by Chandra Ganguly
I read Elena Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment during my first visit to New York, which coincided with the massacre of twenty people in a café in Bangladesh. In the big city, I found myself adrift between the busyness of the city, the meaningless and brutality of the lives lost in Bangladesh and the surreal state of abandonment of Olga in this book. Nothing meant anything, I told myself, and I struggled to make sense in the three realms I crossed and inhabited — reading the book on the subway, catching snippets of news on the papers and television, and navigating the busy roads and people of this city. For me, Mario, the protagonist’s husband, began to represent the fallacies and illusions we hold about love and life that for Olga become nothing but figments of her imagination and her longings for meaning and safety. In this city, like her, I too grappled with the underlying sense of the danger in everything, “…there began to grow inside me a permanent sense of danger.” (p.27)
In the book, Mario abandons his wife and family for a younger woman. His wife in turn loses her hold on reality and on the meaning of herself and her life. But then is it not true for all of us, no matter where we are in our lives, that our lives are suffused by the meanings we give to it, to our relationships and our experiences and choices? Ferrante pushed me in this book — or perhaps was it only the timing of my reading — into questioning what I was seeing and thinking in New York, “Everything was so random. As a girl, I had fallen in love with Mario, but I could have fallen in love with anyone: a body to which we end up attributing who knows what meanings.” (p.74) Random — that is the word I kept thinking about when I read about the victims of the Bangladesh attacks. Friends who went out for dinner, business partners, a birthday party, a place to have a drink, a pregnant woman’s farewell — is life as random as the decisions we make and are our ends just as randomly decided and finalized for us? Again and again, in Ferrante’s descriptions of Mario and Olga’s relationship with him and her life after he leaves her, I saw my search for a meaning to the human state. “Nothing was solid, everything was slipping away . . . I didn’t know how to find answers to the question marks, every possible answer seemed absurd, I was lost in the where am I, in the what am I doing. I was mute beside the why.” (p.107)
Is there a solution, a remedy to this state of our humanness? Ferrante seems to point towards self-interrogation, self-realization and independence as the possible ways out of this state. Olga has to suffer to get there, she faces and has to travel through her suffering and her self dissolution to arrive at the other side, the side where she is able to stand on her own and face life, she must free herself of her dependence on her husband and the life she had led with him to be liberated. “What a mistake it had been to close off the meaning of my existence in the rites that Mario offered with cautious conjugal rapture . . . If I were to interrogate myself deeply — and I had always avoided doing it — I would have to admit that my body, in recent years, had been truly receptive, truly welcoming, only on obscure occasions…” (p.140) Finding a meaning lay on the other side of these questionings of the self and the discovery of the meaning would give a sense of direction albeit limited to the journey of life itself. “The whole future — I thought — will be that way, life lives together with the damp odor of the land of the dead, attention with inattention, passionate leaps of the heart along with abrupt losses of meaning.” (p.176)
On the other side of this search for meaning, on the other side of suffering, what Ferrante describes is a state of acceptance and a keen awareness of this fragility, a keen awareness of the immense possibility of beauty and love and pleasure and the very heart of life itself. There is no other answer than this, that this this is life and it must be lived and experienced. “Existence is this, I thought, a start of joy, a stab of pain, an intense pleasure, veins that pulse under the skin, there is no other truth to tell.” (p.187) And so, as my kids revelled in the sights of New York, as the rain fell in intermittent flurries and furies, as the stars burst into Independence Day fireworks, as I took this all in, I also remembered constantly the families mourning their loss in Bangladesh and told myself again and again that perhaps this was it, this awareness is all there is and this is what we call life.
Chandra Ganguly lives in Palo Alto, California.She writes about the clash of cultures, loss of identities and the search for meaning.She is a pursuing her MFA in writing at Bennington College.