USA/Guatemala | 2001, 2010
Francisco Goldman is a novelist, journalist and translator. He is the author of the novels The Long Night of the White Chickens, which was awarded the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and The Ordinary Seaman. His short stories and journalism have appeared in Esquire, The New York Times Magazine, and The New Yorker. A former contributing editor to Harper’s Magazine, he has written extensively about Central America, and has served as a translator of Spanish-language fiction. Francisco Goldman was a Fellow at The New York Public Library’s Center for Scholars and Writers in 2000-2001, researching and writing a forthcoming novel set in 19th-century New York. He returned to Santa Maddalena in 2010.
The month I spent at Santa Maddalena saved my novel. I’d taken a risky leave of absence from the book in June to embark on a journalistic assignment that ended up taking more time than I’d planned, and I was just edging back into the novel when September 11th arrived. I certainly will never regret having spent that harrowing, draining, unforgettable month in our city, which I found myself struggling with in my own way, because it all—the missing posters everywhere, the constant insecurity, etc.—brought back the war in Central America for me in such a terrible, visceral way, and it was only then that I understood how New York had always been my sanctuary from fear during all those years, the place I’d always trusted would keep me safe once I got back to it. Now my literary concentration was, of course, gone. And my novel grew very cold, again. How could I reach back across all those months and find those few narrative threads snipped-off in June and start spidering again. I arrived in Tuscany on October 20th. No newspapers, no CNN, no suffocating air of lurking terror everywhere, no noise. On my bedroom wall in Beatrice’s house, the most wonderful Haitian portraits of a hare and a bear reading. Beatrice let me use Grisha’s studio, with a desk as vast as a Mongolian plain, and a long, soft, couch, and flies droning in the late autumn sun, and dogs padding in to lick your hand, and a view out the window of a deep wooded valley and mountains and blazing sunsets. Cheerful long dinners with Beatrice, Andras and Gunnar, lots of wine. The riveting little telenovela of domestic drama involving the vanishing and reappearing Peruvian cook and hired-hand, and other mysteries. Nearly instant well being and peace. For someone like me, with the horrible ethical or workaholic or inelegant habits of never traveling anywhere just for my own pleasure, it was an unprecedented experience to be plunged into a setting of comfort and beauty and friendship that asked nothing of me but that I find my lost inner-quiet (and occasionally toss a stick to the dogs). For the first ten days or so I did nothing but read, think and take walks. Now, the walks were the best. Even more than at the desk, it was on the long walks that everything started coming alive again; I’d give anything to step out right now and lose myself in one of those three-hour walks, through that landscape of gentle hills and medieval saints’ miracles, fairytale castles, orchards and vineyards, fantastic hues of late afternoon light, and even with all the hunters around, the tamest, most effulgent woods. I remember one afternoon, after a failed attempt to find the short-cut to Donnini, I ended up submerged in pitch-dark swampy woods, and though my footfalls frightened pheasants into panicked invisible flight around me, and perhaps deer and other animals, I felt no fear at all myself, and knew that I would never have been able to get lost at night in unfamiliar woods in the Americas, ever, without having felt afraid, and that was one sign, I thought, of how completely my month at the Foundation was restoring a sense of peace. After about ten days I had a terrific sprint of writing. Nearly 70 pages over the next 10 days. Now I was fine, and began to feel ready for city life again. Now it was time to go to Florence: that was more than enough pages for me to feel the entire trip had been a huge success. I’m still reworking and spinning out from those pages, during which I think this book, which I’ve been working on for years, finally figured out where and how to go if it was ever going to reach its end. It was a great privilege and joy to spend a month at Santa Maddalena, and I will never stop daydreaming of it, or wishing to go back there for a while.
(PS And to think, I’d come all the way to Tuscany to finally taste aji de gallina, a national Peruvian dish Peruvians are always recommending, cooked-up in the kitchen, somewhat improvisationally, by Carmela one night.)