Bianka Rolando’s first collection of stories has been strongly influenced by both her origins and her education. An Italian Phrasebook is an attempt to tell the story of an identity defined by four cultural spheres: Polish, Italian, painting and literature.
What is involved here is an impression rather than an autobiographical account, because Rolando rarely talks about herself, resorting to facts from her own life. It is not facts that make up this book, but how Rolando speaks, how she relates to being bilingual and bicultural and how she connects words and images. Each of the eleven texts in the collection was inspired by a selected masterpiece of Italian painting and is supported by graphic and photographic work. The visible and the readable elements are closely connected here.
In effect, the result is an original and intriguing mixture. It includes a contemporary interpretation of the scenes shown in the pictures and an attempt to relate these images (such as a vision of late parenthood or a sisterly relationship) to today’s mentality; the mentality of those who, as they look at the painting in question, find their own problems in it. Rolando places herself among the potential viewers or those being portrayed: she not only eavesdrops on them, but also listens in on herself.
These “mini images” shimmer with different shades and offer lots of leads to follow up as you read. One of these trails pursues the elements shown in the picture (such as hands or hair), another leads to the cultural assimilation of Biblical motifs, yet another prompts you to follow a word game being played by the author. This game is a sort of reflection of the process of learning and discovering language resources – starting from children’s rhymes, proverbs or songs, artfully wound into the narrative.
Although the subject of analysis is extremely important here, another issue that seems just as crucial is the problem of being multi-cultural, as presented by Rolando. She does not focus on the differences, but on the common features, on universal symbols and the cultural roots common to the inhabitants of Europe. An Italian Phrasebook is excellent proof of the fact that although language separates us, there are plenty of other planes of understanding – gesture, facial expression or tone of voice.
- Marta Mizuro
Bianka Rolando (born 1979) is from a Polish-Italian family. She is a graphic artist by profession and lectures at the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts.
Marta, who smells of detergent (an innate love of cleaning bathrooms) is off to see her sister Maria. She puts on a grey cape. Today she is wearing a blue dress.
Give back your sister’s doll, don’t pull her hair. It’s always the same, she’s never to blame because she’s younger.
Marta has a small studio flat bought on credit, which is empty. For now there is just a cut-price bed from Ikea in it. She is single. Her thighs are growing together, her breasts only fill her bra in a formal way.
She can’t stand her sister. They’ve never once been shopping together to buy handbags or hideous cheap spotted ballet shoes.
When she was little Maria was always biting her sister. She started it. That’s a lie, it was her. They weren’t like each other, though some of the family used to joke that they were both as plump as buns.
Their late father, who used to go fishing in a tiny pond (he never caught a single one), talked of his daughters as if they were fine ships. Quite gaga. Nice metaphors, very simple.
Two sailing ships very similar in dimensions can react with equal delay to a tilt of the rudder. They can have a different tendency to turn windward. They can change their properties depending on the force of the wind and the height of the waves.
Maria was always given the more interesting presents (a Hawaiian Barbie with a pony that cast its avid gaze on everyone). She was spoiled and appreciated, the fat seal. Little Orphan Maria. Their hair braided into a single plait. Her teeth were always brown with chocolate. Give this back to her, give that back to her.
Marta is going on a packed bus to see her sister . At each stop a lot of people get on. At each stop there’s a hyper-rush. It reaches the loop at the end of the line. From there it’s not far to her sister’s flat. She chews a hard mint to freshen her breath. Today she wants to talk to her, maybe have a quarrel.
Maria opens the door to her. In her flat they’ve cut off the power (unpaid electricity bills for March and April). She’s sitting in semi-darkness, combing her hair.
Why did they cut off the power? Why are you unemployed? You’re completely irresponsible, as ever. Will you be counting on my help for all eternity? Their hands are in motion. They won’t fight like little girls at primary school in the playground after lessons. It’s just manual navigation. Left hand down, right index finger pointing. Right index finger pointing, left aimed downwards. That’s the entire regulations in force on inland waterways supplemented by directives issued by the inland sailing inspectors in Genoa in case of local family conflict.
You are not my sister. I look in the mirror and that’s where I see my sister, not here. Here I see nothing but a fat clown who has worn flannel knickers since childhood. You’re sure to be wearing them again now. Must you always be so bloody thrifty? You’re always reminding me that you got more than me. Do you remember how painfully you used to hit me? You destroyed my Hawaiian Barbie by ripping off her head and biting her fingers. You are night and I am day.
Today’s weather. At night it will be much colder than in the daytime. Possible storms with occasional bursts of tears.
I am entirely alone. I am talking to myself. We have never helped each other. When our parents left, you stopped taking any interest in me. I longed for us to go shopping together. We’d have bought ourselves way-out handbags and those hideous cheap spotted ballet shoes.
It’s very hard for me now. I need you, because getting a big sailing ship off a sandbank is really difficult. There are usually unfortunate circumstances. If it comes to this sort of situation, you have to summon the help of a tugboat or a lifeboat.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones