Silvana Gandolfi, a journey through fantasy

Article published on July 1, 2006
Article published on July 1, 2006

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

Silvana Gandolfi, renowned Italian author, has conquered the world at the sedate pace of a tortoise from one of her own books

I had made an appointment with Silvana Gandolfi at Place des Vosges, in the heart of Paris. After a few minutes of idly passing the time, the person I had been waiting for came towards me, a very slight figure wearing a rather large oriental jacket. She suggested that we go to sit and chat in a tea room in the Marais quarter of Paris. As we made our way towards Rue des Rosiers, I began asking her about her life.

Page after page with a cup of tea

She may have spent her childhood in Rome, but her roots are in Trieste and Russia. As the granddaughter of a writer from Odessa, the Italian translator of Leo Tolstoy, her life has always been filled with books and literature. “Ever since I was a child, I have always read everything that I could get my hands on.” We walk into a tea room full of comfortable-looking sofas with ochre leather covers, low tables and scattered sugar pots. Un thé chaud, s’il vous plaît, whispers Silvana. “I do not drink much coffee anymore, it is too strong. At home in Rome, I have part of the cupboard entirely overrun by tea. I love tea.”

To read and write

The authors she grew up with were Dostoevsky, Steinbeck, Flaubert and Stendhal. After a sip of tea, she looks at me straight in the eyes and whispers, “I admit that all the slightly disturbing authors have always attracted me. I have a great passion for Emmanuel Carrère and Patrick Suskind.” In contrast, the stories in her books are fresh and full of sensitivity. One of the most astonishing aspects of her writing is the way real life is weaved into her writing. “The mischievous monkey I described in my first book The Monkey in the Marble… I bumped into it the following year during a trip to Nepal, when I was walking towards an isolated temple. It bit me.” When she returned home after that trip, she shed a lot of weight because of a strange and unknown illness. “Just like the character in my next book, Dragon’s Cream,” she says.

Always looking to new horizons

Silvana’s books have won the hearts of a worldwide public. But what is the secret of this success? “There is no element of contemporary society in my books. I try to avoid teenage-style language and fashions as much as possible. I set the stories in a very distant time so that I can talk about childhood in a universal manner.” “I have come to realise that the birth of a novel is not one crazed moment of creation. The real world is full of little crannies where you can slip fantastical elements, which then give you the basis for a story.” Silvana’s shining eyes have seen much of the world. “My travels enable me to know the cultures of different countries and I draw on those ideas to create stories.” But with all that travelling, where does she find the time to write? “I usually write when I return from a trip abroad to my home in Rome. I wake up late, run a hot bath and prepare a breakfast of tea, yoghurt and muesli. It enables me to think about dialogues and the plot line of the book that I am writing. But sometimes, I go off on a long journey after having drafted a book. That is what I did when I wrote Aldabra, or the tortoise who loved Shakespeare.”

Aldabra, 11,000 copies sold

Aldabra is an isolated atoll that is closed to tourism, situated in the Indian Ocean and inhabited mostly by giant tortoises. Those were the images that inspired the book that has enchanted critics and public alike throughout the world. Venice, an eccentric old woman with a deep passion for Shakespeare and painting, is the central character in a wonderful story where reality and fantasy mingle together to inspire sheer delight, just as I felt after my meeting with Silvana in the tea room. She donned her great oriental jacket and said good bye before vanishing between the tables, engulfed by the buzz of the people and the clink of their tea cups.