WORLD LITERATURE IN REVIEW - ITALIAN.
Vincenzo Consolo. Lo spasimo di Palermo. Milan. Mondadori. 1999 ((c) 1998). 131 pages. L.25,000. ISBN 88-04-45061-4.
In Lo spasimo di Palermo the absence of solid narrative structure and linear plot finds explanation in the author's experimentation with a sort of anti-novel. Vincenzo Consolo's ideas about the novel as a literary gender are summarized by the writer-protagonist of the novel: "Perhaps he would succeed in writing . . . about a historical reality . . . eschewing any invention or literary fiction. He abhorred the novel, which he judged to be a degenerate, corrupt, and unfeasible literary gender. If the books he had written could be taken for novels, then certainly his language was different-one of dissonance, filled with verbal violence and ending with a final shout before dissolving into silence."
Since his debut with La ferita dell'aprile (1963), Consolo's rejection of traditional novel form has signified his opposition to the social and political reality which produces and merchandizes the novel. Consonant with his expressed intent to oppose traditional narrative language, the author avails himself of poetic techniques and Sicilian terms and expressions. Such expedients render the reading of his fiction more difficult and less communicative. Consolo himself refers to his novels as narrative poems whose "contentious shift of prose toward the poetic form is an external sign of mistrust of society and its language."
Lo spasimo di Palermo may rightly be considered a narrative poem. The narration is interrupted by the insertion of poetic prose at the beginning of each chapter and often within the chapters as well. The plot proceeds along multiple lines: the revocation of a childhood within the historical context of World War II Sicily, the restless sixties and the ensuing decades of terrorism which entangled his son, and the corruption and deadly violence of the Mafia in the early nineties.
The action opens with the protagonist's visit to Paris, where his son lives in political exile. In the course of trying to mend the difficult relationship with his son, Gioacchino happens to see an old film once again. It rekindles memories of his childhood and a father-son relationship compromised by Gioacchino's unconscious involvement in his father's death at the hands of the Nazis. Gioacchino realizes that he and his son share a common destiny: in their similar desire to create a society better than the one handed to them by a preceding generation, they both have failed-the father in writing books, the son in his uncompromising dissent.
Tired and bitter, Gioacchino returns to a Palermo devastated by suburban speculation and criminal activity. He comes to know a judge who is deeply involved in the fight against the Mafia. When the judge is killed by a bomb, he realizes that the plot to assassinate the judge had been achieved thanks to information given to the killers by his servant's husband.
Lo spasimo di Palermo is an ambitious work not altogether successful. Consolo has concentrated on the search for a language that is meant to be at once essential and replete with sensations, warmth, smells, and taste; yet one has the impression that the language is forced. Often the bitter resentment of impotence in the face of the corrupted reality he is trying to represent hinders the author from reaching the distance required for an artistic rendition. The best pages of the book concern the protagonist's childhood.
University of Connecticut
Paolo Maurensig. Venere lesa. Milan. Mondadori. 1998. 177 pages. L.27,000. ISBN 88-04-45065-7.
Paolo Maurensig's fourth novel is set in a city in what appears to be northeastern Italy-perhaps Udine, where the author lives-but in any case a place where the winters are cold and snowy and the sky stays gray for long periods. The characters who appear in his examination of the loneliness and desperation of provincial life are polyglot, relatively wealthy, sophisticated intellectuals likely to consider themselves Europeans as much as (or maybe before) they are Italians.
Whereas Maurensig's first novel explored the competitiveness of big- time chess matches (see WLT 68:2, p. 356), his second the rivalry between competing violin students and eventual musical virtuosi, and this third the obsessions of an intrusive and controlling photographer, his current work, Venere lesa, treats competition in the steamier arena of seduction and rejection, sexual mastery and submission. The narrative, while chastely written, is nonetheless sexually explicit, though in a psychological rather than a physical sense. The book's twenty-nine brief, unnumbered chapters present the reader with a series of remembered vignettes that feature the psychoerotic activities of two couples: Ermes and Angele on the one hand, Claudio and Flora on the other. Even though there is no physical crossing over from one of these couples to the other, the fidelities and betrayals of each mirror those of the other. They also manage to entice the narrator into tumbling himself into the glittering surface that the images of these narcissistic individuals provide his curious gaze. In very much the same way, readers of the novel are drawn to watch the narrator detach his life from that of his longtime mate before reattaching first to Flora and then to Angele in another pair of specular relationships that in the first case never reaches physical fruition and in the second lasts for only the space of a night.
At the conclusion of the novel, what began as a rondeau of desire has hardened into a Totentanz when the open relationships of the early chapters clench into abject conventionality as the sexual revelers huddle together to await the death that will bring their frolicking to its inevitable end. As this synopsis perhaps suggests, Maurensig's novel is scarcely a jolly work, though the suggestions of sadomasochism involving not only erotic partners but also contesting generations of family members are always carefully muted. Along with its treatment of the inexorability of human loneliness, its employment of the doppelganger theme, especially in regard to the hate-love relationships among several of the book's male characters, links Venere lesa to a larger Middle European rather than a narrowly Italian culture. Interestingly, and a sign perhaps of these late-millennial times, the political considerations so important in the earlier work that first brought this late-blooming author to public attention are nowhere developed in his latest offering.
Ohio State University
Ferdinando Camon. Dal silenzio delle campagne. Fernando Bandini, pref. Milan. Garzanti. 1998. 113 pages. L.15,000. ISBN 88-11-62033-3.
One of contemporary Italy's most powerful writers is Ferdinando Camon, known to a certain extent in the United States for a couple of his translated novels and, most of all, for the critical contribution to the understanding of Camon's work done by scholars such as Angela Jeannet and Sheryl Lynn Postman. Camon's world is the life of the North Italian peasantry and the contadino mythmaking mind. Called by Camon in his novel of the same title, "The Fifth Estate," this subuniverse is the "shocking, disturbing, and often horrific realm of a primitive society, unchanged through the centuries, presented in a contemporary, modern, post-World War II environmental landscape," as Postman identifies it. With the words of the same author-narrator, we read that "the whole history concerning my village has the essential character of being outside time, not in the sense that reality becomes fable but in the opposite sense that fable also becomes reality, meaning that everything that's happened in stories is destined to happen at my time. . . . I myself don't know if all the events that entered into my memory during the time of my childhood actually happened then or had happened thousands of years before or after . . ."
The magma, the conditions of this unchanging world, are now reflected in free-verse poetry, with lines creating mini-tales through which the reader participates, as Fernando Bandini acutely states in his preface, in a rural weltanschauung made up of deep and dark spaces outside history, now resurfacing as daily stories reported "from the field" by the news media: tales of botched riots, miraculous happenings, exorcisms, the escapades of wild bulls, cows, devils, substance abusers, and pornographic films with accompanying language. Practically, as Camon suggests and Bandini clarifies, the chaotic tremors of an antiquated and rigid society which is turned upside down by the shock waves of newer and little-known societies, creates monstrous creatures, serial killers, patricides: terrible acts that signal our passage from a "poor but sane" rural life to a "richer" life in cities that have become quotidian killing fields.
Although Camon declares that "the poet today has / no excuses / for delaying / his own end," in the words of the literary critic Geno Pampaloni this writer possesses an authentic resonance: a kind of sacred and profane fervor for the loneliness and the segregation of those who share his terrain, that small plot of earth which has sowed within him both sweet and bitter roots. It appears that Camon's mimetic powers spring from a long-remembered rage nourished by the eternal rhythms of the farmlands, open vistas that seem like some "beyond" suspended in distance and mystic resignation.
The ever-vigilant gaze of the writer is focused upon this landscape; it is a view at times grotesque or satirical, painted with dreamlike brushstrokes, with the dissatisfaction and the disillusionment and the bloodletting that mark the end of an illusion. The appended epilogue to Dal silenzio delle campagne proffers the aroma of an old ancestral maxim whose upside-down sense seems to reside in its non-sense: "The under-man was just as empty / as our present-day Robo-cop: / balance creates the just man / who seldom finds a place in his own time."
Camillo Pennati. Una distanza inseparabile. Turin. Einaudi. 1998. 134 pages. L.22,000. ISBN 88-06-14987-3.
In his recent collection of poems written between 1983 and 1997, Camillo Pennati searches for images and rhythms to reveal the deep relationship between man and the marvels of nature. He wishes to represent in verse form the colors and sounds of the landscape; this presents a challenge that condemns the poet to "una distanza inseparabile." He pays particular attention to the blue of the sky, to the clouds, the sun, the waters, the wind, and to the electrifying waves of light. He experiences the constant tension of the universe in contrast with the measured routine of external nature in all its beauty and vitality.
Despite the varying moods of human beings, nature carries on at its own pace. The poet is charmed by the mysteries and magic of the natural world, which may lead to reflection but also to a lack of understanding. He is fascinated by contrasts: the variations of silence and the din of the sea, the darkness and luminosity that occur on the terrestrial sphere. He uses many antitheses and original juxtapositions: he writes, for example, "l'aria si commuove nella seta delle brezze." He marvels at the mighty force of the wind which moves the clouds in the heavens and the dust on earth.
Pennati's is a poetry of action, with the employment of numerous picturesque verb forms. He utilizes long lines in his writing, with an internal rhythm, a rich concrete vocabulary, and stanzas of different lengths. His poems, all containing titles, are quite short, and there is a general lack of punctuation and capitalization in his verses. His is a descriptive poetry disclosing a profound appreciation for the wonders of nature and a joy in contemplating them.
Patricia M. Gathercole
Myriam Anissimov. Primo Levi: Tragedy of an Optimist. Steve Cox, tr. New York. Overlook. 1999. x + 452 pages + 8 plates. $35. ISBN 0-87951- 806-5.
The Holocaust has become one of the most important historical as well as literary concerns of the twentieth century, and its consequences have become engraved in our collective consciousness perhaps forever. Myriam Anissimov has recorded for posterity the life of an individual who has become indelibly associated with that horrific event.
This shy, diffident, unsure man, Primo Levi, like Elie Wiesel, has become one of the basic identifying markers of the Holocaust. Not a literary man in a strict sense, he began his life as a chemist, and this is what saved him in the concentration camps, since his scientific skills were thought useful. As a young man he joined antifascist groups and was caught, eventually ending up in Auschwitz. Anissimov records for us the terrible privations that the inmates suffered: hunger, exposure to the cold in insufficient clothing, and most of all the deep fear that each person had in the Lager, the fear of being selected for the "showers"-that is, death. The most fearful expression was "Get up!" for this could mean just such selection. The inmates were victims of the very idea that fueled the Holocaust: the calculated and deliberate extinguishing of Jews.
Levi came from a modest Jewish family in Turin, Italy. He was made well aware of his social displacement and difference as a boy, as his school chums ridiculed him for his circumcision and made him think that it was instead a castration. Experiences such as these tended to make Levi an inward personality, bookish, unsure of himself. In the Lager he had to cope with the fickleness of his jailers and the hounding by other inmates who had some power. As the Russians approached Auschwitz, the Germans became more panicked and increased the killing of Jews. With the liberation, Levi came to know the Russians, who had sympathy for the inmates. After some time traveling about, he finally returned to his family. His odyssey from his student days to Auschwitz comprises the first half of the book.
In the second, half, Anissimov covers all the events of Levi's life from the time of his return to his tragic death by suicide. She describes his books and how he struggled to be taken seriously as an homme de lettres, which came slowly and late until he became through books an internationally famous author, the kind of true writer Italo Calvino saw in him. Anissimov details his courtship, and also his career as the manager of a paint plant, a post he held for more than thirty years until he retired.
Levi wanted the recognition of being an important and serious writer, but when it came he seemed ill at ease with it; the travel, the cocktail parties, et cetera, did not fit his personality. he killed himself after a bout of depression by hurling himself down the stairwell of his apartment house. What caused this? Was it the guilt complex that "the good ones were gassed and the lesser ones survived"? Was it the overwhelming experience of achieving fame? Was it the toll that taking care of his aged and senile mother and his blind mother-in- law had exacted on him? The illnesses that began to beset him? No one really knows, although Anissimov examines all the possibilities.
Anissimov has written a heroic account of a seemingly unheroic person, but a person who rose to heroic stature by making his life a bearing of witness. She leaves no stone unturned in her quest to reveal the man. Her book is not only the exploration of a virtuous and profound individual, but an exposition of Italian history (especially during the Fascist period), the history of the Holocaust, and postwar Italy. It is a monumental work, and Anissimov is to be praised robustly for this gift to the world.
Joseph V. Ricapito
Louisiana State University
Mario Rigoni Stern. Sentieri sotto la neve. Turin. Einaudi. 1998. 124 pages. L.22,000. ISBN 88-06-14900-8.
Mario Rigoni Stern is perhaps the dean of Italian novelists from the immediate postwar period, one of the few authors of a successful work from the 1950s who is still active and writing today. Il sergente della neve was first published in 1953 (the English translation The Sergeant in the Snow followed in 1954), after considerable refining of the self- taught author's prose by another famous autodidact, Elio Vittorini, who at the time was an editor at Einaudi. The first draft of Rigoni's book, then, was written a good half-century before the collection under review here.
Like several of the volumes Rigoni has brought out since his memorable depiction of the Italian retreat from the Russian front in Il sergente della neve, the evocatively titled Sentieri sotto la neve (Paths Beneath the Snow) is a miscellany of memoirs, anecdotes, and stories. The sixteen brief prose pieces it contains are arranged into three sections. The first of these treats material that has appeared before in Rigoni's writings: the sober account of the return to Italy of a battered but determined ex-combatant and prisoner of war following the cessation of hostilities. The section continues with a brief portrait of a shepherd from the author's native Asiago; that is followed by the story of two university students who visit the battle site in the Alps where the grandfather of the woman in the couple fought in the Resistance. The section then concludes with two ghost stories suitable for telling around a mountain campfire: the first is about a witch who enchants and befuddles a worker at a forest sawmill; the second is an account of a group of more benevolent phantoms from Italian and Austrian history who haunt a tavern on the frontier between those two countries.
The second group of selections contains autobiographical reflections on such matters as the various names for "snow" in Rigoni's dialect, the evocative force of old postcards, the ancient Cimbrian inhabitants of the Italian Alps, and Rigoni's friendship with another famous Italian survivor, the scientist and Holocaust writer Primo Levi. The book then ends with six diarylike entries about Rigoni's life today in his sylvan retreat, the birds and animals that share his space on the planet with him, and memories of his own past and of his native region that are almost as vivid to him as the roebucks, fox, and crossbill who visit his yard and garden.
By what is perhaps not so strange a quirk of fate, the positions assumed by this venerable author are often those embraced by younger and arguably trendier constituencies within Italy and elsewhere. They include the dehumanizing effects of war and a consequent determination to prevent its recurrence, an affection for nature and the environment, and a sense of region and family as more definitive of our human identity than national boundaries or political rhetoric. In this unusually spare and honest book, such views are the hard-earned results of often difficult lived experiences that are always evoked with admirable and convincing clarity.
Ohio State University
Alessandro Baricco. Ocean Sea. Alastair McEwen, tr. New York. Knopf. 1999. 241 pages. $23. ISBN 0-375-40423-6.
A group of people find themselves at a remote and isolated seaside resort called Almayer Inn, where there is "sand as far as the eye can see, between the last hills and the sea-the sea-in the cold air of an afternoon almost past, and blessed by the wind that always blows from the north." A guest describes the place as "the seashore. Neither land nor sea. It's a place that does not exist," thus setting the tone of the stories that follow. We are in a dream land, where fantasy rules and anything goes.
The novel Ocean Sea is weird yet appealing and will hold most readers' attention throughout. It is a translation from the Italian that creates an atmosphere of its own and reads smoothly, though in a few cases a seemingly awkward turn of phrase appears and occasionally the choice of words is unusual. (The word sutler, a peddler of provisions to armies, comes to mind.) The style often varies from the usual physical setup, some words and sentences being positioned at odd places on the page, and in one instance there are ten consecutive paragraphs each consisting of the single word Amen. Perhaps the author is illustrating the free-flowing waves of the ocean sea. In any case, the book is engaging and will no doubt be welcomed by those who read the author's earlier novel, Seta (1996; see WLT 71:2, p. 368), published in translation as Silk in the USA in 1997.
Ocean Sea brings together a beautiful young woman, a priest, an unfaithful
wife, a painter, a professor, a mysterious seafarer, and others. Absorbed in their own problems, they all are seeking a solution. A part of the plot involves murder, first committed in a lifeboat overloaded with desperate shipwrecked sailors fighting among themselves in order to stay alive, and again as revenge by the surviving sailor at the Almayer Inn. Other characters pursue their goals. Professor Bartleboom studies the exact point at which waves break on the shore in order to determine where the sea ends. The painter Plasson, trying to capture the essence of the sea, produces paintings that are completely white. Ann Deveria, the unfaithful wife, is at the resort because her husband believes the sea will make her mend her ways. Managers of the inn are several precocious children, who contribute to the grim picture. The ocean, representing life, death, hope, timelessness, is always there, a constant and hypnotic influence on one and all.
Alessandro Baricco was born in Turin in 1958. In addition to his novels he has also written several works in the field of musicology. He is highly regarded in Italy for his television programs, one on opera, another on literature. He is certainly a bright new star on the Italian literary scene.
Rufus S. Crane
Key West, Fl.