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Fragments of 'impegno': Interpretation of Commitment in Contemporary Italian Narrative, 1980-2000.

Fragments of 'impegno': Interpretation of Commitment in Contemporary Italian Narrative, 1980-2000. By JENNIFER BURNS. Leeds: Northern Universities Press. 2001. vi+204pp. 36 [pounds sterling]. ISBN 1-902653-37-8.

For the generation of Italian writers which emerged after the Second World War, the notion of a particular relationship between narrative production and socio-political commitment was inescapable. In this book Jennifer Burns asks to what extent this particular trait has informed later generations of Italian fiction writers. It is an ambitious task which does not allow for generic definitions of impegno or for generic notions of literary history. For this reason, Burns is very careful in first assessing the practices of political commitment in the literary work of Italian writers up until the 1980s. In Chapter I, to 'counter the commonly-held opinion that the concept of impegno was a monological one' (p. 13), Burns concentrates on the literary practices of three different authors: Elio Vittorini, Italo Calvino, and Pier Paolo Pasolini. One might question the limitations of such a selection, but there is no doubt that Burns's critical approach is both helpful and stimulating. It presents us with a concrete and well-developed analysis of the different ways in which the three authors struggled to infuse their writing with a sense of ethical and social responsibility. The following chapter moves on to the i970s, and here the work of Gianni Celati is convincingly presented as a link between the previous generation and what will follow.

With Chapter 3 we enter the actual analysis of a selection of authors whose work spans the twenty years from 1980 to 2000. Antonio Tabucchi is considered as the one who, more than any other, retains traits of his forerunners in his Vittorini-esque belief in the impact of literature on people's social conscience. Chapter 4 then concentrates on the work of Fabrizia Ramondino, whose interest in questions of personal and social identity bears marks of a 'Pasolinian' viewpoint. Although Burns does not try to define a female-specific form of impegno, the relevance of gender issues is implicit in the entire book through the use of the feminine personal pronoun whenever a generic notion of writer is discussed.

It is difficult to condense in a few lines the many interesting considerations regarding the rest of the selected writers. Andrea De Carlo is studied as an example of unconvincing impegno as betrayed by his simplistic and ambiguous treatment of contemporary social issues. At the other end of Burns's qualitative spectrum, Pier Vittorio Tondelli's fictional production is praised for 'his profound commitment to creating and maintaining a space for literature in contemporary culture' (p. 117). His efforts to promote the writings of the following generation posit Tondelli as an important figure in the development of contemporary Italian literature and, as Burns points out, the 'fault line' has developed to include the writings of Silvia Ballestra. In the following chapter Ballestra, the youngest of the selection, is discussed as the most promising of the current generation of Italian writers. In her work Burns sees the progressive establishment of a self-assured identity as a writer and as an observer of social phenomena. The eighth and final chapter is devoted to an overview of immigrant writing in Italian. Various examples of works by North African writers are discussed, some for their limitations, others for their original traits.

The conclusion regroups the many strands of each chapter under the umbrella notion of postmodernism. Within this dimension, further analysis could have focused on the role of the historical novel and detective fiction (both of which would have seen Sciascia as a fourth impegno father figure). The conclusion also returns to the overall thesis of the book, that the latest generation of writers have had their sense of responsibility towards readers and literature woken up by the political crises of the 1990s. Within the selected range of authors, this is a convincing interpretation; particularly illuminating is the reconstruction of a sense of legacy descending from the idealism of the early post-war years. On the other hand, the uncharted territories of Catholic culture remain unexplored. This is a pity since the work of a highly popular writer such as Susanna Tamaro (complete with her editorials for Famiglia cristiana) would have provided an interesting case study of a Catholic form of impegno. In the final pages Burns attacks the absence of a critical community capable of understanding the important contribution of this latest generation of Italian writers. The 'critical snobbery' among Italian intellectuals who insist on a distinction between high and low culture is self-confidently deemed to be at the root of the problem (p. 185).

In conclusion, this book provides a sophisticated and stimulating insight into the world of contemporary Italian literature. It is packed with thought-provoking considerations and is very successful in assessing the complex net of relations between literature and its political and social context. Burns's views are presented with such vigour and scholarly panache that Fragments of 'impegno' will be an excellent starting point for many discussions to come.


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Author:Bonsaver, Guido
Publication:The Modern Language Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2004
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