed like flesh, frozen and hard yet soft. He felt like placing his palm on the stiff arm, like caressing the impassive brow, but there were too many other people around now. Men filed in, stopped a moment at the foot of the bed, remained ceremoniously silent or tossed the petal of an unfinished sentence at the body before them.
Aldo was still young. The visitors brayed non-stop about the injustice, the absurdity, the calamity that the brutal death of a man in the fullness of his powers represented. A father and a husband. The injustice, the absurdity, and the calamity for Aldo. The injustice, the absurdity, and the calamity for his wife and son. Injustice, absurdity, calamity—hollow words to mask resignation and indifference for a few hours. Basilio noticed the pitiful looks, but he also read in them the cowardly relief of those who see lightning strike a neighbor's olive tree. He wanted to be alone, alone with his father, but it wasn't possible; the entire village would be coming, and Basilio would never again be with him. This thick mummy was worse than emptiness; it looked the same but mocked everything else—acts, words.
There was some agitation near the door. People were making way for someone. Basilio, instinctively, straightened up, on the defensive.
It was the priest returning, although he had accomplished all his churchly duties—a bit of hot air to energize the women and make the dying one grimace. A grimace that people called a look of "consolation.” Aldo went to church only for the obligatory holidays. At the announcement that his end was near, the priest had rushed over to administer the sacraments that Aldo was no longer in any position to refuse. It was impossible to know if he was still alive when the priest, out of breath, sighed the final amen. Father Rosario, urged on by the fervor of vengeance, was convinced he was; it was his victory over the miscreant. Basilio was sure of the opposite: Rosario had acted in vain. His father had left the earth free and was thumbing his nose at God and his hypocritical saints.
Why this return to the house? Did he fear a miracle? Basilio guessed that Gabriele Rosario, shepherd of the local flock, confessor of his mother and of all the women of San Nidro, was there for him, the orphan. Sent for by his mother, who, in the midst of her sighs, prompted by fear and by the pious lies about her sins, must have opened her heart every week to the priest about the fears she had for her only son.
Rosario slid between the visitors and laid his palm on the boy's shoulder, which stiffened as Basilio directed a look of reproach toward his father—he was abandoning him.
“Be brave, Basilio,” pronounced Rosario in an unctuous murmur loud enough to be heard by everyone in the room, who approved with a nod of the head.
“Why?” asked the youth. No one understood that his smile was directed at Valentina.
“Why? Because ... because you have to be brave! Your father was, your mother ... ”
Basilio pulled himself away and backed up toward the wall. His father was dead; his mother was crying. The priest could go ahead and pray if that made him happy.
“Leave me alone.”
The few women in the group made a disgusted frown, the men a smirk drowned in their wrinkles and their moustaches. Rosario frowned and lowered his gaze toward Basilio, whose own eyes vacillated between indignation, despair, and a somber jubilation. Rosario was about to continue but contented himself with a movement of his hands—hands that were too plump for a village of fishermen.
“You're the one who's asking me to be brave, right?”
“We'll talk about it again when you're ... ” He didn't specify a time and traced a feeble sign of the cross in the air in front of the boy.