In the summer of 2008 Gemma and her teenage son, Pietro, board a flight from their native Rome for a trip to Sarajevo, where Gemma hopes to teach him about the city of his birth and tell him more about Diego, his dead father, whom Pietro has never met. It's been sixteen years since the war in Bosniasixteen years since Gemma had to flee the city with Pietro, a city to which she and Diego had grown deeply attached. Memories of the brutal siege haunt her every move.
Gemma is equally haunted by memories of her ardent love affair with Diego, which began in Sarajevo well before the war. She's there on a research trip, during the festive weeks of the 1984 Winter Olympics. At first she finds both Diego and his Bosnian friend Gojko strange, but Diego's passion for life, for his art, and most of all, for Gemma move her, and over time his open heart wins her over. She's convinced they make an odd couple, yet they begin a life together back in Rome where they set up an apartment, develop their careers, and plan to start a family.
Biology, however, is not on their side. As years pass and their options for having a child dwindle, Gemma and Diego feel a growing sense of loss that starts to take a toll on their relationship. They become desperate, traveling to Ukraine to meet with surrogate mothers (surrogacy is illegal in Italy), and finally back to Sarajevo just as the long-simmering ethnic conflict breaks out. There, as snipers occupy the hills, pillage homes, and hold the city under siege, Gemma and Diego are faced with a chilling dilemma that threatens to tear them apart.
Now, sixteen years later, Gemma reunites with Gojko and the remaining survivors of the war and discovers she must make peace with the losses she's endured and the choices she's made for the sake of her family.
Masterfully told in alternating glimpses of the past and present, Twice Born is a powerfully raw account of how the brutality of war intersects with the most personal tragedies. Gemma's journey through her difficult past is enlivened by a vivid cast of characters and their beautiful, generously rendered bonds. In this haunting and powerful novel, Mazzantini explores the meaning of motherhood, and her lyrical, unsparing prose drills down to the deepest truths of violence and love.
Margaret Mazzantini lives in Rome with her husband and four children. Twice Born won Italy's Premio Campiello. Her previous novel, Don't Move, sold 1.5 million copies in Italy, won the Premio Strega and the Premio Grinzane Cavour, and became a feature film directed by Sergio Castellitto and starring PenÚlope Cruz.
Q. Twice Born was immediately a huge bestseller in your native Italy. How do you imagine it will be received here in the States?
Twice Born tells the story of a young couple's long journey into the rite of parenthooda universal theme. The thing that makes this child's entry into the world extraordinary is war, which, even as it kills, also creates life. Through the story of this family the book recounts the last twenty years of European history, which I believe will interest American readers.
Q. What inspired you to write this novel?
I always start with some sort of handicap. All of my main characters have this in commonthere's always something missing, some emptiness, that compels them to move beyond the boundaries of their ordinary lives. They're looking for something. So I imagined a woman we all can picture: she's modern, intellectual, upwardly mobilebut she can't have children. She becomes fixated on what she lacks, blinded by her obsession. And in the midst of it she encounters war, which brings the darkness of real violence and deprivation. And that dark tunnel becomes the long voyage of rebirth.
Q. The book shows a great familiarity with Sarajevo and the recent war that raged through it. How were you able to bring the city so vividly to life? And how were you able to delve so deeply into the acts of both brutality and generosity that war can inspire?
All wars are alike. All of them weigh heavily on the shoulders of innocent civilians. I wanted to talk about war as a metaphor. As absolute evil, a theater of human absurdity where love ends and horror begins. The war in the former Yugoslavia was a war in the heart of Europe, taking place just a few miles across the sea from our gorgeous beaches here in Italy. And yet at the time we viewed it as a foreign humanitarian crisis, as if it didn't really have anything to do with us. I'd just given birth to my first child in 1991, when the conflict began. I was nursing a newborn, feeling like I held the future and the hope of the world in my arms, and there were these horrific images on TV, images of the holocaust repeating itself. How was it possible to be happy?
Years later I got on a plane and went to Sarajevo. And I saw this city that was both Eastern and Western, a city that was multiethnic before the war, an example of civil cohabitation, of art, of beauty. And I saw the wounds, which were so visible everywhere. I met men and women still full of dignity and beauty. I wanted to tell about this citythe joy as it celebrated the 1984 Winter Olympics (where Diego and Gemma's love story begins). And I wanted to describe the city as it is today, now that the wars have ended, and the TV news and the journalists are all gone, and the survivors are stuck with their pain and without an audience. I wrote this book with the desire to capture the threads of beauty and human passion among the many wrongs they suffered. I wrote this book because we must not forget.
Q. The story's fluctuation between the present day and the 1990s produces a dynamic sense of tension as we slowly comes to understand the events that led to the birth of Gemma's son, Pietro. We think we've uncovered the whole story, but as readers will see, there is heart-dropping shock in the book's final pages. Did you have the ending planned when you began writing, or did it unfold somewhere along the process?
I usually don't predetermine structure and I don't make outlines. For me, writing is a reckless act, a challenge. I give myself over to this unknown thing, something that only reveals itself as I write. I did, however, have an aim with this book. I knew that this child was going to come out of the dark womb of war. That was the real intuition at the heart of the book. Then, around this parable, I created the figures of an elaborate end-of-the-millennium nativity scene, if you willthese frantic young people who were stuck, but hungry for the future, for poetry and music, for love without limits, for missed opportunities. They were the ones who pulled me along. I followed the little wars of their daily lives.
Q. The nature of maternal love is a central concern of the novel. Why did you choose this setting to explore the many questions and issues a mother's love can raise?
I'm a storyteller. I never like to repeat what I already know how to do, what I've already done. I like to challenge myself and begin from scratch, staring into uncharted territory. I envisioned an infertile Madonna figure and thought about how sterility informs our society. This is an intimate book, but it isn't navel-gazing. It's wide open, and I tried to encompass everyone in it. I didn't stand in front of the mirror to write itI looked out the window. I looked at the world, listened to it. I thought about our pampered Western society and our hard, post-Communist East. I thought about these distant destinies on the march, moving towards each other without realizing it, looking for each other so they could tend each others' wounds, find a cure for life's sadness, and together find meaning in the emptiness of war.
- Before Gemma leaves she thinks of her trip to Sarajevo as a "journey of hope." How is it a journey of hope and what is she hopeful about?
- How does Gemma feel about Sarajevo after her first visit? How do her feelings evolve over time?
- Gemma believes that she and Diego make an odd couple from the start. How do you see them? Do their differences enhance or endanger their relationship?
- Gemma and Diego struggle to conceive a child. How does their childlessness impact their relationship?
- Gojko, Diego, and Gemma stay friends for many years. What binds them to one another over time?
- Gemma is ruminating about events that took place sixteen years ago. How is she different now, and how has her perspective changed?
- Diego promises Gemma he will love her his whole life. Do you think he kept his promise?
- At first, Pietro refuses to refer to Diego as his father, but he eventually changes his mind. Why?
- Leading up to the book's final revelation, Gemma gathers clues about what happened to Diego. Did the ending surprise you?
- Gemma had originally been planning to tell Pietro the story behind his birth. Do you think she will tell him, now that she herself knows the full truth? Should she tell him?