Twice Born, Maria Mazzantini’s beautiful but heartbreaking second novel, opens in post-war Sarajevo. Gemma has traveled from her native Rome with her teenage son Pietro to show him the city where he was born and where his father, Diego, died. The nominal reason for this trip is an exhibition of photography put together by Gemma’s old friend Gojko featuring Diego’s work. The emotional intensity of the visit instantly transports Gemma back to the delights of her first visit to the city, as well as the horrific period of the four-year Siege of Sarajevo.
Gemma first encountered Sarajevo as a graduate student in 1984, when the city was a bustling host to the Winter Olympics. On the day she was scheduled to return to Rome, poet and tourist guide Gojko introduced her to Diego, a young bohemian photographer from Genoa. Their attraction was instantaneous, though their joyful affair faltered soon after Gemma’s return to Rome and marriage to a conventional businessman. That marriage didn’t last, and after she and Diego got back together, they married, hoping to begin a family. But Gemma was plagued by fertility problems and unable to conceive. Several years later, on a vacation to Sarajevo, Gojko introduced Diego and Gemma to Aksa, a young punk musician willing to be a surrogate. At the same time, the deteriorating political situation and intensifying violence put their plans in jeopardy. Gemma’s return to Sarajevo, 16 years later, shatters every truth she thought she knew about Diego’s death and Pietro’s origins. Armed with new information, Gemma finally begins to understand the magnitude of what was lost, but also sees what the power of her love allowed to grow.
What keeps Twice Born from sinking into a desperate sadness is Mazzantini’s skilled depictions of love, both maternal and romantic, and her honest look at the collateral damage of a war-torn city. The stories, past and present, are woven together with true skill, and Ann Gagliardi’s translation ensures that the plot and Mazzantini’s elegant style are well served. Diego tells Gemma he keeps his eye on “something beautiful to hold despair at bay.” This holds true for Mazzantini as well; her faith in the persistence of love keeps this passionate novel afloat.