No Cure for the Father, Exorcism for the Son

A Son’s Search to Evoke and Exorcise His Father’s Depression and Come to Terms With Its Effects on the Family.

When I started to think about whether and how literature relates to illness, I was not surprised to find that the theme was pervasive. Everywhere I looked I found traces of it. I came to the admittedly not very original conclusion that the theme of illness is part of the very fabric of life and thus of literature and writing. Illness is contagious. Not just in the sense that measles, the flu, or the coronavirus are contagious, but in the effects it can have on the family and individuals close to the person afflicted. Andrea Canobbio recounts such a progression in La traversata notturna. It is an attempt to exorcise the damage imposed by the depression, but also an effort to come closer to knowing his father. Exorcism is rarely thought of in the yin-yang sense: a balance of opposing but complementary, interconnected forces. The more usual interpretation is that of driving out rather than invoking. An evil spirit is driven out; a person is rid of his wicked demons. The dominant notion of calling up evil spirits to drive them out traces back to the Old French exorciser, and in turn to the Late Latin exorcizare and the Greek exorkizein: “to banish an evil spirit.” But before a demon can be cast out, it must be invoked. 

Absorbed in this dualistic exploration, the protagonist-author rummages through the past to describe the effects his father’s depression has on the family members. The depressive episodes and their emotional impact take a terrible toll on everyone, ranging from feelings of helplessness, lack of control, despair, and rage. In addition to the emotional toll, there may also have been some physical consequences: «By skimming through the diaries I had discovered, or thought I had discovered, a temporal link between my father’s depression and my childhood asthma» (Canobbio, p. 124). At times his father’s depression became «background noise, neither great tempests nor sudden clear skies» (p. 65). At other times the family seems to retreat into denial: «None of us, for months now, had mentioned depression among the various ailments that afflicted him; we misused a term, parkinsonism, which had proven to be an excellent passe-partout to describe his condition, since it seemed to include an extremely varied amount of symptoms. So if he had that expression, that face, it didn’t mean he was depressed or melancholy or sad; it meant he had parkinsonism» (p. 92). Another term used by the mother in an attempt at denial was melancholy: « “Your father’s illness,” she says after a pause, “was melancholy.” She shakes her head, tightening her lips, sighing, as if to say: that’s just the way it was. … In Presentimento, ten years later, I wrote that I was glad that on that occasion my mother had used the word melancholy, I found it more precise and evocative than depression. And indeed my mother was precise and knew how to use words, and denying once and for all that her life partner had any real reason to be depressed, … refusing to use the word depression itself, she asserted that her life partner was born with a melancholic temperament … » (p. 127). 

The puzzling thing, and the root of some suspicion, was why his father was able to find relief in his work. This was also the cause of some resentment. Years later, as the protagonist peruses his father’s papers, he gains some insight: «Reading them, I understand my mother’s anger: because she knew that work was the only medicine; in work he would annihilate himself, forget that he existed and that he was a depressive. Not all the time, but most of the time. As soon as he came home, along with his slippers he would also put on his official uniform, the mask of the great melancholic. He does it for us: we used to say, referring to his work. But the unconfessed suspicion remained» (p. 113). And again: «Depression, for me, was never just a lack of will to live, but always and above all an inability to hide that lack or even complacency in displaying it» (p. 231). 

There is an image that opens the book, that of an excavation pit, that is fundamental, as in foundational, to capture the void created by the illness:  

«In order to build, one must first dig, I seem to have always known it. You prepare an excavation and lay the foundation. I learned this when I was a child. In our lives there was a construction site that proceeded with immense care, and there would be a house, in some vague future. The excavation had deep walls, lined with treated wood rebar behind which the mottled, furrowed soil could be imagined. 

So from an early age, I knew that you have to dig before you build. You cannot set a house on the ground like a suitcase or a bucket and hope it will last. Without roots the house is lost, doomed to deterioration. It takes a hidden lung for the house to breathe, and sigh, and feel relief. And since the excavation eventually becomes a cellar, I have always confused cellars and foundations, and it is paradoxical because things that have ceased to be fundamental end up in the cellar. Unless it is necessary to conceal them because, silently, they still are. 

But the excavation might be a false memory. I might have seen it later in a photo or a video. I have not found either the photo or the video. Such a sharp, precise memory seems strange to me, because my memories are always fuzzy. It could also be an image seen in a book. Now and then I begin to think that my thoughts may have come from books I have forgotten I have read. … 

It may be a false memory, but it may also be a true memory. The pit that I saw one day in place of the old house may have struck me to the point that it is burned into my memory. First there was a house, then there was a pit. Isn’t it normal for such a prodigy to surprise a child? And all this was done by your father. So strong that he destroyed a house and dug a hole as wide and deep as the house itself. And in fact after a while a new house appeared out of the hole, as if the earth had given birth to it and my father was a midwife or a diviner or a truffle dog, as if all houses grew underground, awaiting their family, complete in every detail, a quick dusting and done. Like the rock churches of Lalibela or the temples of Mamallapuram, a single block of stone, a monolith. It took skilled engineers to discover the right house and drag it up by the hair, yank it out. And my father was a skillful engineer …» (pp. 17-19). 

The bond between the son and his father is the desire to understand. How to make sense of his father’s illness, how to comprehend it, becomes the son’s obsession, one that can only be exorcised through excavation and writing. He seems to have realized this some time earlier, and refers again to Presentimento, in which he wrote «a lapidary sentence, which for me is perhaps the mother of all lapidary sentences, mainly because it is untrue (in fact, any lapidary or simply assertive sentence has always seemed to me to be false or at any rate susceptible to correction): I do not intend to tell the story of my family. From that day, telling the story of my family became my greatest desire» (p. 121). He goes on to say that it was in that book that he had a premonition: «Then, in Presentimento I finally got to the point: My father suffered from depression for thirty years (I don’t want to tell my father’s story, that’s all I’ve done since I started writing). The official family version, as I perceived it, was that he had no “real” reason to be depressed; we drew these distinctions in our family (it seems to me), what was going on in the mind was not “real,” what was going on in the brain was; we were strict scientists» (p. 123).  

And yet there was the excavation pit, the darkness, the tunnel which ultimately leads to light. The father’s last job as an engineer had been in the 1970s, in Alta Val di Susa, where he worked on the construction of the trans-Alpine Fréjus Road Tunnel. Some years after his father’s death, the writer, thinking back on the dark tunnel, tells us that he had an “illumination”: «there was no construction job that better defined my father, the great melancholic. A thousand times that inconsequential image had surfaced in my consciousness (in the tunnel of depression) and a thousand times I had repressed it without being aware of it. I had gone from considering insignificant any endeavor with which my father was associated, in which he was involved or interested, to the present condition in which everything he had said and done took on meaning, and a simple set of anomalous elements composed a recognizable, legible figure, as in a Dali painting. It was incredible, I thought, that no one in the family had ever ventured to ironically or unironically or tragically seriously connect the two tunnels, the figurative and the actual» (p. 22). 

At one point, early on, when his father is in a clinic, the family visits him: «The general impression is that he’s not ill at all. I thought he was being treated, I thought he’d be in bed in his pajamas, and instead we find him up and about, fully dressed (even if he’s not wearing a tie). There are no doctors, there are no medicines, it’s not a hospital, it seems more like a hotel. I’m left with a thought, which is not a precise memory, but a feeling: he doesn’t care anything about us anymore. He wants to stay in that place for mysterious reasons, against my mother’s wishes, even though our house is much nicer. And that’s all there is to it» (p. 129). When he is released, his journal reads: « “November 11, 3 p.m. Discharged from clinic—no cure.” Like a sentence, a final verdict; he accepted it for the rest of his life » (p. 129). 

A chapter of La traversata notturna entitled No Cure, a memoir, appeared earlier in my translation in The Threepenny Review (Spring 2017, pp. 8-9), and may be found here (last viewed 2/9/2023). 


Andrea Canobbio, La traversata notturna, La nave di Teseo editore, Milano, 2022. 

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