Apr 9, 2016

The Lost Child

I've been wanting to write this post since I finished the last of Elena Ferrante's Neopolitan novels in November of last year.  What stopped me was both the belief that I would have the opportunity to have this conversation in person and that publishing spoilers on the Internet was bad form.

I've reached two conclusions: one) any such in person conversation about this would be mostly a platform for me to get it off my chest and hence not a very good conversation, perhaps, for the other participant(s); and two) fear of providing the means to get to the ending without going thru the journey of arriving there yourself, while a very valid and well-founded fear, is hindering my ability to fully express myself.  I realized that until I sat down and typed this essay out, I wouldn't fully know what exactly my thoughts on the novel are; as it is I have some very concrete points I'd wish to make but they're wrapped in a nebulous conclusion.  Curiosity, you are a scoundrel.

Let this be a warning then: I plan to marvelously spoil and lay bare a core conceit of the Neopolitan novels.  If you haven't read them yet, but are planning to, I'd advise you to stop reading now.

The Neopolitan novels are the story of two lifelong friends, and their long, complicated lives together: Elena and Lina.  They grow up in a camorra run neighborhood in Naples, set in the latter half of the 1900's (they're students in the 60's and are directly or indirectly involved in the student revolutions of '68).

Elena and Lina's relationship is complex.  Elena is a smart, studious student who goes on to become a famous writer, leaves the neighborhood for good, mostly.  Lina is her best friend, a searingly bright personality that gets her life wrapped up in the neighborhood and never leaves.  The novels are told from Elena's viewpoint; whether or not there is any correlation to the Elena of the novel and the author, also an Elena, is unclear.

Lina is bright, firey, deeply gifted. She's an inspired creator and artist; when her and Elena make a painting together, it is a clarifying moment of living collaboration for Elena. Elena's relationship with Lina's brilliance is both complicit and complicated. Elena struggles with the knowledge that her first book is a re-interpretation of a book that Lina authored (but never published) during their childhood. Elena's struggle with the tension between her admiration for Lina's brilliance and the deep disquiet of inferiority marks her entire life's work: her writing is not as good as Lina's, but she (Elena) is a writer -- Lina is not.

The excuse for the existence of these books is given that Lina has disappeared and Elena is using her disappearance as an opportunity to tell their story.  Both in their 60's now, with fully grown children and still complicated lives, Lina packs up, leaves her home in the neighborhood, is not heard from again.  Soon after, Elena finds the doll that she had lost as a child, the doll that she and Lina had searched for in grade school, the doll who's loss started the friendship of the two, on her doorstep, decades old but no longer lost.

Elena's most treasured possession as a child, the doll was lost in childhood when Lina threw it down into the cellar of the school.  They search for it together, unable to find it they begin an adventure that is the start of their lifelong relationship.

How would it feel, to discover that your closest friend had based your relationship on a lie, on a trick that she had pulled on you?  That she had hidden the doll and the knowledge of it from you, for as long as you had known her? Would it cause you to re-evaluate your whole life, to question the very foundation of trust?

Or maybe truth is not the most important thing.  How much does it really matter that Lina hid the doll?  Does that change the beautiful work that Lina and Elena did together? Does that alter the fact that Lina has the capacity to build beautiful things? Does this revelation make Elena's life much different, her lived experience altered by knowing now, decades later, what Lina knew the whole time?

In this revelation, of deceit and lies and coercion I feel the deepest sense of sorrow not for Elena, but for Lina.  For Lina had been the one who had to live with the knowledge of her deceit; a lifetime of knowing and of fearing that if Elena ever found out, the deepest friendship of Lina's life may end.  She carried the burden of understanding the depth of her own capacity for deceit, without being able to share it with her friend, hidden until the moment she decided it was time to leave, to disappear, to no longer exist in her life.

A secret, held long enough, hurts no one but the bearer.

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