Friday, September 21, 2012

Antonio Tabucchi Week: Piazza d'Italia



Antonio Tabucchi’s first novel, Piazza d’Italia (1975), paints a family portrait spanning nearly one hundred years of Italian history, from the country’s unification under Garibaldi through its early birth pangs, expanding colonial empire, passage through World War I, losses to emigration and influenza, Fascism, World War II, and finally its post-war emergence as a democratic republic, a vast historical panorama of a nation and family buffeted by the waves of great historical events, rendered in sumptuous detail with a penetrating, granular examination of every facet of Italian life, a sweeping depiction, extending nearly 200 pages, of-…

Okay, so I made up all that stuff about granular examination and sumptuous detail. This is, after all, Antonio Tabucchi, not some 19th century novelist who wouldn’t have dreamed of compacting so much time into so few pages. But there’s something winsome about Tabucchi’s restrained yet imaginative and engaging attempt to do this, and, as his first novel, Piazza d’Italia also sows some grains for what would emerge in his subsequent works. That Tabucchi choose to divide Piazza d’Italia into three sections – the “restored” subtitle of the 1993 French re-issue I read is “A Popular Tale in Three Times” - may suggest his own sense of the unwieldiness of the narrative’s temporal compression.

Piazza d’Italia’s “Three Times” correspond roughly to three generations of one libertarian, left-leaning family, whose surname is never provided as though to emphasize their representational aspect. The first section tells of a veteran of Garibaldi’s campaigns, the soldier Plinio (the names of many characters in Piazza Italia echo through Italian history, and the tradition of naming children after historical figures gets an amusing treatment when a misprint on a poster results in several children being named “Imberto” instead of “Umberto”). Plinio and his wife Esterina produce two sets of twins, one identical (the brothers Quarto and Volturno) and one fraternal (brother Garibaldo and sister Anita).  Hints of Tabucchi’s later manifestations of interest in the vagaries of identity are evident here, since not only do the twins allude to Italy’s origins in the Romulus and Remus myth and suggest continuity through time, but they also serve as a concatenation of identities within the family. Adding to this concentrate are multiple iterations of the name Garibaldo, including when the town hall denies Plinio his initial wish to name each of the identical twins Garibaldo, or a generation later when their brother Garibaldo’s son, yet another Volturno, discards his own name and adopts that of his father (there’s an indispensible family tree provided in an appendix). Moving gingerly from one generation to the next, Piazza d’Italia traverses Italian history, its events filtered through the Tuscan village of Borgo and marked in the town piazza by the serial replacement of the statue at its center to reflect whichever political figure is most popular at the time. The town’s first cinema also comes to play a starring role in marking later historical events, its ostensible function loaned out for speeches, rallies, and other gatherings having nothing to do with cinema, causing the poor population to wait repeatedly in vain for Giovanni Pastrone’s epic nationalist film Cabiria to finally reach the town. While the family’s men go off to fight or emigrate to the Americas or stay to combat fascism or drift into the deserts of Africa, its fierce and smart women form the moral center of Piazza d’Italia and play as active a political role, albeit often behind the scenes, as their fathers, husbands, brothers and sons. Some of the references to Italian particulars may be lost on non-Italian readers (just as Pereira Maintains, despite its setting in Salazar’s Portugal, was read by many in Italy as a warning of resurgent fascism under Berlusconi), but at least for historical background, endnotes help fill gaps in the reader’s knowledge.

Tabucchi’s preface to the reissue of Piazza d’Italia contains an admission that it’s the novel with which he realized he wanted to be a writer, as well as a melancholic, Tabucchi-esque musing on the identify of that other, younger Tabucchi who wrote it. For those familiar with Tabucchi’s work, Piazza d’Italia may seem almost quaint, and only hints at what makes his later works so notable, with their dreams and hallucinations, rich literary and cultural references, surprising shifts of identity and clever, meta-fictional conceits that display Tabucchi’s well-known obsession with Fernando Pessoa (those later works also demonstrate significantly pared-down historical scope, as though Tabucchi realized that beyond mere historical measure, an even greater expansiveness might be attained by exploring the multiplicities within an individual’s identity). Tabucchi gives us, in Piazza d’Italia, something more akin to Gabriel Garcia Marquez than to Pessoa, a linear history of three generations of a family set in a small town not unlike Macondo and told through anecdote and vignette, with a few lexical games, such as when the second generation children all refer to one another by their names spelled backwards, and sprinklings of magical and surreal elements, as when the town’s windows all loose themselves from their casements and, flapping their shutters, take to the sky. For me, the setting and period also call to mind Federico Fellini’s film “Amarcord,” with its similar intimacy, gentle humor, great humanism, and sense of distant events sending ripples through a small town, altering it temporarily yet lending it the aspect of some eternal witness. But the beginnings of Tabucchi’s later directions are evident in the confusion of identities, the historical repetitions and caprices of time, the determined, explicit political stance (perhaps because of Tabucchi’s strong opposition to fascism even in his own time, the novel’s scenes during Mussolini’s rule possess a particularly acute power), and above all, Tabucchi’s humor and playfulness, delight with language, confidence and clarity, and warmth of spirit. In other words, Piazza d’Italia is not a bad place to start for a great writer, or for those interested in getting to know him.


I read Piazza d’Italia for Antonio Tabucchi Week, graciously hosted by Caroline of Beauty is a Sleeping Cat.

11 comments:

  1. It is funny that as I was reading your commentary I was thinking "One Hundred Years of Solitude", before you referenced it.

    I think that it is often very interesting to read a writers early works. As you found here, one often finds the embryo of ideas and con concepts, often less developed.

    I must read more of Tabucchi and I must read Pessoa!



    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Brian. As I noted in my comment to your Tabucchi post, you can read him without Pessoa, but reading Pessoa definitely helps unlock of good deal of what's going on.

      Delete
  2. Thanks for the review. I was unawares of this Tabucchi novel. Your description makes me think of another novel I have yet to read: Elsa Morante's History: A Novel.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Morante's novel is high on my list too.

      Delete
  3. I read about 25 pages of this in Italian before accepting the fact that my sorry ass Italian was too inadequate to try rushing through this in one week. Am reading and enjoying a translation of a different Tabucchi now, but I was partic. glad to read this post of yours since the multiple names thing was a little too much for my, ahem, s_____ a__ Italian to cope with and comprehend all that well. Mille grazie for clearing all that up!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm glad to hear you say that, Richard, as keeping track of the multiple, multiplying Garibaldi while reading this in French was a challenge! But once I settled on the notion that they were all just manifestations of some eternally recurring Garibaldo, I figured it wasn't so terribly important to keep them distinct - or least that I'd probably be forgiven if I wasn't able to do it myself.

      Delete
  4. This sounds like a really different Tabucchi. What would have been a great achievement for any other novelist after a fruitful career is only the starting point here.
    Morante's history was part of last years Literature and War readalong and that was definitely Marquez like. A wonderful novel.
    It will be intersting to read Tabucchi's condensed attempt at historical writing.

    ReplyDelete
  5. And thanks so much for joining btw and I'm glad you chose this book. We have now a really nice collection of reviews.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Caroline - thanks for making it all happen! You articulated just what I felt about Piazza Italia - that for some writers it would have been a high achievement, but that for Tabucchi it was just a launching point.

      Delete
  6. Thanks for the review - just read Pereira Maintains and really liked it, so I'm sure I'll get to his first book one day. I'll probably read more of the later ones first, though - I like going back to a writer's first novel with the knowledge of what came later, to see where it all started.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Andrew. I agree - it's interesting to travel backwards through a writer's work to his or her origins. And yes, I'd endorse your reading some of the later ones first. To me, they're more complex and interesting. I do hope, however, that Piazza Italia will eventually be available in an English translation, as it's certainly worth reading.

      Delete