Luca Di Fulvio ‘The Boy who Granted Dreams’


She took a length of rope and tied it around Cetta’s left shoulder. “Stand up,” she ordered, and then pulled the rope down to her crotch, so that the child had to hunch over. F56CFD9E-BE6C-44B2-A3E7-35A7AD50EA4BNext, she knotted it tightly around her left thigh. “This is a secret between you and me,” she told her…..“You’re going to tell everyone the fall left you crippled. Everyone, even your brothers,” she explained to the child. “You’ll wear this rope on for a month, to get used to it. After that, I’ll take it off, but you’ll still walk as though you were still wearing it…..And when the padrone comes by in the evening with his beautiful automobile and honks his horn, you run out to greet him.”


Back to Italy at the turn of the century, if you work on the padrone’s land, well you belong to him and Cetta in her early teens, beautiful, has been noticed by the padrone. Her mother goes to the extent of protecting her by the subterfuge of passing her for a cripple at the beginning of Di Fulvio’s sweeping love story of an Italian immigrant in New York, read for the now extended Italian lit month.

Of course this attempt turned out not to be sufficient and Cetta soon finds herself working as a prostitute in far of New York with a baby boy, Natale, re-named Christmas at Ellis Island and so begins the story of Christmas, which in the Italian quarters we are soon lead to understand that this must be a darkies name (I didn’t feel up to the ‘n’ word of the book). As Christmas grows up in this poor cut throat district he creates a gang, the Diamond Dogs, And we live through the petty crime of the beginnings.

One night whilst still young, Christmas comes across Hannah, a young Jewish girl from a wealthy family, half beaten to death, raped and with a finger sheared off (to obtain her ring) by the families gardener, Bill. Christmas takes her to hospital in his arms and so begins an epic love story, or at least that is the intention. A story where Hannah and Christmas are separated, Hannah becomes a professional photographer in the Los Angeles of the movies, never recovering from her assault, always afraid, Christmas, remaining in New York, becomes a star of the radio telling stories about  his New York, the lower east side, of the gangs and in particular of the Diamond Dogs and finally Bill also ends up in Los Angeles working in the violent pornography business.

As the story works towards a climax I berate myself for reading through to the end a story entirely ruined for me by the longwinded descriptions of their feelings for one another, taking up easily a hundred pages of the book! A shame as the story itself relates an era.

First published in Italian as ‘La Gang dei Sogni’ by Arnoldo Mondadori in 2008
Translated into English by Ann McGarrell as “The Boy Who Granted Dreams” and published by Bastei Lübbe in 2015

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Cesare Pavese ‘The Moon and The Bonfires’


A town means not being alone, knowing that in the people, 4E345BB0-9B0F-4027-96D6-58EC98F24484the trees, the soil, there is something of yourself, that even when you’re not there it stays and waits for you. But it isn’t easy to live there and not be restless.


Which one of us doesn’t recognise himself a little in this opening quote from Pavese’s Moon and The Bonfires, read for what is now the extended Italian lit month, as the narrator at forty years old comes back to his native village in the countryside above Genoa just after the Second World War and after twenty years of absence in America where he has made his fortune.

The book circles around his erstwhile and newly re-emerging relationship with Nuto, a few years older than the narrator and who had stayed in their valley through the fascist times:


“Nuto, unlike me, has never gone far from Salto he says that to live a full life in this valley you should never leave it.”


This is a story of unspoken yet irrational guilt, the narrator for leaving his home town, where he had been brought up without a past in the ancient poverty still active in these villages and where, in flash backs to his own upbringing and the parallel with the actual story of Cinto, we understand the hopelessness of his previous situation. He was brought up in Gaminella by Padrino and Virgilia.


“Forty years ago there were people on these hills wretched enough to saddle themselves with a bastard from the hospital, in addition to the children they already had, just to lay eyes on a piece of silver.”


And he illustrates the cause of this poverty by the case of the young Cinto, in the present day living on the same farm as that on which he had worked, where they shared their crops with the land owner. Cinto tells us of events after the farmhouse is burnt down by Cinto’s father, the violent Valino:


“He’d gone down to Belbo. Then he’d heard the hog barking, his father tying up the ox. The madame of the villa had come to divide up the beans and potatoes. She’d said that two rows of beans had already been dug, so Valino would have to make up for them….He started shouting at Rosina and the grandmother because they hadn’t picked the green beans earlier. He said that now the madame was eating the beans that belonged to them.


Nuto takes most of the book, circling the question of his own guilt as bodies occasionally come to the surface in the hills from the shallow graves of the hectic wartime struggles between the partisans and the Fascist Republicans.
Firstly we learn of the family that employed the narrator, whom they had nicknamed Eel, Sor Matteo and his three daughters, Silvia, Irene and the much younger Santina. All of them now dead and how Nuto’s story is entwined with Santina’s, as Nuto finally gets to the point where he talks about his small part in those tumultuous times, the narrator asks him:


“And you, were you a partisan? Were you there?
Nuto swallowed and shook his head. Everybody did something. Too little….but there was the danger that a spy might send someone to burn down your house…


Nuto was still alive when so many others were not, the root of his guilt. Pavese himself committed suicide shortly after the book was published in 1950.

First published in Italian as ‘La luna e il falò’ by Giulio Einaudi in 1950.
Translated into English by R.W. Flint as “The Moon and The Bonfires” and published by The New York Review of Books in 2002.

Annie Messina (Gamîla Ghâli) ‘The Myrtle & The Rose’


“Well, my lord, I happen to have a consignment of exceptional merchandise, right now at this moment —six boys from the Greek coasts, all under the age of ten, superb little creatures, veritable budding flowers, the stuff of connoisseurs.8BE84CE6-68FC-43B4-B37C-8C7DAADDDA65 But I realize this sort of thing doesn’t interest your lordship.” “No,” said the prince brusquely. “If you’ve got some pretty little boys among your flowers you might propose them to the Emir Husain ibn Ali. He has a harem that could use wet nurses instead of eunuchs.”


This book, read for Italian lit month, when first published, was so by an unknown author Gamîla Ghâli, who was later revealed to be Annie Messina, an elderly Italian lady of Little or no previous literary success but who did not want to benefit from the name of her aunt, the author Maria Messina. And who probably wanted to avoid the public uproar surrounding the book’s subject matter.

The book is a fable set somewhere at the turn of the first millennium in the Arab world and concerns the relationship between Prince Hamid , known as al-Ghazi, the warrior, who is the Myrtle of the title and of the beautiful fourteen year old  bought from Boutros during his visit to the slave merchant, described in the opening quote, the Rose of the title.

As the story begins, during the visit to Boutros, there is a loud disturbance and Hamid discovers that a beautiful young yet rebellious boy, who has lost his memory, is about to be castrated, Hamid buys him for a pittance and so begins a story of love, respect and desire as the boy slowly becomes prince Falcon:


Thus it may happen that a bird comes down momentarily from its domain in the sky and lands beside us. And we watch it, happy to have it so close but wishing to touch it, hold it in our hands. Yet we know if we reach out for it a flutter of wings will carry it far away


Hamid and Falcon grow close as the subject of the fable develops, the Emir Husain ibn Ali from the opening quote has designs on both Hamid’s land and on Falcon and Hamid has a treacherous son, Prince Harazad who wants vengeance on his father for banning him. An alliance is reached whereby Harazad would be allowed to capture his father alive, to display him in a gilded cage and to keep his land and the Emir to capture Falcon. The fable is a background to test the relationship between the the man and the boy, the following two quotes illustrate firstly how Hamid sees their relationship:


Even the intimacy between them had changed into something more virile. They shared long rides on horseback, swimming races, mountain climbing. Sometimes when they reached a summit at dawn the two of them would sit together and silently watch the sunrise while their guards kept watch nearby.


And then secondly, in a world where slaves belong to their master, who have the right of life or death over them, we see through the eyes of Boutros  how the outside world must see them:


What sort of magic had the prince resorted to to tame that little rebel? One had only to look at the boy (which Butros attempted to do surreptitiously) to read in his eyes the adoration he held for his master, a feeling clearly mutual. Oh well, of course. The two didn’t have to be touching and making eyes at each other for anyone to see what held them together, quite simply a vigorous mature man’s feeling for a pretty submissive boy.


This was a well written, well translated fable well worth reading, is Hamid aware of his own temptation? How far will Falcon go for Hamid?

First published in Italian as ‘Il mirto e la rosa’ by Sellerio editore in 1982
Translated into English by Jessie Bright as “The Myrtle and The Rose” and published by Italica Press in 1997

Luca D’Andrea ‘Beneath the Mountain’


At the end of the screening, the fat guy was the first to have his say. What he said in a speech that lasted thirty-five minutes can be summed up as: “What a crock of shit!”…4B3AEFDD-E132-4BE7-BDDC-D37E89C80E28I was about to retaliate with a long (very long) series of not very PC remarks…when…The blonde girl asked permission to speak….She stood up (she was really pretty) and said, in a very strong German accent, “I’d like to ask you. What’s the exact word for Neid?” I burst out laughing and mentally thanked my dear Mutti for her insistence on teaching me her mother tongue.  “Mein liebes Fräulein,”….. “Sie sollten nicht fragen, wie wir ‘Neid’ sagen, sondern wie wir ‘Idiot’ sagen.” My dear young lady, you shouldn’t ask how we say “envy,” but how we say “idiot.” Her name was Annelise. Annelise was neither German nor Austrian nor even Swiss. She came from a tiny province in the north of Italy where most of the population spoke German. It was a strange place was Alto Adige, or Südtirol.


Luca D’Andrea’s book, read for Italian lit month, is set in the Alto Adige at Siebenhoch, a small mountain community in Italy, North of Bolzano, where the traditional language is German, a once poor mining community that seemed destined to disappear before the advent of tourism from the 1980’s. Salinger, a successful documentary writer comes to stay with his wife Anneliese and their daughter Clara. Soon after his arrival he sees the red helicopter of Dolomite Mountain Rescue and after discovering that it had been his own father-in-law, Werner Mair, who had been responsible for creating it, he decides to shoot his next documentary around this subject.

During the shooting, there is a tragic accident in the mountains where the helicopter is lost and Salinger is the only survivor, but he is injured both physically and mentally PTSD. This marks the true beginning of the story, whilst trying to recover Salinger discovers a mysterious Cold Case, the horrific murders of Evi, Kurt and Markus up in the mountains, at the Bletterbach caves, near the old mines on the night of April 28, 1985. In trying to solve the mystery of the deaths he meets resistance from the local community, discovers that in this remote community, despite his marriage, he will always be an outsider. As he investigates, he meets all of the remaining protagonists, Max Krün the local policeman and Werner Mair, his own father-in-law, who were both in the rescue team that discovered the bodies, the other two rescuers Gunther and Hannes are both since dead, he meets Gunther’s alcoholic girlfriend, Brigitte Pflantz, and Gunther’s rich brother, Manfred Kagol, the owner of the Bletterbach Visitor Centre, built soon after the deaths to welcome visitors to this fossil rich mountain area, the catalyst for a local tourist infrastructure bringing relative wealth to the area.

Salinger discovers many dark secrets, touching everyone around him including his own family, as well as a fair share of red herrings. Luca D’Andrea brings us a well written, well paced thriller in this unusual setting.

First published in Italian as ‘La sostanza del male’ by Einaudi in 2016
Translated into English by Howard Curtis as “Beneath The Mountain” and published by Harper in 2018

 

Luc Lang ‘Au Commencement du septième jour’


Ringing, deafening his ears…What time is it? What? 4h in the morning? It’s a private call. Hello?….Yes?95509ADC-1BA7-4A8D-8A86-43E06D04F0D6 A deep voice, commanding, presents himself, the gendarmerie, Saint-Eustache-la-Forêt, what? Saint-Eustache-la-Forêt in Normandy, I’m terribly sorry to wake you at this time of night, Camille Texier is your wife?….at the A&E in Bolbec….a car accident, we wanted to notify you as soon as possible.***


Thomas is married with two children and a loving wife, Camille, he works as a programmer in a company which he and his friend Dom helped their joint friend Drincourt to start up and begin to make profitable. The two parents live full professional lives and have little time for their children whom Dana their African “auntie” helps to look after. Time did I say, Thomas’s main project is to work on a software solution linked to a bar code reader enabling companies to know what their off site employees are doing at every moment throughout the day, a wonderful device allowing companies to optimise the use of their employees and helping the employees prove their worth to their companies.


Firstly in the video you see the name of the product: NUXITEMPO, as if it were the title of a film. Then the name of the manufacturer: NUXILOG. accompanied by an epic musical score of the sort with which you can imagine a child being rescued in the wild Pacific Ocean….Then à voice which announces: In five years time 50% of you employees will be nomad. Wherever you are, improve your traceability!***


In the first part of this three part book, Thomas’s life explodes, as we learn of his wife’s car accident in the opening quote, and we examine the circles of deeply engrained lies Thomas doesn’t even realise he is living. What was Camille doing on this lonely country road in the early hours of the morning? How did she have such a dramatic accident on a straight stretch of road where you could see for miles in every direction? Whilst Camille lies in a coma,  Thomas investigates the accident and he discovers that there were things he didn’t know about his wife, at the same time his job becomes more precarious as his once friend Drincourt shows no empathy or understanding towards the effects of his private life on his professional performance. On a personal side Thomas tries to protect his children from the dramatic events concerning their mother, but where does protection end and confiscation begin, a question he will be forced to face by his son.

The book then jumps ahead a few months to the summer when Thomas and the children are on holiday at his brothers house high in the Pyrénées, where his much elder brother, Jean is a goatherd living a pastoral life in the family farm. We learn that Camille, although coming out of her coma, died soon after without ever recovering.
The children fit in well and are enjoying the chores on the farm but we sense a closeness that cannot be and a difference in visions of the world between the two brothers as illustrated by the following conversation:


Hang on brother, stop there. Why do you think I don’t have more than 180 goats?
I guess that over that number it’s a change of scale, you can no longer control the population, whereas with my solution, no need for extra staff….
You don’t get it do you? I don’t go above that number, because I wouldn’t know them: Their names, there characters, their habits….180 is already the upper limit. Doesn’t interest me to have more, but go on Thomas what would I do with your system? What would…
You’d manage! I’d install the apps for you, I’d ensure the computer maintenance, the updates, the….
You really expect me to spend my time in front of a screen, “managing” my goats temperature curves, their blood analyses and population curves? I’d call them up by Skype?***


In the summer, Thomas pushes his brother much against his will to take him up into the mountains to see the place his father was found dead after a fall, and then at Christmas Jean suddenly throws their mother out of his house, off of the farm, Thomas doesn’t understand, there is a deeper family story he is unaware of, knows nothing of.
The answers lies later, in the third part of the book, no spoilers here, when Thomas visits his estranged sister, Pauline who lives in The Cameroun following the death of his brother Jean found after a fall at the same place as his father. All becomes clear, the dark family secrets are revealed to Thomas pushing him to act quickly.

Throughout the book, Luc Lang brings to life the different lives and locations, from the hospital in Rouen to the prison cell in the Cameroun, from the café in Paris and the overindulgence in alcohol under pressure of work to the kinship necessary to live in the remote farms of the Pyrénées, slowly revaluing to Thomas the false strings holding his life together.

First published in French as ‘Au commencement du septième jour’ by Stock in 2016
***My translation

Cristina Comencini ‘When The Night’


The milk will come, you just have to believe. It seems you have to believe in milk, and maybe I just didn’t believe strongly enough, and that’s why it didn’t come. F1BF3673-7EEB-4B3F-A6DB-69CFE34962D9My mother tried to reassure me. “It will come, don’t worry. I didn’t have milk, but you will be more fortunate.”


In this story, read for Italian lit month, Cristina Comencini contrasts the mental mistrust of Manfred, the rough mountain guide, and Marina, visiting from the city, for each other with their overwhelming physical attraction one for the other.

The story is told in two voices, first Manfred and then Marina as we first discover Marina through Manfred’s narration, a young woman come to stay in the mountains with her baby son in Manfred’s rental flat above his home. Manfred is bitter and has his misgivings about women in general and about Marina in particular, he hears a baby crying above him, a bang then silence, he reacts rushing uncannily quickly upstairs to find Marina crying in a corner and the young child who has “fallen” from the table and against Marina’s wishes he rushes them to the hospital. We learn from Marina of the difficulty she has coming to terms with having a baby in the opening quote.

Manfred is one of three sons, brought up in the mountains alone by his father, a rustic life taught to be frugal and untrusting of women, his elder brother has a restaurant high on the mountain slopes and his younger brother is a womaniser living in the same mountain town, as he says to Marina:


But I was honest: I told her what I was like, that I know nothing about women, and that my mother abandoned us when we were little. Ran off with an American. I never saw her again. I know she remarried and had more kids in America, because our father told us.


Manfred eventually decides not to report Marina to the police for his suspicion about her son’s injury and despite themselves they are slowly drawn together, after quarrelling in Manfred’s brothers restaurant one night, Marina gets a lift down the mountain and Manfred decides to walk, when she doesn’t hear him down stairs in his apartment she calls the rescue services who consequently find him injured and save his life in the mountains. Marina visits him in hospital ready to leave her husband for him and then abruptly leaves the mountains to go back home to her husband, we learn years later that the story turned here about Manfred’s youthful family trauma as she tells years later when she revisits the mountains hoping to see Manfred, after her son has grown up and left home:


How long should I wait? What if he doesn’t come? What would Marco and Sylvia think if they saw me? That’s not our mother sitting waiting for a man and how about Mario he’s never known that I might need him that for me none of this is natural, but I still want to dance, to flee, to inflict pain. I never made a promise to them, but I made a promise to him, don’t leave the boy.


Theirs is a tragic love, how does their second chance end? Well you’ll just have to read it to find out.

First published in Italian as ‘Quando la Notte’ by Feltrinelli in 2009
Translated into English by Marina Harss as “When the Night” and published by Other Press in 2011

Diego Marani ‘New Finnish Grammar’


‘At heart, we have always been Lutherans, even before we became Christians. The heroes of the Kalevala were already Lutherans in the same way that Achilles and Ulysses were already Orthodox. 2F042AD6-7A56-4C98-8D52-428CB0A1F403Ulysses practised his wiles on a sophisticated and sceptical society which was familiar with mental trickery. Väinämöinen’s mode of speech is craggy, immediate, uncomplicated, like the first blow of a chisel on rough stone. The Greek Gods mingled with men, wrangled and negotiated with them. The God Ukko never comes down to Earth; he judges our actions and then visits light or darkness upon us, punishment or reward.’


In Diego Marani’s left of field book New Finnish Grammar, read for Italian Lit Month,  the story of roots and the need to belong is brought to us in this improbable story. During the Second World War a man is found in the port of Trieste, badly beaten and having lost his memory and speaking no language, the only clue to his identity is the Finnish name Sampo Karjalainen found on his jacket. He is brought aboard a german hospital ship to be treated where the doctor that treats him, Pétri Friari, has himself unsure roots, in the German forces but himself of Finnish descent. He tries to teach Karjalainen, the rudiments of Finnish before sending him to Helsinki to better discover and understand his own country and language and to then maybe discover more about himself. But Finnish is no ordinary language as we learn:


Finnish was not invented. The sounds of our language were around us, in nature, in the woods, in the pull of the sea, in the call of the wild, in the sound of the falling snow. All we did was to bring them together and to bend them to our needs. When God created man, he did not bother to send any men up here.


The reader feels something of the poetry, of the essence of Finnish, without Marani trying to detail the actual language. As the Finns prepare to defend their country against Russian attack, Sampo is housed in the military hospital where he meets Ilma, a nurse who feels for him, maybe a new start is possible with her as he struggles to speak Finnish, helped by the pastor Koskela who tries to teach him not only the language but also what it is to be Finnish through Finnish mythology, The Kalevala, the spirit of which is rendered in the opening quote.

Marani’s tale is told by Pétri Friari, pieced together from notes written by Sampo in Finnish whilst Sampo was struggling to learn the language. Who was Sampo? What was he doing in Trieste? Is their hope, through Ilma for a man that does not know who he is? A chance observation by Sampo at the end of the story makes all clear, As Pétri says:


If Doctor Friedrich Reiner had found the handkerchief with the initials S. K. even a day earlier the fate of Massimiliano Brodar would have been different, as would have been my own.


First published in Italian as ‘Nuovo Grammatica Finlandese’ by RCS Libri in 2000
Translated into English by Judith Landry as “New Finnish Grammar” and published by Dedalus in 2011