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Fiction in Italy since the years of lead: a quarter century of top novels.

Umberto Eco, Il nome della rosa (1980)

Pier Vittorio Tondelli, Altri libertini (1980)

Gesualdo Bufalino, Diceria dell'untore (1981)

Italo Calvino, Palomar (1983)

Gianni Celati, Narratori delle pianure (1985)

Dacia Maraini, La lunga vita di Marianna Ucria (1990)

Sebastiano Vassalli, La chimera (1990)

Andrea Camilleri, La forma dell'acqua (1994)

Antonio Tabucchi, Sostiene Pereira (1994)

Melania Mazzucco, Lei cosi amata (2000)

THE PERIOD THAT FOLLOWED the years of lead in Italy was in many ways an age of gold for the Italian novel. After a decade of terrorism by forces from both the left and the right that was marked in blood by the murders of Pier Paolo Pasolini in 2975 and Aldo Moro in 2978, the years that followed were a time when the novel, rather than movies or poetry, became the preeminent Italian art form. At the beginning of the 1980s, with the terrorist wave subsiding and the political pamphleteering and experimental poetry that characterized the 1970s also waning, three remarkable works of fiction greeted Italian readers: Umberto Eco's Il nome della rosa (1980), Pier Vittorio Tondelli's Altri libertini (1980), and Gesualdo Bufalino's Diceria dell'untore (1981).

The three books could hardly have been more different. Eco's is a historical novel set in the Middle Ages that became an international best-seller; Tondelli's a depiction of some of the seamier realities of life in the 1970s that was immediately seized (and then released) by the censors; Bufalino's a meditation on life, death, and the existence of the Christian God that was at once deeply religious and unsettlingly blasphemous. The styles of the three writers were sharply different as well. Eco's prose is witty and learned, filled with accounts of arcane medieval lore shot through with sly allusions to contemporary issues in philosophy and politics; Tondelli's makes use of the hard-bitten language of the down-and-out sprinkled with obscenities, slang, and underworld jargon; while Bufalino favors a hyperliterary, deliberately overwritten lyric prose that was quickly compared to the art of the baroque era some four hundred years earlier.

The ten works from 1980 to 2000 that I will be discussing here have been selected according to criteria that make no claim to objectivity but are reflections of personal taste as modified and informed by the scholarly commentary that has grown up around them in Italy and elsewhere. In selecting these works, I have tried to choose texts that seem both to have defined the times in which they first appeared and are at the same time likely to become permanent features of the literary canon.

Let me turn, first of all, to what is clearly the best known of the ten: Il nome della rosa (1980; Eng. The Name of the Rose, 1983), by Umberto Eco (b. 1932). Hugely celebrated throughout the world, Eco's novel seems at first sight a fast-moving mystery novel set in a largely monastic environment during the fourteenth century. But in reality--written, as it is, by one of the world's leading semioticians and an astute student of literary theory as well--the text is a studied meditation on the limits of epistemology and human understanding as well as a disapproving commentary on political fanaticism during the preceding decade in Italy (both on the part of the establishment and by those contesting that establishment by violent means).

Altri libertini, by Pier Vittorio Tondelli (1955-91), is set not in the Middle Ages but in the present and lacks the comforting filter of Eco's erudite research. The "other libertines" of its title are very unlike the peruqued and witty rascals of eighteenth-century France usually suggested by that term. Tondelli focuses, instead, on the junkies, punks, homosexual streetwalkers, and other anti-establishment types that had begun to appear everywhere in Italy in the 1970s, including in the streets and squares of his own Emilia. These individuals' public flaunting of their difference from middle-class, conventional Italians was a phenomenon the latter preferred to ignore if they could. Tondelli's book, however, placed the antisocial activities of these aberrant types squarely into the faces of these onlookers--or at least into bookstores, where his book was snapped up by younger readers pleased so see their own world come alive in ways with which they could, to various degrees, identify.

Gesualdo Bufalino (1920-96) was born thirty-five years before Tondelli, though he managed to outlive him by five years, Tondelli having succumbed to AIDS in 1992. The older writer's Diceria dell'untore (Eng. The Plague-Sower, 1988), in fact, describes events during and then just after World War II when Bufalino was first a conscript in Mussolini's army, then disbanded after the Allied invasion, and finally confined to a sanatorium for tuberculosis in his native Sicily. Of all the idiosyncratic and voluble characters the hero of this autobiographical novel encounters at the clinic, he is the only one of those infected to survive. This ordeal, plus his inexplicable survival (why him and not the others?), has driven him--as is clear from his rambling conversations with fellow patients and the clinic's Mephistophelean doctor--to question all human values as well as the existence of the divine. If these conversations are striking for the rage and erudition with which they are conducted, the most extraordinary aspect of this novel is its unusually rich, self-deprecatory prose. Bufalino's "baroque" excesses in this book are characterized by a heady and sometimes bewildering mixture of rare and dialect words, literary allusions, and frequent signaling to readers that the book they are holding in their hands is an untrustworthy construction of the imagination deserving of no more respect than that accorded any other product of human vanity.

The next two novels come from the midpoint of the decade, Palomar by Italo Calvino (1923-85) in 1983 and Narratori delle pianure by Gianni Celati (b. 1937) in 1985. Palomar (Eng. Mr. Palomar, 1985), the last novel published by the well-established and, by 1983, even revered Calvino, is fresh and innovative in its own right and an important contribution to the new narrative of those years. Although Calvino published his first novel in 1947 and continued to pour out work afterward, he continued to reinvent himself throughout his career, focusing during the 1980s on problems of perception and fictional representation. The twenty-seven brief chapters of narrative combination and permutation that make up Palomar present an antihero who could be any one of us. His hesitations and inveterate deconstruction of the world about him constitute a source of amusement and delight as well as intellectual stimulation, as Mr. Palomar attempts in inconclusive and contradictory ways to make sense of a world that, perhaps, will always confound any human explanation.

Like Calvino's text, Celati's Narratori delle pianure (Eng. Voices from the Plains, 1989) is made up of short vignettes, thirty of them arranged not in chronological order but according to their geographical setting along a trajectory through the Po Valley from just outside Milan to the great river's estuary in the Adriatic Sea. In a number of asides to his readers, Celati disclaims all responsibility for these stories, claiming that he is just recounting what others have told him. But the themes of solitude, mutual incomprehension, and spiritual yearning in settings of ecological and spiritual desolation also appear in other works by this writer, whose gentle, deadpan narrators consider similar circumstances first in Africa in his Avventure in Africa of 1998 and then in the imaginary land of Gamuna in Fata morgana of 2005.

Dacia Maraini (b. 1934) is the first woman on this list and a noted feminist. La lunga vita di Marianna Ucria (1990; Eng. The Silent Duchess, 1992) is perhaps the most successful and certainly the best known of her many narrative and other writings. Set in Sicily in the mid-eighteenth century, the novel is based on a member of Maraini's own family. Through a carefully researched re-evocation of this woman's life, Maraini is able to comment in imaginative fashion on a number of issues of her own day, especially as they concern women. Marianna Ucria is a deaf and speechless member of the Sicilian aristocracy. Her physical challenges, however, prove to be the catalyst that enables her to rise above the limitations imposed in her day even on upper-class women. Because she cannot talk but must write in order to communicate with others, Marianna is able to seize possession of the pen that symbolizes patriarchal domination. Once she has done this, she can enter the world of otherwise exclusively male power while at the same time preserving her own precious skills in the realms of intuition, imagination, and creativity. An open-ended work that leaves the matter of Marianna's ultimate destiny unresolved, the novel is a noteworthy contribution to the continuing dialogue in Italy and elsewhere on the status of women and the nature of female and human identity.

Sebastiano Vassalli (b. 1941) has written more than twenty works of fictional narrative, many of them "semi-fictions" based on historical characters and incidents. One of the best of these, La chimera (1990; Eng. The Chimera, 1993), is an examination of a seventeenth-century witchcraft trial in Lombardy, a historical period and locale also famously described by Alessandro Manzoni in I promessi sposi (1827). In Vassalli's novel, however, the benevolent Providence that guided the destinies of Manzoni's characters has disappeared, leaving behind it a metaphysical "nothing." La chimera brings to life characters otherwise forgotten by history during a moment in time when implacable powers did not hesitate to roll over weak individuals--women in particular--who happened to be in their way. Through his alternate reading of the period treated in Manzoni's classic, Vassalli is insisting that the pietistic solutions to social injustices proposed in earlier periods were in fact ineffective even then and should certainly not be reinstated now.

Andrea Camilleri (b. 1925) has become almost as much a household name in Italy as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in England and Georges Simenon in France. Like his illustrious counterparts, Camilleri writes mystery novels, many of them centered on the detective Salvatore Montalbano. This irascible and socially conservative yet utterly modern investigator at home with cell phones and the latest in scientific crime-solving devices first appears in Camilleri's writings in La forma dell'acqua (1994; Eng. The Shape of Water, 2002)--the work among Camilleri's many others that has been chosen for this list. Like those of Conan Doyle and Simenon, Camilleri's thrillers--though this is hardly a detriment for his fans--tend to be repetitive, with the solution always revealed on the work's last pages and order restored--if sometimes bitterly. But it is the material nature of Camilleri's texts as much as the intricate structures of his plots that delights his many readers. The dialogue, including the interior dialogue, of Camilleri's novels is written in a scaled-down version of the Sicilian dialect that provides interesting and amusing local color otherwise inaccessible to non-Sicilians. In addition, Camilleri is often side-splittingly funny, especially in his delineation of the malapropisms and obtuseness that characterize some of Commissioner Montalbano's subordinates. Camilleri's Sicily, however, is no laughing matter. Taken singularly or all together, his books constitute a ringing (if also melancholy) denunciation of local and national abuses of collective trust perpetrated there only in part by the indigenous Mafia.

While Camilleri's ties to "serious literature" may seem rather tenuous to some, there can be no doubt about the literary credentials of Antonio Tabucchi (b. 1943). A university professor and distinguished translator from the Portuguese, Tabucchi is among Europe's most celebrated novelists today, not only in his home country but also in France, Portugal, and the English-speaking world. Sostiene Pereira (1994; Eng. Pereira Declares: A Testimony, 1995) depicts the gradual realization by an elderly journalist that taking no political position, especially in dangerous times, is to assume what is perhaps the most perilous political posture of all. Set in Lisbon in the summer of 1938, Sostiene Pereira was viewed by many early readers as a critique of political realities in Italy under Berlusconi rather than in Portugal under Salazar. An open-ended work its author has labeled "testimony" rather than a novel, Sostiene Pereira invites its readers to come to their own conclusions about who is listening to Pereria's confessional monologue, determining for themselves to whom he is testifying and under what circumstances, and deciding what will happen to him when he has finished. Like Camilleri's, many of Tabucchi's novels are about crimes, but without reassuring solutions. This is because the malevolent forces that motivate his ruptures of the social structure are instances of an evil that is not restricted to aberrant individuals or the collectivity gone wrong but has instead an ontological status that makes it intrinsic to our being in the world.

Melania Mazzucco (b. 1966) has at this writing completed four extremely lengthy and very different historical novels, all of them centered on female characters: Il bacio della Medusa (i996), La camera di Baltus (1998), Lei cosi amata (2000), and Vita, which won the Strega Prize in 2003 and is the only one of her works so far translated into English. The issues Mazzucco explores in her works are unconventional in the extreme. They include physical love between women, pedophilia, persistent drug use, and other activities that are usually considered morally abhorrent but are presented in her writings in nonjudgmental, even sympathetic fashion. The central character in Lei cosi amata is Annemarie Schwarzenbach, a historical figure who was a friend and sometime lover of the two children of Thomas Mann and later became a journalist and adventurer in Africa and elsewhere before ending up institutionalized in America as insane. A woman of unconventional tastes and a survivor of intense experiences, Schwarzenbach is emblematic of the other seekers for authenticity who appear in Mazzucco's pages. This still very young writer's books are solidly researched, expertly crafted, and linguistically stimulating. All of them deal, in different ways, with the discovery or creation of an identity by strong and open-minded young women for whom the verities of past generations are no longer valid in a world in which much more is possible than has ever been the case in the past, especially for women.

What might be said, by way of conclusion, about the ten novels that have been so briefly (and so reductively) described in these remarks? Is there a common tie that binds them together? What directions do they seem to point to for the future of Italian fiction? In response to these two questions, one might say that, though none of these ten works is exactly a historical novel, they all seem keenly interested in history and its impact on the present. It is also clear that all of them are very "readerly" texts intent not on proving some abstract point or adhering to a preestablished ideological position but on establishing meaningful dialogue with real readers who may or may not consider themselves intellectuals. Finally, while the term postmodern has by now been so abused as to be almost meaningless, it must also be said that the ten works considered here are all very knowing texts--aware of the literary heritage behind them with which they often play in the form of pastiche, quotation, or outright revision. Though they may be said to belong to a culture that is post-industrial, post-ideological, post-Catholic, post- (fill in whatever blank you like), they are certainly not part of a "post-narrative" period in Italian cultural history.

Ohio State University

FOR FURTHER READING

Baranski, Zygmunt G., and Lino Pertile. The New Italian Novel. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1993.

Bufalino, Gesualdo. The Plague-Sower. New York: Eridanos, 1988.

Calvino, Italo. Mr. Palomar. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1985.

Camilleri, Andrea. The Shape of Water. New York: Viking, 2002.

Celati, Gianni. Voices from the Plains. London: Serpent's Tail, 1989.

Eco, Umberto. The Name of the Rose. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983.

Maraini, Dacia. The Silent Duchess. New York: Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 1998.

Tabucchi, Antonio. Pereira Declares: A Testimony. New York: New Directions, 1995.

Vassalli, Sebastiano. The Chimera. New York: Scribner, 1995.

CHARLES KLOPP has been contributing to World Literature Today since 1973. He teaches Italian at Ohio State University, where he is also director of graduate studies in Italian. With recent and forthcoming works on Pinocchio, the theater of Gabriele D'Annunzio, and the treatment of violence in the fiction of Antonio Tabucchi, he is currently at work on a book-length project on spiritual and ethical issues in Italian fiction since 1980.
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Author:Klopp, Charles
Publication:World Literature Today
Geographic Code:4EUIT
Date:Sep 1, 2005
Words:2724
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