Federica Franzè







Translating, Rewriting, Rethinking the Immigrant Paradigm in Franco Biondi’s Short Story Passavantis Rückkehr


In the short story “Passavantis Rückkehr” [“The Return of Passavanti”] (1976), the Italian born writer Franco Biondi[i] explores the issue of identity in immigration, questioning notions of border crossing and homecoming. This story that never received particular consideration, like, in general, other works written in German by Italian writers during those years.[ii] This article seeks then to draw attention to this forgotten and compelling text, which, I argue, reenacts, both in content and language, the very experience of Italian immigrants to Germany in the early 1960s. With a rather repetitive structure and rhetorical figures, the story recalls the circularity of their journey but seem to conclude that there is no place that can be called home any more. The text also has a rather peculiar origin: it was published in Italian first (in 1977), and in a longer German version later (in 1981) and was recently re-translated by a scholar and by the author himself in Italian. I argue here that the existence of the story in two languages and multiple versions, adds an interesting meta-layer, whereby shifting also the real geography of the text itself, the author let its content travel to and back from Germany, suggesting a dynamic paradigm behind the experience of the immigrant. At the same time, it also seems to anticipate much of today’s discussions around multilingual narratives, which explore and seek to describe identities in migration.


It was 1955 when Germany and Italy signed a bilateral agreement, with which Germany called for the recruitment of foreign people with few qualifications, for jobs in the industrial sector.[iii] Similar types of labor agreements were later stipulated also with Turkey, Spain, Portugal and former Yugoslavia, among other countries, while Germany was experiencing a great economic expansion, and was in need of manpower. At the beginning, immigrants were expected to remain in Germany for a limited period of time, in order to favor a turnover of the workers. However, it was soon clear, that the short-term nature of these contracts was not corresponding neither to the needs of the workers nor to those of the German employers. As the economy kept growing, immigrants requested to extend their work contracts, they delayed their return home, and many of them asked their families to join in the new country.

Unfortunately, as many critics have underlined, for many years, a real immigration policy was lacking. The term “Gastarbeiter”, coined precisely to define the short-term nature of the workers’ contract, became a daily reminder of the temporary condition of their stay. Italy was particularly affected by the absence of a solid immigration plan,[iv] and the unstable status of Italian immigrants is clearly reflected in their writing. According to Carmine Chiellino, in fact, homecoming is one of the recurrent themes in the literary production of Italian authors in Germany. Next to a very strong tie to the land and the culture left behind, traditionally present in the literature of immigration, writers also often express a clear and strong desire to go back to the homeland. Their attempt to return, however, fails most of the time, and, as Chiellino concludes, a permanent return home is replaced by a sort of “perpetual commuting,” both geographical and emotional. “Passavanti’s Rückkehr” clearly reflects these contradictions, retracing, through the story of the protagonist, the steps of Italian immigrants to, and back from, Germany.


The story narrates the life of an Italian immigrant, Passavanti, who after living and working in Mainz for fifteen years, decides to go back home, because the expectations he had in immigration were unsuccessful. Back in Italy, however, he feels that something has changed and this reintegration into the town in which he grew up becomes more difficult every day. He soon realizes that he does not fit there any longer and decides at the end of the story that going back to Germany is the only thing to do. In his endless search for a place in which to feel at home, Biondi’s protagonist, Passavanti, replicates the perpetual geographical and emotional commuting that Chiellino discusses, mirroring the very experience of Italians, unable to integrate. As I stated earlier, the text itself recalls the circularity of the journey not only with the content, but also with a rather repetitive structure and rhetorical figures, which, however, ultimately reinforce the idea of the impossibility for the protagonist to find a place to call home.

The title of this story, in particular, already hides the irony and the contradictions that lie behind the condition of the immigrant. As the scholar Immacolata Amodeo suggests, the name of the protagonist, “Passavanti”, evokes three different possible meanings at the same time in Italian (161). First of all, the term can suggest a verbal construction “passare avanti a qualcuno,” which in Italian means to pass or overtake someone; secondly it calls to mind also the substantive “il passo in avanti,” which signifies a step forward; finally, this word can suggest an expression, very common in Italian, which is “fare un passo in avanti,” and which means to take a step forward, in the sense of ‘making progress’. Regardless of which one of these nuances is meant or evoked by the author, all three meanings clearly indicate a movement forward. Thus “Passavantis Rückkehr” could be literally translated as “the return home of the one who moves forward.” In this oxymoronic construction, the title becomes a paradox, which also anticipates the conflicts inside the character. The very name of the protagonist, in fact, already negates in itself the possibility of the return he attempts to undertake. (Amodeo 170)


That Biondi is using the language in a subversive way – and that language generally plays here a crucial role – is reinforced by the genealogy of this short story itself. “Passavantis Rückkehr” is the only text by the author to exist in two languages. Biondi wrote the core of the story first in Italian, and published it in episodes in the Corriere d’Italia, a newspaper from the seventies that collected works by Italian immigrants in the attempt to promote their culture in Germany.[v] In the same year, the story was translated, or better yet, re-written by the author himself in German, in what is now the most commonly known version. The first version in Italian is shorter and simpler, while this later German version has a much more elaborate structure.[vi] Biondi gives us interesting information about its origin, which also reveals how his position towards immigration gradually came to a clearer definition with the German language:

Ursprünglich schrieb ich die Erzählung Passavantis Rückkehr in Italienisch. Die spätere deutsche Version ist ein vollkommen anderer Text, für den der frühere sich nur als Vorlage erwies. Beide Erzählungen sind auch unterschiedlich lang. Die ursprüngliche Idee, war eine Geschichte zu schreiben, in der ein Mann sein Leben im Zug verbringt. Er fährt zurück in seinem Heimatort und steigt dort am Bahnhof aus, um auf den Zug zu warten, der ihn wieder nach Deutschland bringt, und umgekehrt. Die deutsche Erzählung habe ich drei Jahre später geschrieben. Sie ist viel metaphorischer, plastischer und poetischer als die italienische Version. Die Erkenntnis, daß eine Heimkehr nicht mehr möglich sei, ist klar zum Ausdruck gekommen. (Biondi, Interview 59)


Interestingly enough, “Passavantis Rückkehr” and the entire collection of short stories in its later German version, has been re-translated in 2007 into Italian and edited by Immacolata Amodeo in close collaboration with the author himself.[vii]

I believe that the existence of this story in multiple versions marks the peculiar position of this work and its very being in between two cultures, two languages and two identities. Thus, we can conclude that the entire story ― which interestingly, in its original idea was to be set entirely in a train ― carries with it the signs of a perennial transition, mirroring with its origin, structure and content the complex experience of a displaced identity on the borders. In its traveling back and forth from one culture to the other, from one language to the other, the story, like its author, does not stop in one place. Rather, it suggests that dialogic mode necessary in order to articulate the identity of a multicultural subject. By setting the story in a border site, the story inevitably suggests, to put it in the words of the scholar Azade Seyhan, the idea of “perpetual motion, confrontation and translation” (Seyan, 115).


The concept of border, as defined by Seyhan, becomes in fact particularly relevant here. According to her the border is a theoretical metaphor capable of transforming a geographical space into a space of history and memory (Seyan, 197). The border becomes almost a real space in which the conflicts and confrontations between cultures, nationalities and languages take place, and in which, ideally, the culture of hybridization replaces the traditional idea of a national identity. This notion of border subverts the traditional notion of home and becomes itself a sort of new “home” for the traveler.

Between the expectations projected for the new place and the nostalgia for things left behind, the homecoming serves as an allure for the immigrant, who, ultimately, is unable to settle down anywhere. Along the lines of Claudio Magris’ suggestion, who defines the journey in modernity as a linear journey always projected ahead, as opposed to the circular journey of ancient times (the one of Ulysses, for example) (Magris xii), I want to suggest here that in this story the journey of the immigrant has not lost that circularity but has become more similar to a spiral. In this spiral-like journey the departure often implies a return — or at least the attempt of a return. In an effort to recover what has gone lost, however, the new identity clashes with the old, and while reintegration becomes difficult, it is the very homecoming that provokes a new departure, in order to overcome the feeling of displacement. Biondi clearly engages and further problematizes the trope of border-crossing, and by letting the protagonist cross the border twice or multiple times, both in the content and with the language itself, in fact, he seems to ultimately suggest that there is no place that can be called “home” any more.


The various versions of “Passavantis Rückkehr,” in particular the latest published edition in Italian, reinforce this idea of a dynamicity, by raising the linguistic and cultural implications within the bi- or multilingual works by immigrants. Drawing upon Walter Benjamin’s idea of translation, Biondi’s multiple versions of the same story suggest an intrinsic idea of movement and invite us to look at the notion of translation in its very idea of ‘transit,’ and in its power of giving “continued life” to works of art (Benjamin 71). If for Benjamin translation works as a tool to unveil the connection that exists between all languages in general, the text by Biondi, in all of its versions, really seems to point at the deeper connections within two very different languages. It is a link that, as Benjamin affirms, goes beyond any historical dimensions:

Translation thus ultimately serves the purpose of expressing the central reciprocal relationship between languages. […] As for the posited central kinship of languages, it is marked by a distinctive convergence. Languages are not strangers to one another, but are, a priori and apart from all historical relationships, interrelated in what they want to express. (Benjamin 72)


Benjamin argues that translation, “intends the language as a whole” (76) and sees all the languages as ultimately belonging to a unique “larger language” (78). Does the very existence of the story of Passavanti, both in German and Italian then suggest one greater meaning that can recount a life in immigration – a story, in other words, that, technically, can be expressed in any language? Benjamin’s idea of translation as giving “an afterlife” to the original (71), appears more complicated in Biondi’s case, as the issue of authenticity is now called into question at the same time. In fact, the core of the story originates in Italian, finds its complete form in German, and “travels” back into the Italian language at the end. Moreover, by being both author and translator of his story, Biondi complicates Benjamin’s idea of the relationship between poet and translator, and, in particular, of their supposedly different intentions.[viii]

By problematizing the notion of authenticity, the various versions of Biondi’s work do not establish any final conclusion. But can we then really say that the story does not propose a step forward at all? Despite its rather simple plot, I argue that the story unveils in reality many of the contradictions that lie behind the word “immigration” and works against easy theories of integration and cultural assimilation. With this text, Biondi distances himself from the Gastarbeiterliteratur of those years and locates himself on another, more complicated level.

By presenting a destabilized and decentered position, both thematically — with the protagonist’s incapacity of finding a place (and expressed by the final image of a traveling train) — and linguistically, — by moving the story from one language to another — I believe that Biondi does suggest, already in the seventies, a passo in avanti/ a step forward, into the consciousness of a new position, far from a conformed and objectified totality. Along Leslie Adelson’s suggestion of looking for a new “grammar of migration,” to describe the dynamic conditions of the immigrant, as opposed to an antiquated image of two static worlds (Adelson 4-5), we should not see Passavanti as suspended in an abstract dimension between Italy and Germany. Rather, his belonging nowhere and everywhere at the same time highlights precisely the dynamicity behind his displacement.

I suggest that this short story, already in the 70s, is calling our attention towards issues that are at the center of the current discussions around today’s multilingual literature, increasingly dealing with new types of linguistically complex contexts and cultures. Thus, while, monolingual models become less and less adequate to represent the globalized world in which we live today, languages themselves stop being stable entities “rooted in a particular territory” (Gilmour 3) and do no correspond to a unique national identity any more.

With the story of this restless immigrant character desperately attempting to find a place in the world, Biondi seems to be already sensing the preoccupations and the disruptions that are proliferating today and that are subverting our conventional idea of Nation and national identity. By commuting between languages, cultures and translations, the author ultimately resists assimilation and offers, instead, a new and dynamic paradigm behind the experience of the immigrant.




[i] Franco Biondi is an author of both poetry and prose; he has published collections of short stories, poems, a novella, and two novels. Biondi, Ode and die Fremde, in: Ders., Ode and die Fremde, Avlos Verlag, Sankt Augustin 1995, pp. 59-67; Biondi, Abschied der zerschellten Jahre. Novelle. Neuer Malik-Verlag, Kiel 1984; Biondi, Die Unversöhnlichen oder Im Labyrinth der Herkunft. Roman, Heliopolis, Tübingen 1991; Biondi, In deutschen Küchen. Roman, Brandes und Apsel, Frankfurt a. M. 1997.

Together with his Syrian friend Rafik Schami, Franco Biondi is also known for being one of the most active members of the group of foreign intellectuals in Germany. As the author of several articles and essays promoting the activity of foreigners, and careful investigator of the conditions of immigrants, he was deeply engaged in several associations of immigrants in the seventies and early eighties. Together with Schami and other intellectuals, Biondi founded the PoLiKunst (Polinationaler Literatur- und Kunstverein), an international literary and artistic association meant to promote books and exhibits and which also wanted to be a point of reference for a multicultural exchange. In 1987 he was awarded with the Adalbert von Chamisso Prize, together with Gino Chiellino. This is a prize instituted specifically for foreign authors writing in German.


[ii] According to Silvia Crivella, in over thirty years since its presence in Germany, the Italian community has not yet produced any real literary masterpiece. The lack of interest is in part determined by the very attitude Italian writers had for a long time. In order to promote a collective emancipation and to defend the rights of the immigrants, these authors focused their works only on the Gastarbeiterwelt. Thought of as personal journals recounting the difficulties and the problems faced by some proletarian workers in a foreign land, the works by Italians in Germany is defined as ‘too intimate,’ too ‘negative’ and sometimes simply ‘depressing’ by many critics. See: Chiellino Ufer; Lüddersen.


[iii] The presence of Italians in West Germany dates back to a recruiting pact for labor signed between Germany and Italy in 1955. Historically, the Italian community is one of the oldest community of foreigners present in the country after 1945. After this pact, in which Carmine Chiellino sees an ancient trace of the European Community, the borders of Germany opened to other nationalities, among others, to the Turkish, who have become the largest foreign community in Germany today.


[iv] In her article, Colonellla argues that the temporary nature of their contracts affected immigrants for decades, in particular, the way in which they were programming their life and that of their families in Germany. (201)

[v] In the Corriere d’Italia, as Amodeo remarks, there were hosted also the so-called “Dibattiti”, debates in which the immigrant authors were expressing their points of view on this literature. As Amodeo writes, there is still the idea that we are dealing with a “Letteratura operaia”, thus a proletarian literature. (Amodeo Heimat 52-53)


[vi] All the editions of the story: F. Biondi, “Il ritorno di Passavanti”, in: Corriere d’Italia, Frankfurt am Main 1977 (in three episodes); “Die Rückkehr von Passavanti”, in: F. Biondi/J. Naoum/ R. Schami/ S. Taufiq (Ed.), Zwischen Fabrik und Bahnhof. a.a.O., Edition CON, 1981, 120-143; F. Biondi, “Passavantis Rückkehr”, in: F.Biondi, Passavantis Rückkehr, Fischerhude 1982 pp.7-30; F. Biondi, “Passavantis Rückkher (1976)”, in: F. Biondi, Passavantis Rückkehr. Erzählungen, München, Detuscher Taschenbuch Verlag 1985, 39-61.


[vii] The story is part of a collection of stories in the book titled Vita Migrata, Isernia, Cosmo Iannone Editore. 2007.


[viii] Biondi translated the text together with the editor of Passavantis Rückkehr, Immacolata Amodeo.





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Federica Franzè received her Laurea (Italian university degree) in Foreign Languages and Literatures from the University of Urbino, Italy. She has a Master’s in Italian literature and a PhD in German literature from Rutgers University, where she has taught both languages. She is currently a Senior Lecturer in Italian at Columbia University. Her research interests include transnational literature and cinema, pedagogy and language teaching through technology.


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