Sorrow Both Fleeting and Sweet

If You Kept a Record of Sins
By Andrea Bajani
200 pp. Archipelago. $18.

I have sung the praises of Archipelago Books before, the titles they select are always fascinating and the books themselves beautifully designed. “If You Kept a Record of Sins” is no exception.

This is a remarkably poignant book, one that evokes a great deal of emotion in its telling of the sorrowful relationship between a mother and son.

The story starts with the son, Lorenzo, learning that his mother, Lula, has died. When Lorenzo was a child, Lula had begun traveling from Italy to Romania for business. These trips became ever more frequent, and before long Lula, whose affair with her business partner — the slimy, overbearing Anselmi — she never made much attempt to hide, has moved permanently to Romania, leaving Lorenzo to be raised alone by his stepfather, a kind, brokenhearted man.

Lorenzo’s relationship with his mother is complicated, to say the least. He worships her, and yet at the same time is all too aware that she abandoned him to live a more carefree life.

All these emotions are front and center in the story, which takes place entirely in Romania, though its tourism board will certainly not be distributing copies of this one. Romanians here come off as largely a crass people, and Bucharest as a cesspit only notable for its People’s Palace and the legacy of Romania’s executed dictator, Nicolai Ceausescu.

I spent a few days in Bucharest about ten years ago and I can’t say I came away with warm feelings of the place either, which feels every step the ex-communist city it is, but Lorenzo is also lashing out at the country for having taken his mother from him, and behind his disgust at the vulgarity of the cities’ inhabitants and the city itself is the unspoken accusation he wields at his mother — “you abandoned me for this? For them?”

Andrea Bajani is a wonderful writer, and he conjures up some lovely images here. Lula’s chauffeur, Christian, is described by Lorenzo as having eyes “like candies in paper wrappers, wrinkles radiating from the edges” and he speaks of the souvenirs his mother would bring back to him from her business trips abroad, before she stopped visiting entirely, as coming from “every country, every corner on earth, my room, trip after trip, becoming the world map of your absence.”

This is a very quick read, the words go down as sweetly as honey, but it also feels incomplete. This is, of course, one half of the story, and questions remain over the turn Lula’s life took toward the end. As memorable as the descriptions here are, as lovely as the translation is, the whole thing feels impermanent.

The impression I got, even as I read, was that the whole thing was somewhat fleeting. Much like Lorenzo’s mother, it’s lovely when it’s here but, when it’s over, just how will it be remembered? Will these sweet words hold up over time?

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