Zimbabwe | 2011
Brian Chikwava is the author of the novel Harare North. He is currently working on his second novel and lives in London.
Here they set you straight right from the beginning. That was one of my early thoughts on my arrival at Santa Maddalena. I had just stumbled upon a striking paragraph on the welcome-sheet on the desk in my room: “If writers want some wine after dinner they can certainly help themselves from what is on the table. Unfortunately we can not provide endless ammunition. If writers want to purchase extra wine…”
They say one cannot bullshit in Latin, that the language impels you to communicate specifics in their unvarnished state. So I found myself pondering over the possibility that the Baronessa issued her instructions in this language of ancient Rome, prior to having them translated. After all I had read about her being described as one of the last true eccentrics. As it turned out, my anxieties were allayed in no time. Far from needing to buy myself any ammunition, there were periods when I thought I needed to give my liver a break. Perhaps, if not just the expression of an Italian temperament then the brusque language I had had the pleasure of acquainting myself with was the force of Beatrice’s colourful personality asserting itself. This after all is the same woman who, decades earlier, took her first ever vespa for a spin with her dad riding pillion, took a sharp turn and left him with a fractured leg. Her response to his distress: let’s not get dramatic over this.
Suffice to say Santa Maddalena was a rejuvenating and stimulating experience and gave my writing an impetus it had been lacking for a lengthy time. I arrived with a jumble of ideas and a few pages of my novel and it did not take long for my ideas to take a life of their own and start to gel together. One sometimes spends a lot of time trying to break into the world he or she is trying to create — there are plenty of opportunities for a false start, frustrations and all that. I was lucky to leave feeling that I was on my way with my novel. I’m sure that a lot of the progress I made could be attributed to the environment that I found myself in: being in the very knowledgeable company of Héctor Abad, Beatrice and her assistant Ted and, later, Gil Adamson. This was a wonderful break from the usual writerly existence of quietly toiling away in some corner of earth, without the swirl of stimulating conversation around you at meal-times.
To someone who spends a lot of time in the city, Santa Maddalena also offers a sense of mental space and perspective rarely found in an urban environment. From the writer’s tower you have a sweeping view over the landscape before you and can cast your eye over the surrounding hills and valleys all the way to the horizon; vast space over which to dream and create. That this is landscape over which many distinguished writers have gazed, Gregor von Rezzori memorably doing so in his Anecdotage, imbues it with the essence of an epic totem-pole.
As rewarding an experience as Santa Maddalena is, it is not without peril. There were two pitfalls I had to negotiate while working there: 1) being enthralled by the stories Beatrice shares about her past so much that you tumble out of the imagined world that you are struggling to inhabit while grinding out your novel or book and 2) being beguiled into a continuum of ineffectual reveries by the beauty of your surroundings and come out of your stay a stranger to both pen and keyboard. I managed to sidestep both, though not without a struggle.