:: Article

Untranslated: An excerpt from Apnea by Lorenzo Amurri

By Lorenzo Amurri.

Lorenzo Amurri, Apnea. (Italian publication, Fandango, 2013) Original translation by Anna Giulia Novero

1. Between Dreams and Reality

It’s nearly lunchtime.

I’m skiing with my girlfriend, in fact I’m ahead of her because she’s too slow.

It’s nearly lunchtime.

I have my face deep in snow. I don’t feel anything anymore, as if I was inside a cotton wool ball. I can’t breathe. Somebody takes my face in their hands and turns it: I breathe.

Now I’m in a garage, it looks like a mechanic’s workshop. I sense one person in front of me with their back turned and one behind who is touching my head, but I can’t tell them apart clearly. I’m thirsty. Someone makes me drink. I feel the cool liquid go down to the stomach and beyond; I feel it in my bladder and I can’t hold it in; I feel it flow between my legs: it’s beautiful, comparable to an orgasm.

The garage is the emergency helicopter that is transporting me to the hospital. I am awake but my consciousness is wandering in shock, building a visionary defence which blurs what is really happening. They will later tell me that many, transported on a helicopter after serious accidents, talk of having been in a garage; they will also tell me that upon arriving at A&E I said that someone had given me a drink, provoking a moment of general panic. If someone had really done it, I wouldn’t be here writing.

It surprises me to see that on the Ostia seafront they have built an American hospital. The ambulances are American too: big, almost square and full of the usual lights and small intermittent ones. I’m lying down on the bonnet of a car right in front of the entrance, around me a battle is raging. Troops of American marines face guerrilla fighters of undefined African ethnicity: smoke, bullets, explosions. I can’t get up. I don’t think I’m wounded, but I have great difficulty moving, I can only be a passive spectator of what is happening. The Africans are attempting a coup d’état (of which state I wouldn’t know) and they are blowing themselves up. But not like the Islamic terrorists loaded with trinitrotoluene, these ones become incandescent like lava and explode. It seems like a chemical reaction, a sort of explosive self-combustion. Above the entrance to the emergency room there’s a rectangular grating of a golden colour. Hidden behind, a fighter is gradually changing colour: from black to orange to fire red. I toss and try to alert the marines, but I can’t shout, no sound comes out of my mouth. I turn to one side and I see a big bus like those for tourist trips. While it’s still in front of me it separates in half: thanks to some device, the tail separates from the head but remains attached. The bodywork breaks up whilst the shell stretches out. From the side, a square footboard perforated in the middle comes out, with an incandescent fighter hanging. Underneath the footboard, where a minute earlier was asphalt, a very deep chasm opens. The scene vaguely reminds me of a pirate ship with its plank over the sea infested with sharks. Indeed, the black man is thrown down the hole before he explodes.

Suddenly I find myself inside the bus. I’m sitting at the front with the back of the seat completely reclined. Standing next to me, a man with white hair is talking to me :

“Are you Antonio’s and Milvia’s son?”


Then rest assured that nothing will happen to you.”

The man’s voice is firm and reassuring, but I’m scared: he is the leader of the guerrilla fighters.

The operation to the spinal column lasts nine hours, the injury is very serious. Not to mention the fracture to the wrist, the dislocation of the shoulder, the broken nose and the cuts on the head. They substitute a disintegrated vertebra with a piece of iliac crest ‒ the hip bone; in fact, it would take titanium plates, but they’re not available and I can’t wait for them to arrive.

The only side effect is that I have to keep still, the neck must remain straight for three months. They have to assemble a halo-vest on me: a crown screwed onto four iron axles, in turn screwed onto the skull. The whole thing is secured to a hard plastic corset covering shoulders and chest, reaching the pit of the stomach. For the halo, too, we have to wait a few days, and I will move it, the neck. It’s the only part of my body that I can control at this moment, and I bite the tubes that introduce air into my lungs. They decide to do a tracheotomy. They also decide to make me fall into a medically induced coma ‒ a pharmacological coma.

It’s dark and it’s quiet, but I’m not alone. Four white beacons light up in unison and form a circle. One is vertical above my head, the others illuminate, respectively: John Paul Jones with his bass, Jimmy Page with his guitar, and the drums with a silhouette that I can’t bring into focus. I perceive the presence of other people, but I don’t see them. It’s as if we were on a circular stage with the flights of steps around it full of silent shadows. Suddenly, I find myself with a guitar on my lap and we begin to play. I’m playing with two rock legends, but I’m not worked up; I’m enjoying myself like a madman, I’m happy. My hands move nimbly on the fretboard, and the notes of songs I’ve never studied fly and draw on the sky, like a flock of birds before migrating. I don’t know how long the jam session was – also because time is not a relevant factor at this moment; and a jam like this would always be too short, even if it went on forever – and I can’t remember with precision what we played. I’m sitting on the seat of the drums with the drumsticks in my hands. I don’t see anyone around anymore, not even the musicians: I can’t play the drums. A blinding flash assails me.

I’m in a London airport, I have to go back home, to Rome. I’m on the plane and I’m looking at myself from outside; I see myself talking with the hostess, but I’m sitting a few rows away. I’m in Fiumicino, I’m coming out of the airport. It’s pouring down and no-one has come to pick me up. I don’t have any money and I don’t know how to get home. I see a blue Italian Army bus; it looks empty. I get on and on the driver’s seat I find a carabiniere’s hat: I put it on my head as disguise and I try to turn on the vehicle, certain I’m not being seen. The bus is full of carabinieri, the windows steamed up with humidity had deceived me. At once, two arrive to stop and handcuff me. I start to negotiate for my immediate release:

“How much do you want to let me go? Shall I sign two cheques right away?”

In the end we agree on a million each. Without letting their other colleagues understand the situation, they take the handcuffs off me and set me free in the rain.

The halo-vest has arrived, and they have already built it on me, the time has come to make me re-emerge from the coma. I open my eyes and the first thing I notice is a grating on the wall in front of me, identical to the one where the African fighter was hiding. I stare at it suspiciously trying to see if the unexploded bloke is still behind it.

“Welcome back”, a man with a white coat and white hair is standing next to my bed, “I’m doctor Mammini.” I look him in the face, he’s the leader of the guerrilla fighters. What is he doing here? And above all, where’s ‘here’? In truth I know where I am, but my consciousness avoids fully realising it. Above my head a square structure dangles attached to a chain, it reminds me of the one that was coming out of the bus during the coup.

Two nurses arrive:

“Hey, you’re among us again, huh?”

They remind me of someone too. Maybe they’re actors, perhaps I’ve seen them in some movie. They are so familiar and at the same time completely unknown. I don’t speak. I don’t know this yet, but even if I tried no sound would come out because of the tracheostomy tube and the ventilator it’s connected to. One of the two nurses gets closer:

“Get ready, your family is coming.”

In a moment, the large windows that run along the intensive care ward are filled with people. I can’t see them well, they’re shadows but they’re there. The other nurse brings me an intercom and he ties it to the halo at ear level. His face is contracted in a grimace, but he seems kind. He checks the ventilator’s connection to the tracheostomy tube and for a moment I can’t breathe.

“Hi Lo, can you hear me?”, a voice comes out of the intercom and invades my ear, it’s very familiar, it’s my sister:

“Can you hear me, Lorenzo?”

Yes, I can hear you Valentina. But, where am I? Who are all these people that I seem to know? What’s happening? There would be many things to ask but, from my lip movement, what you don’t expect comes out:

“You have to go to the bank to stop two cheques I wrote for two carabinieri who wanted to arrest me.”


I imagine my poor sister struggling with the interpretation of my order. She cleverly investigates with the only weapon at her disposal:

“Relax, I paid the mortgage for your house.”

“You don’t understand, stop the cheques, I don’t want to pay them!” I reply upset.

Silence again.

At this point the general fear, suspended in the stale air of the visitors’ corridor in the intensive care ward, has materialised: there’s brain damage. A fear that is swept away a few moments later, by the first question of my new consciousness:

“I won’t be able to walk anymore, will I?”


2. The Flight of Hope

The ambulance darts towards Ciampino airport, escorted by a police car. A jet from Rega, a private first-aid company, awaits my arrival to transport me to Zurich, more precisely to the Balgrist clinic, specialised in the recovery of medullary injuries. I’m properly wrapped up on the stretcher. The doctor who accompanies me is sitting next to the window, reading a newspaper. He doesn’t deign me a glance for the whole journey; he almost seems annoyed by the boring task entrusted to him. Why should he ever mind me? To his eyes I’m the equivalent of parcel post to deliver to a destination. Sure, he mustn’t be a great doctor if they entrust him with a postman’s job, no offense to postmen. The only one who every now and again asks me if everything is ok is the nurse. All the driver does is curse the police car, guilty of speeding too much:

“Look how they’re running, these imbeciles, in a bit we’ll be the ones needing an ambulance.”

We reach the destination. I remain on the runway for a few minutes whilst they prepare the small winch to transfer me on board. The sky is blue like I’ve never seen it, and the air is the freshest and cleanest I have ever breathed. After a month and a half of intensive therapy underground, it’s as if I’m experiencing everything for the first time. After a month and a half attached to a ventilator; after several bronchoscopies; after a pancreatitis; after MRI scans, CAT scans and X-rays of all kinds; after having ingested a barrel of tranquillizers; after having been skewered with needles of all sizes; after a cardiac arrest; after having smelt the scent of death all around, here I am. Waiting to fly in the arms of the magicians from the other side of the Alps who, with their knowledge, will give life back to my hands. Because this is what was said to me: you won’t move your legs again, but you can get your hands back.

My hands, only my hands matter.


I have vague memories of the time spent in intensive care at Terni hospital. Mostly images and sensations. Pleasant moments: the physical contact with my brother and my mother who, in two occasions, had been given permission to access the ward inside; the words exchanged through the intercom with my friends and girlfriend; the helpfulness and the kindness of some nurses, who talked to me trying to pluck up my courage. And hard and painful moments: when they hoisted me on the metal framework fitted with chains to clean me and change the bed sheets; when I begged the doctor on duty to receive heavy doses of tranquillizers; the day they turned me on my side and I saw the row of dying patients which surrounded me, and the day when I had perceived – from the sounds and the agitated movements of the staff – that someone had died. I remember that I couldn’t understand why they were telling me that I had lost sensitivity in a large part of my body: I touched my belly and I could feel it, I didn’t yet realise that it was my hand feeling the tactile sensation and not the other way around. And a peculiar smell that I haven’t smelt since: the chemical smell of cleaning products mixed with the one that the still bodies of my companions in misfortune emanated. A smell of medicines that the pores of each one transformed and personalised; a concentrate of thoughts, fears, hopes and dreams that amalgamated like the ingredients of a recipe, and remained suspended in the stale air of the ward, suspended between life and death. I also remember that one of the first conversations I had with my brother was about sex. He was reassuring me of the fact that, despite the paralysis, I would be perfectly capable of doing it:

“Quadriplegics can have dates”

I’d remained silent for a few minutes, I couldn’t understand the sentence:

“What do you mean?”

“For quadriplegics, everything between the legs works; for paraplegics, in the majority of cases, it doesn’t”.

“And am I paraplegic or quadriplegic?”

“Quadriplegic Lo, you’re quadriplegic.”

He’d said that with a certain satisfaction. That word scared me, it described me, and it put me in a place from where I would never escape, like a thief in jail ‒ but I hadn’t stolen anything, on the contrary I’d been robbed. Later I had also made sense of the initial sentence, he’d read it on a specialised American journal: “Quadriplegics can have dates”. The word date in America also means romantic meet-up. He hadn’t wasted time, my big brother. The Internet wasn’t yet the wonderful fount of information that it is today, and he, through his countless connections, had had all printed human knowledge on spinal cord injuries delivered to him. The funny thing is that, among the multitude of medical-scientific articles he must have been feeding himself on for days, the one he had reported to me with extreme excitement concerned sex. You won’t be able to play anymore, he would have thought, but your dick still works. It didn’t interest me much, on the contrary it had annoyed me. Before the heavy doses of tranquillisers they injected me with liquefied those words, I had asked myself what importance sex could have in the face of the frenzy I was in. It was a sentence dictated by sorrow; he didn’t know what to say to me to pluck up my courage and it had seemed great news to him, a light to follow in the pitch dark that surrounded me. As a matter of fact, it was great news, but it would still take me a long time to understand its importance.


Lorenzo Amurri (1971 – 2016) was an Italian writer and musician. He turned to writing after a skiing accident left him quadriplegic. His short stories appear in the collection Amore Caro. His first novel  Apnea won the 2015 EU Prize for Literature and was shortlisted for the Strega Prize.

Anna Giulia Novero has a strong passion for words and languages and loves to combine the two through writing, translation and editing.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, October 31st, 2019.