La sparizione

Words alone cannot describe my excitement about Swiss author Andrea Fazioli (b. Bellinzona, 1978). Situating his novels in the Canton Ticino, an Italian-speaking territory of Switzerland, Fazioli puts a Swiss Italian spin on the giallo regionale (regional mystery). He has a direct, informative style — clearly reflective of his work as a teacher and as a journalist for Radiotelevisione Svizzera (RSI) — that is as captivating as it is misleading. If you fancy yourself a sleuth, I challenge you to crack the case in Fazioli’s latest noir thriller, La sparizione (The Disappearance) (Guanda, 2010).

In the opening pages of La sparizione, 17-year-old Natalia seeks refuge with her mother at their vacation home in Corvesco in the mountains of the Canton Ticino following the sudden death of her father. Soon after, Natalia witnesses a horrific murder and flees into the nearby woods fearing for her life. She is discovered a few days later suffering from amnesia and unable to speak. Through a strange series of events, ex-detective-turned-journalist Elia Contini becomes involved in the case, determined to protect Natalia from the cold-blooded killer she is now unable to identify. When the suspected killer unexpectedly makes contact with Natalia, the need to prove his guilt becomes more urgent. But Natalia’s memories and words are only slowly returning to her, and she can’t shake the feeling that something is somehow wrong with the little that she does remember about the crime. Adding to the suspense are the bizarre postulations of an old hermit living in the woods who insists that the key to the case lies in a delay that must be sought in the silence, in the waiting period before the words…

The language of La sparizione is as intriguing and surprising as the plot. Readers of Italian who are unfamiliar with the Swiss variety will occasionally encounter a word or phrase that looks familiar but somehow seems at odds with the sentence owing to regional variation (remember, appearances can be deceiving, especially in a mystery novel).

Swiss Italian is spoken in the Canton Ticino, the southern part of the Canton Graubünden and in the Gondo Valley in Valais. This variety of Italian is not the same as Ticinese, which is the name given to the dialects of Western Lombard also spoken in these areas of Switzerland. The following lexemes (with the exception of the German product name Bilux) are examples of Swiss Italian from the novel:

autopostale (literally Ital. furgone postale; Eng. mail truck, but used refers to Ital. una corriera postale che funziona anche da autobus; Eng. a mail truck that also serves as a city bus)
Tratto dal Guglielmo Tell di Rossini, il segnale d’avviso degli autopostali era vecchio come la stessa indistruttibile Posta svizzera.
(Taken from Rossini’s William Tell, the horn of the autopostali was as old as the indestructible Swiss Postal Service itself.)

fare i bilux (literally to do the bilux, which is the name of a headlight bulb introduced by the German company Osram in 1925, but used to mean Ital. lampeggiare con gli abbaglianti; Eng. to flash the high-beam headlights)
“Scusate,” disse l’autista, “c’è uno dietro ce continua a fare i bilux.”
(“Excuse me,” said the driver, “there’s someone behind [us] who keeps flashing his high-beams.”)

The text also contains semantic regionalisms, which are standard Italian lexical items that vary in meaning according to geographic location. The following are examples from the Swiss Italian context:

gelosie (literally jealousies but used in Switzerland and in Northern Italy to mean shutters, which is persiane in standard Italian)
La casa di Contini era un edificio solido, con le mura spesse intonacate di bianco e le gelosie verdi.
(Contini’s house was a solid structure, with thick walls painted white and green shutters.)

mappa (literally map but used in Swiss Italian to mean folder, which is cartella in standard Italian)
In una mappa di plastica c’era un foglio di quaderno con una lista di nomi, insieme a fotografie sfocate di una ragazza in cattive condizioni e di una stanza male illuminata.
(In a plastic folder there was sheet of notebook paper with a list of names, together with blurry photographs of a girl in bad shape and of a badly lit room.)

cantone (literally corner but used in Switzerland to refer to a canton, or province, which is provincia in standard Italian unless the speaker is specifically referring to a Swiss canton)
Cerchi di non mettere in giro le pettegolezzi: c’è stato un incidente, e vorremmo evitare che ne parli tutto il Cantone.
(Try not to spread any gossip around: there’s been an accident, and we’d like to stop the whole Canton from talking about it.)

cantonale (literally corner cupboard but used in Swiss Italian as an adjective to mean of the canton, which is del cantone in standard Italian) [from a newspaper article in the novel]
Il commissario Emilio De Marchi riferisce che la Polizia cantonale ha contattato tutti i conoscenti e gli amici di Natalia.
(Detective Emilio De Marchi reports that the Canton Police have contacted the acquaintances and friends of Natalia.)

Terms pertaining to Swiss Italian cuisine are largely familiar to Italian speakers, with the exception of certain words for local ingredients. La sparizione contains a number of lexemes specific to Swiss Italian dishes and products:

trota con foglie di erba iva e genepì (trout with alpine yarrow leaves and genepì, an alpine plant known as absinthe wormwood)
risotto con tinca di lago ed erbette  (risotto with lake tench and Swiss chard)
pesce in carpione (soused fish)
cervelat (a Swiss sausage whose name stems from the Ital. cervellata, derived from the Ital. cervello; Eng. brain, which was the key ingredient of the original sausage)
gazzosa (Ital. gassosa; Eng. carbonated beverage typical of Switzerland that comes in a variety of flavors)

A few of the lexical items in the text are standard Italian terms that are used more frequently among Swiss Italian speakers than their Italian counterparts. The following term, which is commonly used in the Canton Ticino, is described by the Italian dictionaries of De Mauro and Garzanti as burocratico (bureaucratic) and non comune (uncommon), respectively:

ospedelizzare (Ital. ricoverare all’ospedale; Eng. to hospitalize) “Non sarebbe meglio allora ospedelizzarla?” fece De Marchi. (“Wouldn’t it be better, then, to hospitalize her?” asked De Marchi.)

The text also contains words from other languages specific to Switzerland — Swiss German and Romansch — which underscores the complexity of the Swiss linguistic situation.

Swiss German refers to the group of Alemannic dialects spoken in Switzerland and in some Alpine communities in Northern Italy. The Swiss German dialects should not be confused with Swiss Standard German, the variety of Standard German used in 17 of the 26 Cantons of Switzerland. The following are Swiss German terms from the text:

schwitzerdütsch (Ital. Svizzero tedesco; Eng. Swiss German)
Del resto, la stessa Natalia era un esempio perfetto del mistero elvetico: era fiera del suo paese e non lo avrebbe cambiato con nessun altro, anche se aveva rinunciato a capire lo schwitzerdütsch.
(Besides, Natalia herself was a perfect example of the Helvetic mystery: she was proud of her country and wouldn’t have traded it for any other, even though she had given up on understanding Swiss German.)

Sonnenstube (Ital. Un posto al sole; Eng. A Place in the Sun)
Il Canton Ticino, in particolare, è più a nord degli italiani del Nord, ma nella Confederazione è considerato un indolente paese mediterraneo, una terra di spiagge e limoni o, come dicono loro, una Sonnenstube, un posto al sole.
(The Canton Ticino, in particular, is more north than the northern Italians, but in the Confederation it’s considered an indolent Mediterranean territory, a land of beaches and lemons or, as they say, a Sonnenstube, a place in the sun.)

Romansch or Romansh is a Rhaeto-Romance language spoken in the Canton Graubünden (along with German and Italian) that is closely related to French, Occitan and Lombard. The novel contains the following Romansch phrase:

[from a legal document in the novel] Confederatiun Svizra (Ital. Confederazione Svizzera; Eng. Swiss Confederation)

Of course, Fazioli’s facility with language is not limited to his clean Italian prose and use of Swiss Italian regionalisms and foreignisms. The author has an impressive ability to adopt the colloquialisms and jargons specific to a number of different writing styles and genres, as evidenced by the many notes, e-mails, letters, journal entries, legal documents, police transcripts, and newspaper articles that appear in La sparizione. He also exhibits a certain playfulness with language, as when he references the types of photographs that Contini must take for the newspaper: Casa Del Delitto (House of the Crime), Paese Tranquillo Dove Non Era Mai Successo Niente (Peaceful Town Where Nothing Had Ever Happened) and Polizia Che Sta Esaminando I Luoghi (Police Examining the Scenes of the Crime). Given Fazioli’s obvious way with words, his success with readers and critics (not to mention literary prize committees) is hardly a mystery.

In Translation: Fazioli’s novels have been translated into German. In fact, next month the prestigious German publisher btb Verlag (a division of Randomhouse) will release the German translation of La sparizione, or Das Verschwinden. I’m hoping that gripping English translations will soon follow.

On Facebook: Fazioli has a Facebook page with a huge number of friends, but he doesn’t post on his wall. So, your best bet for information about the author is his website (on one page there is a random picture of a fox, which makes me wonder if he photographs foxes like Contini).

Personal Note: I owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to the author for his generous assistance with this post and for the interesting discussions about language, linguistics and culture. Be on the lookout for my interview with Fazioli later this month!


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