Angry anti-bildungsroman: When the water tastes like gasoline

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Angry Anti-Education Novel
When the water tastes like gasoline

By Katja Sembritzki

Education is the way out of poverty. This is how generations have internalized it. But that has now become an empty promise, as Gaia painfully learns from the novel The Water of the Lake Is Never Sweet.

There are an infinite number of heroes and heroines in novels that will immediately fool you, with whom you would most like to be friends. And then there are the less likable characters, who can’t get readers out of their heads because they’re disturbing and moving. The Italian writer Giulia Caminito talks about such a main character in her novel “The water of the lake is never sweet”. The main character’s name is Gaia, which means “the lucky one”. But Gaia is anything but that.

The first-person narrator grew up with three siblings as the daughter of poor parents in 1990s Italy. She is ashamed of the circumstances in which she lives, of the hardship of the family, and describes herself as “the girl with her mother’s cropped hair who wears her anarchist brother’s clothes”. The father has been paralyzed from the waist down since a fall on the construction site where he was working illegally. The mother does the cleaning and tries to keep the family together as resolutely and ruthlessly as possible. Already in the first chapter Caminito has Gaia say harsh words about the mother: “I condemn her and do not forgive her.”

Even in the company of her no-money friends, Gaia feels quite uncomfortable and not really around: “They either feel sorry for my neediness or enjoy it because giving them gives them a sense of superiority.” Only once does Gaia show her house and her room to a girl, which contains a giant pink plush bear that she won by shooting the fairground.

In the beginning, the family lives in a seedy area of ​​Rome, in a five by four meter basement with a concrete floor and mold, which the mother has previously cleaned of cockroaches, mice and syringes. Later they move into social housing in Anguillara Sabazia, 30 kilometers from Rome on Lago di Bracciano – a place that lives on legends: a nativity scene is said to have sunk under the mole and a city in the middle of the lake. And the water isn’t sweet either, but “tastes like gasoline, if you hold a lighter to it, it catches fire”.

Destructive Anger

A subliminal explosiveness also runs throughout the book, guiding Gaia through her childhood through first crushes, disappointments, betrayal and loss. Caminito opts for a harsh visual language – fabulously translated into German by Barbara Kleiner – and makes the silent anger of her protagonist tangible on every page. And that always culminates in brutality, which Gaia describes as a “new superpower”. She uses fists and burns cars. When a boy at school really catches her, she smashes his knee with a tennis racket.

Bullying at school is everyday life for Gaia. Every day she commutes from Anguillara Sabazia by train to Rome, to a secondary school in an affluent area. While the other students there are carrying Gucci bags, Gaia is still using her high school backpack. There’s a reason she chose humanistic high school: “I tell myself I would have done it because of my friends, they go there and so do I, but the truth is I carry a very, very little thing inside me, an acorn, an insect, and that is my mother’s voice, to whom I must prove that I am worth something.”

Because the mother, who received no education, has high expectations of her daughter. She would be “white, go to college, become a doctor, engineer, go into finance, publish novels and most importantly read, obsessively and relentlessly.” And so Gaia learns, learns, learns and learns. She passed her A-levels with high marks, but her teacher suggested that she quickly find a job, say in a supermarket, “with a family like mine it makes sense”. Resisting college, Gaia discovers that talent and hard work aren’t enough to escape her heritage.

Education is no longer a way out


Giulia Caminito grew up in Anguillara Sabazia on Lago di Bracciano.

(Photo: Rino Bianchi)

With the vulnerable and hurtful Gaia, Caminito portrays the radical representative of a disillusioned generation for whom the promise that education is a way out of bad circumstances no longer applies. In Italy, where youth unemployment is currently close to 25 percent, the novel struck a chord. “The Lake Water Is Never Fresh” stormed the bestseller lists when it was published, winning several major awards.

While she shares some similarities with Gaia, the book is “not a biography, not an autobiography, not an autofiction, it’s a story that incorporates fragments of many lives,” Caminito writes in an afterword. Like her main character, the author, born in 1988, grew up on Lago di Bracciano. And she studied philosophy, the subject that Gaia also enrolls in, gets an excellent degree and hopes to get a PhD. But without vitamin B: no chance. What’s next for Gaia? That will eventually remain open.

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