Tag Archives: Italy

The Dry Heart by Natalia Ginzburg

Natalia Ginzburg was a writer with a very direct and precise style. Here are the first lines of The Dry Heart:

‘Tell me the truth,’ I said.
‘What truth?’ he echoed. He was making a rapid sketch in his notebook and now he showed me what it was: a long, long train with a big cloud of black smoke swirling over it and himself leaning out of the window to wave a handkerchief.
I shot him between the eyes. (1)

Just over 100 pages later this scene is retold. In the pages between the unnamed narrator describes her meeting with Alberto, their walks together, how they married and how the marriage fell apart, all within four years.

This intense and rather shocking novella is newly available in the translation from the Italian by Frances Frenaye, published by Daunt Books. Here is my response to it as part of Women in Translation Month 2023.

The Dry Heart

This novel was first published in 1940, in Italian. The blurb makes a great deal of the anonymous narrator’s apparently casual attitude to the murder she commits, (‘she shoots her husband and walks to a café for a coffee’) – cool as you like. But it quickly becomes clear that she is not level-headed, or cold-blooded. She has been suffering in an exceedingly dreadful marriage. Unlike many novels containing murder, this one does not leave you wondering who committed the crime, or how it was done. That cleared out of the way, the narrator goes to have her coffee and the reader gets to think about why she might have done such a dreadful thing. What is the truth of this event?

In concise, spare and unbroken narrative, the anonymous wife describes their meeting, four years before, their subsequent marriage, and descent into awfulness. Alberto has a long-term lover and is unable to stop himself leaving the narrator periodically to meet up with Giovanna. 

They appeared unsuited from the start. He is much older than her: 40 to her 26. She is much taller than him. She is lonely in the city where she has come from a rural background to teach in a school. He is a confident city-dweller and enjoys showing her around. She finds pleasure in her time with Alberto, and believes she is falling in love. She is surprised that he makes no affectionate move towards her and challenges him. He too has enjoyed their talks and walks together and is lonely himself as his mother has just died. He agrees to marry her. They live in his mother’s house.

In due course they have a daughter who, like her mother, is never named. But although Alberto is affectionate towards the child their lives become more separate, until the death of the child when she is about 2 years old. Alberto comforts his wife in her grief, but soon takes up his old ways. As he is about the leave her again for time with Giovanna the narrator challenges him. She asks for the truth, and not getting it she shoots him between the eyes. Thus it begins and ends. A tough novella about a marriage that should never have happened and ended in murder.

In part it is a novel that describes loneliness, of both husband and wife. Here she describes being alone and without confidence when she first arrived in the city.

When a girl is very much alone and leads a tiresome and monotonous existence, with worn gloves and very little spending money, she may let her imagination run wild and find herself defenceless before all the errors and pitfalls which imagination has devised to deceive her. I was a weak and unarmed victim of imagination as I read Ovid to eighteen girls huddled in a cold classroom or ate my meals in the dingy boarding house dining room, peering out through the yellow window panes as I waited for Alberto to take me out walking or to a concert. (6-7)

After spending her summer holidays with her parents she returns to the city. She has not heard from Alberto. He does not call. She explains that this is how she fell in love with him: imagining his life, what he is doing, becoming obsessed with him, ‘sitting all powdered and primped in my boarding house bedroom’ waiting for him to appear. 

Alberto is older than his wife, but no wiser, and unable to extricate himself from his lover. They live two lives separately, in separate beds after the birth of the daughter. He disappears periodically. She sees her life narrow to the care of their baby. She has little idea of an alternative to her life. Her cousin Francesca tries to persuade her to leave Alberto.

‘Let’s go for a trip somewhere. He’s a little rat of a man. What good is he to you?’
‘I love him,’ I said, ‘and then there’s the baby.’
‘But he’s deceiving you. He does it in the most blatant sort of way. I see them together sometimes. She has a behind like a cauliflower. Nothing much to look at.’ (54)

The spare, intense prose makes direct contact with the reader. There is little reported speech, and few names. Not only do we never discover the names of the narrator and her daughter, but the city is not identified either. And although the Second World War had been over for three years before the book’s publication, it seems to have left no shadow on this book, not on the story anyway. No one is reported to have died, or been imprisoned, and the city has not been damaged. The war does not appear to have been in any character’s backstory.

Leone and Natalia Ginzburg before February 1944 when Leone Ginzburg died. Source unknown via wikicommons

The absence is strange, for the author had not had a comfortable time during the war, being known to have left-wing tendencies, and to be Jewish. Her first husband was tortured for his activities against the Fascist regime resulting in his death in 1944. They had three children.

There are also some lighter moments in this bleak account. In the boarding house where the narrator lives when she first came to the city, she imagines the pleasures of her own establishment as a contrast to how she lives.

The boarding house was gloomy, with dark hangings and upholstery, and in the room next to mine a colonel’s widow knocked on the wall with a hairbrush every time I opened the window or moved a chair. I had to get up early … The colonel’s widow knocked furiously on the wall while I moved about the room looking for my clothes, and in the bathroom the landlady’s hysterical daughter screeched like a peacock while they gave her a warm shower which was supposed to calm her down. (6)

Such vivid details add authenticity to this account.

Jacquiwine’s review in July 2023 is enthusiastic and points to the humour in the novel.

The Dry Heart by Natalia Ginzburg was first published in Italian as È stato cosi in 1949. The English translation by Frances Frenaye was published in 1949. I used the edition by Daunt Books published in 2021. 108pp

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Grove by Esther Kinsky

I had never heard of a ‘field novel’ before, but I had read River by Esther Kinsky. I loved that book, for it mostly concerned the River Lea in East London, a river I knew well as it was the nearest to my home of 35 years. I decided to read Grove because I was confident in Esther Kinsky’s ability to describe landscape and people’s relationship to it. My confidence was well placed, and I also found a deep meditation and exploration of the experience of grief.

Grove: a field novel

It seems a very autobiographical book. The funeral of the narrator’s partner ‘M’ took place two months before she travelled to Italy, to a small village Olevano near Rome, to decide or find out ‘how for the next three months to force my life into a new order that would let me survive the unexpected unknown’. (23)

She records three sets of journeys to Italy: this one following her bereavement; journeys with her family, arranged by her father, in her childhood; staying one the salt flats of the Po River valley sometime later.

I tetti di Olevano Romano by Pietro Scerrato via WikiCommons

The novel is suffused with the tension between death and life: especially the material manifestations of them. She is frequently interested in cemeteries and their post-funeral rituals. Cemeteries are so much part of village and town life, and as she looks around the areas where she stays, she visited them and describes them to us.

It is winter, evening comes early. When darkness falls, the old village of Olevano lies in the yellow warmth of streetlights. Along the road to Bellegra and throughout the new settlements on the northern side, stretches a labyrinth of dazzling white lamps. Above on the hillside the cemetery hovers in the glow of countless perpetually burning small lights, which glimmer before the gravestones, lined up on the ledges in front of the sepulchres, When the night is very dark the cemetery, illuminated by lux perpetuae, hangs like an island in the night. The island of the morti above the valley of the vii. (19)

In Olevano she seems passive in the winter landscape, looking out across the valley, walking to the cemetery and to the village every day. She appears to interact with nobody. We have no explanation of why she is staying in this village, in this house. She travels around the valley, visiting places she can see, and with no apparent purpose but to be there. Absence suffuses her descriptions.

In the central section she focuses on the visits to Italy, from their Rhineland home, organised by her father. Her father loved Italy, for the museums, the blue of Fra Angelico’s paintings, the seaside and for the wildlife they came across. Her father liked to lecture her, and her brother, about these things. Eels and snakes are a frequent topic. This section too is concerned with death, including the death of her father. 

In Rome they visit a cemetery:

Eventually the wind abated. Beneath a white sky, which the sunshine filtered into a uniformly soft brightness, we visited the grave of John Keats. The cemetery was full of cats, which rambled about the graves, rubbed against our legs. At John Keats’s grave cats had a good chance of finding affection. Near the entrance, placed between pruned cypress trees, were small plates, as if set out for a society of dwarves, an elderly woman came over with a pot of food scraps and distributed them onto the plates, which already thronged with cats. Next to the cemetery a sharp pyramid protruded above the traffic, and angular sign that seemed to refer to this island of the dead, lying here surrounded by the swells of the city. A Roman general had the pyramid erected as his tomb, perhaps consumed by a yearning for the sands of Egypt where despite his warrior trappings, he had been a different person than he was here in Rome, where his eyes were inevitably drawn, day after day, to sombre clusters of dark parasol pines. (179-80)

Finally in the third section she is in the Po Valley, on the flat lands, the salt plain, watching birds – flamingos, heron, egrets – and the people who live in this marginal and declining area. 

I had ended up here [Valli di Cimacchio] by accident, in an accommodation with a view to a half-wilted potted pine tree, reeds, willow bushes, and ample sky. Far from the coastal road, inland of the deserted seaside resorts. The owners had given up all hope for a livelihood – a slight bitterness hung in the air, a melancholy astonishment that the desolation of the seaside destinations and view to the emptiness of salt pans in winter could leave the viewer overwhelmed not only by doubt. (226-7)

The trucks trundle passed, endlessly, to and from the big towns. Eventually she finds her way back. She has become more active in her life, engaging with the people who she meets. Her tension between life and death is eventually resolved, or at least understood and accommodated. Grief in the end is absence, and a matter of living with death.

She has moved from being an observer to being a more active participant in the landscapes she finds.

 You can find the link to my post on her novel River (2018) from April 2019 here.

Grove: a field novel by Esther Kinsky, first published in German in 2018. The English translation by Caroline Schmidt was published by Fitzcarraldo in 2021.  277pp

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In the Sea there are Crocodiles by Fabio Geda

Two things immediately draw the reader to this short book. The first is the title, a child’s warning of dangers lurking for a voyager crossing the sea. It is the cry of fear by a young boy about to enter a boat in the Mediterranean, who does not believe it is safe. Although there are no crocodiles in that sea, the boy is correct. There are salt-water crocodiles, and the journey from the shores of Turkey to Lesbos in Greece is perilous.

In the Sea there are Crocodiles has a sub-title: The story of Enaiatollah Akbari. In the Author’s Note, the writer Fabio Geda recounts meeting Enaiatollah Akbari at a book presentation in Italy and how they agreed to retell his story of migration. He reveals that while it is based on a true story, the two of them had to reconstruct Enaiatollah’s journey and that what we have is a ‘recreation’. The story dates from about 2000. 

The second thing that interests the reader is the set-up for the story.

One night, on the dangerous Pakistani border, Enaiatollah’s mother tells him there are three things he must never do: use drugs or weapons, cheat, or steal.
When the ten-year-old Afghan boy wakes alone the next morning he realises that she was saying goodbye – and that it is now up to him to find a place of safety. [Blurb]

His mother believed that Enai was at more risk from the Taliban if he stayed living in their village than if he lived outside Afghanistan. He is from the ‘wrong’ ethnic group. But what does it mean for a ten-year-old boy to be abandoned by his mother?

In the Sea there are Crocodiles

At first, after that morning, Enai must simply learn to survive, which he does by being useful. He is polite and willing to apply himself. He adapts himself to many jobs in the course of this story, and his lack of complaints is probably one of the reasons why he survives.

Enai gradually moves away from the border town to find work in Iran. He is by no means alone in being exiled from Afghanistan. He benefits from a loose brotherhood among the exiles, and also, one imagines, from the vulnerability of his age. Nevertheless, he must work for his living. Pretty soon he is caught up in the building trade and he learns the ways of indebted labour, saving what money he can to meet the requirements of traffickers who are essential to his search for safety.

What is revealed is how the building trade, the world over, relies on an illegal work force, which keep costs low and also feeds into the trafficking economy. I was reminded of Sunjeev Sahota’s novel called The Year of the Runaways (2016) which was a raw account of the lives of migrants from the Indian sub-continent who worked illegally in the building trade on sites in the Midlands and the north of England. Enai works in Greece to complete the Olympic sites in 2004, for example.

Enai’s journey

Enai did not set out to travel to the EU. At 10 years old he hardly knew it existed. Instead, he makes decisions to improve his lot, to follow his friends or to find more work. As a result, he goes to Iran, is returned to Pakistan, moves back to Iran, and then decides to move on to Turkey. He learns about better opportunities in Greece and finally of his chances in Italy.

Life is hard for a young boy with no resources but his wits and the ability to work and learn. He faces up to being an illegal worker in Pakistan and Iran, sometimes having to work for months to pay off the traffickers who transport him. When he decides to go to Turkey he faces a long, gruelling journey over the mountains to Istanbul. After the dangers of the mountains there follows a 3-day trip in the false floor of a lorry. Many do not survive. 

To get to Greece, he joins a group of even younger boys who endure a terrifying passage by boat, without encountering any sea monsters. Finally he makes it to meet a fellow refugee from his Afghani village in Turin.

The story reveals the endurance and resilience of a young boy. He also benefits from a fair bit of luck and the kindness of strangers. We also learn about the commerce of trafficking, how it is an organised trade. It is exploitative, but it also provides a service for the trafficked, the employers along the way, as well as an income for themselves.

It is a moving story, not least because we would like to think that boys of 10 do not have endure a life such as Enai’s. But it leaves us with some important questions:

  • How many migrants do not have his happy ending?
  • How can we understand refugee and migrant experiences without stories such as these?
  • How is it that we live in a world where such conditions persist?
  • While traffickers make a living off migrants, they do not cause the migrant crisis. Why does our government persist in making them the targets of action, the bad guys, rather than using resources to make the conditions of migrants’ lives more humane?

In the Sea there are Crocodiles: The story of Enaiatollah Akbari by Fabio Geda, published by Tamarind in 2011. 215pp. Translated from the Italian by Howard Curtis. 

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Bookword walks in Gargano, Italy

Reading in Gargano

In April I went walking for 7 days in the Gargano Peninsula, Puglia, on the heel of Italy. We had brilliant sunshine and many beautiful walks through wooded hills, olive groves, along beaches and strada bianca. There were twelve of us in the group – a captive sample for a reading survey. And everyone had a book to talk about.

The Walking Group

My survey

My idea to ask everyone what they were currently reading was inspired. I got to talk to people about my favourite topic – books. I was given many recommendations. And it was a brilliant opening to talk with the other walkers.

What I found out

The only thing the 12 readers had in common was the ability to forget the title, author or both when responding to my questions. ‘Errrrm,’ they replied, every one of them. Some titles and authors we worked out together, some were produced later. It was a salutary corrective to my anxieties about titles and their importance. I blogged about that some time ago: On the tricky topic of titles.

Non-fiction

Three people were reading non-fiction:

  • A biography of Modi,
  • Francis of Assisi: a revolutionary life by Adrian House, and
  • Daniel Kahneman’s book called Thinking Fast and Slow (2011).

Since the conversation often opened out to discuss other reading habits I wasn’t surprised to hear that one walker read books about bridge and another told me about her success with the elimination diet in The Virgin Diet by JJ Virgin.

Fiction

Most of us were reading fiction. Many of these choices were linked to places people had visited.

  • My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry by Fredrik Backman (a possible candidate for the older women in fiction series?). The original is in Swedish.
  • Snowleg by Nicholas Shakespeare (2005)
  • The Cashmere Shawl by Rosie Thomas (2011)
  • House of Birds by Morgan McCarthy (2016) (a possible candidate for the older women in fiction series?)
  • A Year of Marvellous Ways by Sarah Winman (2015) (already in the older women in fiction series)
  • Stone Cradle by Louise Doughty (2006)
  • A novel by Lee Child

Fiction for Southern Italy

The Night Falling by Katherine Webb (2014) was my choice for the holiday, a historical fiction based in Puglia (but not Gargano) in the 1920s when times were very hard and the Fascists were beginning to gain power through violence. I enjoyed the story of our heroine less than the historical context, revealed in the countryside we walked in.

Support for our walk was provided by Matteo, who was keen to provide some recommendations for reading about his part of the world. I have to admit to ignorance about the history of the people of Italy, good enough on political change such as the Unification, but lacking any detail. Carlo Alianello has reinterpreted the Risorgimento and the Unification of Italy.

Matteo also recommended other Italian writers: Giovanni Verga (1840-1922), one of the first Italian realist writers – verismo. His novella Rosso Malpelo (evil red hair in English) is well known. Zola is thought to have learned from Verga. Gianrico Carofiglio is a writer of legal thrillers, based on his career. Translated by Patrick Creagh he has written Involuntary Witness and A Walk in the Dark.

It was my idea of a perfect week: walking, reading, talking, good food, sunshine and all in the beautiful country of Italy. Many thanks to my all my fellow walkers and ATG holidays.

Vieste coastline

Related posts and websites

Tripfiction is worth a look before a journey.

Earlier this year I posted about Bookword in Iceland.

Last year I went to Cevennes, France and reflected on the journey of Robert Louis Stevenson with his donkey.

Over to you

Do you have any Southern Italian reading to recommend?

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