Interview with writer Mario Liguori – “Serbian sentences in an Italian head”

Mario Liguori’s new novel “Via Acquarossa” (published by Laguna) is an intimate walk along a Mediterranean street near Vesuvius, close to Pompeii, but also through the history and culture of not only southern Italy, but also Europe.

The characters in “Via Aquarossa” are vividly described in the manner of Fellini or Kusturica. Their passionate personalities, although striving for freedom, justice and beauty, are limited by life in a small coastal town, which puts them in contradictory situations.

In addition to being an excellent writer, Mario Liguori (Sarno, Italy) is an associate professor at the Faculty of Philosophy and the Academy of Arts in Novi Sad, where he teaches Italian language, culture and literature. He originally writes in Italian and Serbian. “Via Acquarossa” is his tenth book, and in addition to novels, he also writes travel prose, and short stories and translates. He lived and worked in Sweden, visited almost all European countries and stayed for extensive periods of time in Ireland, Great Britain and Slovenia. He was a guest at the prestigious Harriman Institute of Columbia University in New York. Liguori is also the recipient of the Branislav Mane Šakić Award for his exceptional command of the Serbian language and for building the bridges of cooperation between Italy and Serbia. He speaks Italian, Serbian, English, Slovenian and Swedish.

The cities in which you lived became the toponyms of your prose. What is it like to write about your homeland, southern Italy, in a “foreign” Serbian language?

A language that is not my mother tongue can only help, because that way I can better control my emotions and master the story. The Serbian language serves as a filter for me – everything has to pass through it, and everything takes on new forms. I have not yet discovered how the miracle of the birth of a Serbian sentence works in my head, since it is still an Italian head from the south of the peninsula. The Serbian language, however, proved to be effective because it easily carries the burden of my thoughts, a burden that, at least I hope, is not transferred to my sentences. In fact, Serbian is a kind of liberation for me, even when I make mistakes using it. I have a similar relationship with the Swedish language; it is probably a projection of a childhood full of dreams in which I fantasized about other lands and languages.

Are your memories a strange mixture of facts and illusions, which haunt the sometimes harsh reality of everyday life?

I have always been convinced that people from my area bear a clear mark of a certain tragedy. They are tragic at every moment, while eating or sleeping, and even while rejoicing. They act like free beings, they glorify the present, but they are essentially hostages of time and space, hostages of the death that will take them away – and this is what haunts them and not allowing them to feel relief. Men are especially like that. In the case of women, I would say that they are more specific, more mature, more aware of the transience of life. However, as the world and people change, I felt that somewhere I had to preserve the spirit of the 1980s, when my homeland experienced its peak. I wanted the reader to feel that my characters really existed. If I have convinced anyone that this is so, then my book and I have succeeded.

Do you feel that the presence of the sea or Mount Vesuvius is enough to give life a whiff of myth and do you feel special that you come from a country that has one of the greatest cultural treasures in Europe?

I am aware of the beauty that exists there, but without the arrogance of one who is convinced that he is entitled to privileges. The undertone of the mythical in my literature does not replace the awareness of the complexity of the world, nor the need to intervene, so that life becomes less cruel and more solidary. Let’s not forget that the ancient heritage is still very present in my homeland, a kind of bequest of working people, the creators. This also applies to humanism, which is the revival of antiquity. Today’s cultural parasites, who have not created anything significant, but instead appeal to the superiority of the climate or the achievements of their ancestors, do not work diligently enough either on themselves or on the changes to which the world is ultimately doomed. I often wonder if our people are really aware of Vesuvius, that geographical pivot of my region. Good question, although one of the main characteristics of man is actually his effort not to notice the beauty and wealth around him; man always wants something more…

Do population migrations from the Maghreb or the former Yugoslavia make “Via Aquarossa” make your prose even richer? What is the situation like now in contemporary Italy?

We need others to understand ourselves and our world. I remember that at one point, in the mid-eighties, the first foreigners came to live here. The natives were not ready for that, for them and terrible encounters with that alterity ensued. I, on the other hand, was curious: I was interested in what these people eat, how they live, how they speak. In that I see my most beautiful feature, the nobility and curiosity of the ancient spirit, the avoidance of aggressiveness and hatred. At the time, many people asked me why I was so interested in those poor foreigners who left their country in search of a better future. Obviously, even as a child, I thought that all people are travellers and that we were all born to get to know the world. Things are very different at the moment: Italy is now full of foreigners and we should see an opportunity in that. I hope that our democracy is strong and mature enough to withstand the impact of time and circumstances. First of all, those in power have the responsibility and I expect moderation, respect and understanding from them.

Did you think of Miloš Crnjanski, who at the beginning of World War II was living in Rome and fantasized about the far north? In this book, you analyzed the differences between the north and the south of Europe, where “in the north, freedom is more important, while, in the south, love is”?

Crnjanski was a writer with broad horizons, able to connect his country with distant regions. That spirit is certainly present in my literature as well. I was particularly interested in problematizing the relationship between northern and southern Europe, because it seems to me that the world is often divided by default into East and West without real insight into the fact that the main confrontation and opposition is between the rich North, which dreams of the nature of the South, and the poor, the South who dreams of the social wealth of the North. In my scientific work, I dealt with the topic of stereotypes and prejudices about the North and the South, but I also wanted to introduce some variations, to see how it all looks in fiction. As you can see, it is not so important that an Italian writes in Serbian, but how and about what that Italian writes is important.

A special chapter in your book is dedicated to a treatise on embargoed writers. How do they contribute to culture?

There are writers after whom many streets and schools in our countries are named and whom we, as it were, celebrate without understanding them, that is, we do not heed their warnings. They are irreplaceable, unique in our culture, but at the same time marginalized, because they do not praise us. One of them is Radoje Domanović, one of the most important Serbian writers. He enriched his culture. He wrote impressive short stories that everyone in Serbia should read. And since there are countries that do not have writers like Domanović, everyone should have learned the lesson from that extraordinary writer. A writer is not one who unreasonably or justifiably celebrates the culture to which he belongs, because he, in that act, actually degrades that same culture – it is only natural for every man to be proud of his environment. A writer, on the contrary, is one who warns his country out of love for it. We must understand that his warnings, as the voice of truth, should not be considered hatred or, God forbid, treason.

(Politika, 09.01.2024)

This post is also available in: Italiano

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