If You Kept A Record Of Sins, a novel by Andrea Bajani
Nothing much happens in Andrea Bajani’s book If You Kept a Record of Sins—and in that inconsequential story lies everything. It’s a devastating look at the consequences of a life lived indifferently. The story is told through the eyes of Lorenzo, a son who travels from Italy to Romania to attend the funeral of his mother, Lulu. For the past many, many years Lorenzo has heard from his mother only once a year on a brief phone call on Christmas Day (and once on New Year’s Eve when she’d forgotten to call). Really, nothing happens and in that lack lies a story of deep heartbreak. Andrea Bajani tells that kind of story so well that it’s nearly impossible to put down and utterly impossible to stop thinking about once you’ve reached its inevitable, sock-in-the gut ending—an ending that is not a surprise, and its lack of surprise is a substantial part of its power.
It’s the story of what happens when people simply abandon their life—not to debauchery or pursuit of wealth or fame, but simply to not paying attention.
Bajani artfully tells the story in first person, using this trip to Romania to tell himself the story of his life, of what happened—and, more importantly, what didn’t happen. But often Bajani switches without warning to a second person narrative as he addresses his mother—accusing her, reminding her, asking her to see and acknowledge the effects of her lazy inattention, her haphazard self-centeredness. He writes skillfully and this movement back and forth between first person and second person seems to mimic what he was desperate for as Lulu’s son: a conversation.
Bajani uses tawdry descriptions of the everyday to show the effects of Lulu’s inattention to her life and the life of her son, starting with how Lorenzo came to have his name. Lulu got pregnant by a boy she didn’t love or even know. Evidently Lulu told Lorenzo this story because he narrates it back to her after she’s dead.
But before going, he asked if you wanted his last name for your son, and you smiled and said, Whatever you think, wanting to make him feel better. And so he signed his last name and left it there, like a lizard leaves its tail and scuttles off somewhere to grow it back.
The reader never learns Lorenzo’s last name because it, like so much that happened in his growing up, doesn’t seem to matter.
In describing his infancy, he again recalls a detail he could only have known about if his mother had told him:
We’d go out, you pushing me all over the place, like a vacuum cleaner.
A vacuum cleaner? Ouch.
The few times he comes close to accusing her, in his thoughts, of being a lousy—truly lousy—mother, he veers to his own manner of dealing with her blithe indifference. When he has arrived in Romania for her funeral, he reflects:
I came to meet you, when for years all I’d done was wait for you to return.
You were a thought I never had anymore, that only occurred to me now and then, like something having to do with someone else’s life.
These reminiscences are at a great remove from his broken heart, and therein lies the pain—and the power—of Bajani’s writing.
Again, like the dull pounding of an insistent drum, the funeral adds, image by image, to the deforming effects on others of a life of disregard. The funeral is held at a church that is in the process of being renovated. During the service, workmen stand at the back smoking, scaffolding mars the beauty of the interior, drop cloths cover everything. Even getting the coffin into the church is done carelessly:
And pulling you out was handled badly, too, pulling that coffin from the van…they leapt down and unloaded you with gusto, like a new cupboard.
That tiny comparison—like a new cupboard—sums up pages of description and story. Bajani is such a disciplined writer. We need nothing more than that image. In fact, to add more would ruin the starkness of the reality.
Lorenzo finds his seat in the church and, again, Bajani tells the whole story with a single image:
I sat down, too, on the nylon drop-cloth laid over the pew to protect it from paint.
Then the priest gets all tangled up in Lulu’s name, as if it doesn’t really matter who she is:
[The priest] couldn’t pronounce your name properly, and every time he stumbled over it, he’d pat his hip to get back on track.
Honestly, that priest’s motion—he pats his hip!—is just so…awful.
The title of the book comes from Psalm 130, verse 3, read by the priest at Lulu’s funeral. The passage is given additional heft because he can’t seem to get it out of his mouth:
I heard him say, If you kept a record of sins—but he had to stop, was suddenly coughing. If you kept a record of sins, he repeated, turning red, as if that line itself had cut him off. If you kept a record of sins, he said, now growing hoarse, If you kept a record of sins, oh Lord, oh Lord, who could stand?
That the priest can’t get through that one line without choking—and that, in consequence, he repeats it four times—tells all. But what the priest doesn’t read, and what the reader doesn’t know, is what follows two verses later:
I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits, and in His word I put my hope.
I wait for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning, more than watchmen wait for the morning.
Israel, put your hope in the Lord, for with the Lord is unfailing love and with Him is full redemption.
I wait. I wait. I wait. For unfailing love. Really, holy cow, just holy, holy cow. The measured, disciplined power of Bajani’s writing bowls me over.
During the course of Lorenzo’s stay, various people try to give him memorabilia of his mother’s and he refuses all of it. When he goes to her apartment, there are boxes and boxes of it, but he can’t open any of them. So he puts them all on the elevator and sends it to the ground floor, running down the stairs to meet it. He hauls each box to the dumpster, not opening a single one. But one box bursts open and a small globe rolls out, not much larger than a tennis ball. This is the image that holds the whole of the book:
It rattled onto the sidewalk. I picked it up—I hadn’t realized you’d taken it with you. And I also didn’t remember that we’d marked the globe with a pen. I’d asked you where Romania was and you told me. I’d asked you where Africa was, and you told me. I’d asked you where America was, and the North Pole. And then I’d asked you where Via Colombo, our street, was, and you said, Here, and made a cross on the globe. But your hand must have slipped because seeing it now, that cross was below the bottom of Italy and above the top of Africa, in the middle of the sea.
This writing stabs me right in the heart. The repetition of I’d asked you, I’d asked you, I’d asked you. And then, for his own sense of self, it seems, he imagines, or pretends to imagine, that her hand slipped (it must have, he says) because he cannot bring himself to say you just didn’t care.
I loved this book. I love it more as the days go by. I can’t get it off my mind—neither the story nor the power of its telling. A million thanks to the publisher archipelago books, a non-profit literary press. I want more, more, more.
You can order If You Kept a Record of Sins by Andrea Bajani from your local bookstore. If you have no local bookstore you can order it online at:
About Susan Edsall
Writing is how I make my way through the thicket of what we’ve made of this planet we’re on. It takes me a long time and lots of words. Social media mystifies me. How do so many people have so much to say, so quickly, and with such resolute certainty? Read more about Susan >