I lost my father so early, you know, before he had time to know me, even to meet me, almost. I’ve learnt something about him, much later; he was a bit like you himself; you had in common a certain amount of vulnerability intensified by events, the empty space that remains in the soul when one doesn’t surrender to the cruelty of the world, and yet cannot evade it, and faces it in one’s own way. No doubt, your way has given more to you and to many others, but the root of the suffering was not so distant.
What impressed me about you was the exceptional way in which you managed to make points of strength and resilience of all that might have been, and perhaps had been, the exact opposite. Reasons for defensiveness became a motive to deeply connect with others, of what risked to be a constriction, you’ve made material to build stronger wings and fly more freely. You turned your shyness into the ability to give yourself up entirely, with no defenses or reservations; your loneliness and need for affection into the ability to love beyond measure; the need for the approval of others into an urge always to give your best and never to settle for less than that; the pain into understanding of the suffering of others. And into a desire to laugh and make others laugh, not like a clown, not at all. Not in the least. Never a clown, always a man, through and through.
My father used to write, like myself. This similarity, which goes beyond the fact that I never spoke to him, that I don’t even remember seeing him, although it happened, at an age of which, unfortunately, memory is later lost without remedy, took me by surprise, and moved me deeply.
I thought of his pictures, in which his face looks so sweet, after all he’d been through. Not so long ago, thinking of you, I was talking of mildness, of how it is conquered at the cost of fighting harshly against ourselves, in order not to give in to the temptation of seeing only the worst aspects of the world and of the people as “reality”. Mildness demands greater sacrifice and an infinitely stronger character than the prevailing “hard-core” approach, for which the human race may as well die out, which sees everywhere cities to be destroyed and sowed with salt, and enemies to be made responsible for our own barbarism, and for which anything that brings joy is an evil to be rooted out at all costs.
My father fought in the Indochina war.
My father always remained the sweet person he was. Was this true? In the pictures, his face is sweet. There are only a few, because it was him who took pictures, usually. Especially of my mother, a lot, she has not wanted to be photographed that way anymore, since then. At most, you can manage to snitch a few shots, while he photographed her always and she smiles in all of those pictures.
Yes, I think he remained sweet, in spite of it all. In spite of his “monsters”, which he tried to defeat as he could, because nobody knew how to treat certain diseases at the time. Not even now, maybe. And they were not even “his”monsters. They had sneaked into him, burnt into his skin like the wounds and blights he’d surely seen, in the people he was fighting against as well as in his mates.
I’ve little more than this, of him. Images of a few serene moments, of him looking tenderly at me. And a few details I had almost to force out of my mother’s mouth, one by one, ruthlessly. Was it necessary?
Yes, it was.
Because she was afraid, for me. Afraid that the disease that tormented him was not just due to the war, and that I had it in myself as well: she trembled every time I “stepped out of line” a little, resented even the slightest rebellion, and I didn’t know why.
She has not done that for a long time, now. Now we are both aware that whatever his monsters may have been, he has taken them with himself, and has left to me only the joy of being alive, the determination to fight and be happy and spread smile around, as far as I can. With a constant and yet almost gentle pain, like a shadow that makes light softer, gives it volume and substance and meaning.
When I hear someone listing the reasons why giving birth to a child should be a mistake, in today’s world or in the world of fifty, a hundred or a thousand years ago, it doesn’t matter, I smile, and think that life to me has been an opportunity that my father decided to give me, knowing that it would be no bed of roses, but he strongly wanted me. He gave me a name reminding of the Country he came from, although he had at least a reason to hate it, and yet he still loved it, even against himself, who knows, seeing as it was him who had decided to leave. Maybe it’s because of him, of my father, that I’ve learnt to love English as if it was another home. It has given me my job, has become part of my life, and later a way to get closer to you, to your voice, in all meanings of the word. It’s because of him that I decided I would be a translator, to connect two worlds, two languages, two cultures, both of which belong to me. I don’t need to feel divided, I’m lucky enough to believe only in the kind of boundaries that can be freely crossed using words and memories.
But if I’ve kept pursuing the dream of giving, through words, a part of myself, it’s because of you.
This is an extract from the English version of my book on Robin Williams. He is the “you” I’m writing to, as I’ve always felt so close to him and he has influenced my life and thoughts like no one else.