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


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.

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


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

Pino Corrias ‘We’ll Sleep When We’re Old’

“The book will be a tremendous success, and success, as Liz Taylor used to say, is an excellent deodorant.”

Who are the glamorous actors and actresses, producers and screenwriters that are responsable for, or appear in the films we see on the silver screen?A1AA7C94-B26C-473A-B1B5-74EE77E1CB7F In this story, read for Italian lit month 2017, Pino Corrias takes us behind the scene’s of the new Roman Dolce Vita. Corrias’ main characters are Oscar Martello, president of his own film production company, come from nothing and who harbors the dream of buying and reviving Cinecittà:

“Oscar Martello is an extrovert. And extroverts generally kick up tremendous clouds of dust so they can then hide in them.”

There is Oscar’s friend, probably his only true friend, Andrea Serrano, a respected screenwriter with the power of turning stories of love and murder into moneymaking successes, and there is Jacaranda Rizzi, the lead actress in Martello’s latest film, No, I Won’t Surrender!:

She’d downed a bottle of wine and knocked down the level in the whisky bottle by three fingers. On the tray on the floor was a package of Xanax….. “Those two things don’t go well together,” Andrea told her, pointing at the Xanax and the bottle of Talisker. “No, they go together perfectly, as far as I’m concerned,” Jacaranda replied, again with that voice. The voice of a stupid little girl, thirty years old, drunk on whisky, and stunned by an excess of psychoactive meds.

The book begins near the end of the story with the destruction by fire of Oscar Martello’s sumptious Roman villa, full of his valuable paintings, leaving us to wonder who could have done it, before Corrias takes us back to the beginning of the story just before events accelerate towards the fire. In La Dolce Roma’s venal society where people would sell their souls for a chance to appear on screen, Oscar and Andrea’s long friendship seems to be an exception, they are sat drinking in Andrea’s apartment as Oscar explains just how bad and how much money he will loose because of his latest film “No I Won’t Surrender” starring the beautiful Jacaranda Rizzi, a film about the Mafia. Oscar has the idea of secretly sending Jacaranda to Paris with Andrea a week before the film’s release and of leaking to the press that Jacaranda has been kidnapped because of her role in this anti-Mafia film, thus raising public interest and saving the film. Andrea agrees to help his friend, it sounds fun and Oscar lends him his golden jaguar for the trip. 

But who is Jacaranda really, how has she reached her role as a star in the corrupt Roman film industry and what is her relationship to Oscar? How did Oscar drag himself up from nothing to the top of the pinnacle and who did he squash to get there? What would happen if against all the odds Andrea falls in love with Jacaranda and learns that Oscar has used him, would their friendship survive?  Corrias draws us a 21st century version of the Dolce Vita, the colourful world of the Roman film industry, it’s intrigues and how desperately the different people described will fight to keep what they have, fame, money or both. 

There was nothing sweet about the dolce vita, it was horrendous. —DINO RISI

First published in Italian as ‘Dormiremo da Vecchi’ by Chiarelettere in 2015
Translated into English by Antony Shugaar as “We’ll Sleep when We’re Old” and published by Atria Books in 2017

Sandro Veronese ‘Terres Rares’

–Today’s news is the prawn warning. It’s in all the papers, and not only in the local pages for Rome. Killer prawns from Louisiana.IMG_1119 There is a worrying tone to the articles because this particular strain, imported from Louisiana about fifteen years ago by a farmer from lake Bracciano, has flourished in the whole of Latium thanks, if would seem, to its exceptional reproductive ability. From ditch to ditch, from irrigation channel to irrigation channel they have advanced to the Malagrotta waste dumps and from there, once again according to the press, last night they launched their assault on Rome by crossing the Via Aurelia at the thirteen kilometer marker.***

Pietro Paladini, the main protagonist from Veronesi’s previous book Quiet Chaos, who lived in Milan and which concerned a reaction to the sudden loss of his common-law wife Lara, finds himself several years later in a seemingly stable situation living and working in Rome. As with the opening quote, where there is in fact a rational explication, to the irrational newspaper article, all is not as it seems, there are indications waiting to be read of the instability of his situation. Firstly he has a steady relationship with a woman of his age, D, but keeps his life with her separate from his life with his daughter: 

–Nevertheless, whilst I feel a tenderness towards her, hold her in high esteem,  feel a need to protect her, share a complicity, respect, besides a physical attraction that can’t be ignored, all of these indications have never converged to a shining cohesive whole. I don’t believe that I love her, you see, at least not in the traditional sense of the word and I do not think that she loves me.***

Pietro works with an old school friend of his, Lello, whose company repossesses luxury cars which Pietro then sells. Suddenly one day Pietro’s life falls to pieces, all is not as it seems, when, as for the first time, he is asked to recover a car from a young starlet who escapes from him at high speed and as he pursues her, his world begins to unravel. He is stopped by the traffic police for speeding and is found to be over the limit, in quick succession he loses his driving license and his telephone, his daughter leaves home, D leaves him and Lello disappears as the fraud squad take over the company’s offices.

Pietro then decides to disappear and is slowly forced to review the whole of his life beginning even before the death of Lara, his relationship with his wealthy father who ran off to live in Switzerland with the nurse he had hired to care for Pietro’s mother in her final illness, with his daughter who has not fully come to terms with her mother’s death, with Lello who had used him without his knowledge as a respectable front for his criminal business, even up to his own represssed love for another woman and as he is eventually forced to understand:

–Humility is being humble with those that humiliate us.***

This story is full of anecdotes linked to the previous book, it can be read independently but is better read after the Strega Prize winning Quiet Chaos.

First Published in Italian as “Terre Rare” in 2015 by Bompiani
Translated into French by Dominique Vittoz and published as ‘Terres Rares” in 2016 by  Grasset
*** My Translation

Niccolo Ammaniti ‘As God Commands’

–Three stars.
Cristiano ranked his father’s rages on a five-star scale. No, three to four. Already in the ‘approach with caution’ area, where the only strategy was to agree with everything he said and keep out of his way as much as possible.IMG_1102 His father turned round and kicked a white plastic chair, which hurtled across the room and fetched up against the pile of boxes where Cristiano kept his clothes. No, he had been wrong. This was five stars. Red alert. Here the only thing to do was to keep shtum and blend in with your surroundings.

Who would want to be Cristiano Zena, brought up in terror by a violent alcoholic father who taught him that the only thing in life that counts is the bond between father and son. Ammaniti, in stubs Strega Prize winner, takes us on a trip into the consequences of Berlusconi’s impact on Italy. Rino Zena has drifted out of work in the new Italy, and is a Nazi sympathiser. His two friends are Quattro Formagi, an unstable halfwit who has been watching the same pornographic film for many years in private so that he knows the lines and is hovering between reality and fantasy, and Danilo Aprea a drunken night watchman whose life fell apart at the accidental death of his child, that spends his nights stalking his ex-wife at her home or on the telephone. And to complete the background, this is Italy, there is religious mumbo jumbo throughout:

–God comes down hardest on those that are weakest, you’re a doctor and you need to know it’s important Enrico, evil is attracted by the poorest and the weakest, when god strikes he strikes the weakest.

When the story does go off the rails each of the pals falls fowl of his own particular weakness, Danilo wants money for no real purpose, Quattro Formagi thinks he recognises one of the actresses in his old American porn film (a school friend of Cristiano’s):

–Quattro Formagi on the saddle of the Boxer was climbing back up around the hairpin bends of the Saint Rocca woods, a fire burned in his shoulder, every rut that he crossed was agony, but that too was a sign that god was with him, just like the holes in padre Pio’s hands.

Rino’s known weaknesses are violence and misplaced loyalty, we discover another weakness that Ammaniti throws in unexpectedly and as for Cristiano, Well you’ll just have to read it, how far can you take filial loyalty? This is not a book with hope as a central theme.

First Published in Italian as “Come Dio Comanda” in 2006 by Mondadori
Translated into English by Jonathan Hunt and published as ‘The Crossroads’ in 2010 by Canongate Books
Also published in English as ‘As God Wants’ in 2009 by Black Cat