Talent of Japanese essayist glows in Milan

Talent of Japanese essayist glows in Milan
The Duomo in Milan’s old city. San Carlo bookstore is located along the main street that extends from the square.

MILAN - A writer known for her essays on Italy as well as her literary translations, Atsuko Suga spent her 30s in Milan, northern Italy. While translating Japanese literature into Italian, the Catholic writer also took part in a church reform movement.

As I headed north from Rome by train, a plain covered by a milky fog came into view, a sign that the train was approaching Milan. On the city's main street, which was packed with shoppers, stood a small bookstore next to a church.

The bookstore is now named San Carlo but was previously called Corsia dei Servi. In 1960, Suga met Giuseppe Ricca, who managed the store, and the pair married the following year.

Explaining that the bookshelves remain unchanged from those days and adding that a few Japanese people visit the store each month, store clerk Girolamo Carraro, 67, showed me the narrow interior of the shop, which is said to have been set up by renovating the storeroom of an adjacent church.

In the 1960s, the bookstore was a hub for left-wing Catholics calling for the modernization of the Church. Suga, who had travelled overseas to Rome to study theology after attending a Catholic women's school in Japan, became interested in the activities at the store and moved to Milan.

In her book "Korushia Shoten no Nakamatachi" (Friends of the Corsia bookstore scene), Suga described the shop, where clergymen and editors who were enthusiastic about the reform held discussions as "a forum of people from diverse backgrounds."

Many Suga fans visit the store even today, according to Carraro.

Gianandrea Piccioli, 73, who frequented the store when he was a university student and later helped manage the store, recalled the days Suga was in the store, saying, "Atsuko had remarkable insight."

Though she was not the type of person who dominated the discussion, her words were impressive whenever she spoke, Piccioli said.

In 1963, Suga started to translate Japanese literature, including works by Yasunari Kawabata and Junichiro Tanizaki, at the request of an Italian publishing company.

"I became deeply interested in Japanese literature and started to research it, thanks to Suga's translations," said Sapienza University of Rome Prof. Maria Teresa Orsi, who was a friend of the budding Japanese author and translator.

She was sensitive to the subtle nuances of a word, according to Orsi, who says she misses Suga's Milanese-accented Italian.

Literature and faith

After Ricca died of illness at the age of only 41, Suga returned to Tokyo and started collecting discarded articles as part of the charity activities of her church. But before returning to her homeland, she had been wavering between dedicating herself to her faith and following her love of literature.

"I have a strong desire to pursue a creative path rather than help Japan's churches," Suga wrote in her diary at the time. Eventually deciding in favour of literature, she went on to teach at universities.

In 1990, Suga made her literary debut with the essay "Mirano Kiri no Fukei" (Milan scenery in fog). The essay by a 61-year-old neophyte was praised for its delicate and sophisticated writing style. The essay was published 19 years after she returned to Japan.

Piccioli, who helped out at the bookstore, expressed his admiration for Suga's way of living, saying it seemed that she never chose the easy way in life's decisions.

Suga's writings became more polished as she got older. That's why her writings are so intellectually stimulating to modern readers.

Aoki is a correspondent in Rome.

Atsuko Suga was born in Ashiya, Hyogo Prefecture. Studied at University of the Sacred Heart, a Catholic school in Tokyo. In 1953, she went to Paris to study at the age of 24 and moved to Rome in 1958. After staying in Italy for 13 years, she returned to Japan in 1971. She worked as a lecturer of Western literature and translated Italian literature into Japanese. In 1989, she became a professor at Sophia University. Her first literary work, "Mirano Kiri no Fukei," won the Kodansha Essay Award and Joryu Bungakusho, a literature prize awarded to female writers. She died of heart failure in 1998. Though she published only five books, her works remain popular even today. In honour of her achievements, the Italian Cultural Institute in Tokyo established the Atsuko Suga Translation Award last year.

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