As evidence that the influence of the weirdness of Giambattista Basile’s Neapolitan fairy-tales may have carried into the 20th century, one might point to Anna Maria Ortese and her peculiar, compelling 1965 novel, The Iguana. With a deceptively light tone, Ortese offers up, in her modern fairy tale, both a playful toying with the purposes of literature and a deeply haunting portrayal of the development of a moral conscience.
The first of the novel's two parts, "The Man Who Buys Islands," opens in a vaguely defined temporal space merging elements of the contemporary world with those of the 19th century and before. The spoiled young Don Carlo Ludovico Aleardo de Grees, of the Dukes of Estremadura-Aleardi and Count of Milan (nickname: “Daddo”) is sent by his wealthy mother on an expedition to buy up new lands for building resorts to accommodate the leisure tastes of Milanese vacationers. At the same time, the Count’s publisher friend Adelchi urges him to scour these territories for manuscripts that might introduce “something really new, something extraordinary” to the Milanese reading public. Off the cuff, perhaps not fully comprehending Adelchi’s profit-mindedness, the Count envisions something like the confessions of a madman who falls in love with an iguana. In Ortese’s world – one strongly influenced by the realismo magico of Massimo Bontempelli, a mentor responsible for publishing Ortese’s first works – a bit of magic produces exactly such a story, as though Daddo’s merely having imagined the tale brings it into being.
Several days into his voyage, off the coast of Portugal, the Count spots an island, Ocaña, which appears to be moving (a conceit that must be one of the most recurrent and curious in Italian literature). The captain notes that it's still uncharted, because “good Christians…don't much bother about things that belong to the devil.” Despite this malign reputation, the island is cartoonish: a low hill, a grove of olive trees, a grey house “like a prop,” “a few sheep, some lying in the grass, some grazing, heads low, and, like all sheep, thinking perhaps of nothing.”
Beneath a tree some people are listening to another reading a book, so Daddo orders the ship to stop. These few inhabitants turn out to what’s left of a once illustrious family now reduced to ruin: Don Ilario Jimenes of the Marquis of Segovia, Count of Guzman, and his three brothers, along with a grandmotherly figure who scurries into the house at the Count’s disembarkation.
The brothers appear anxious; the Marquis – “a poet, perhaps a bibliophile, at any rate a spirit immersed in eternal fantasy,” as Daddo will soon learn - appears ill. Daddo’s first words betray his sense that something is awry: “Can I be of any help?” But the brothers receive him graciously, inviting him inside their humble home. Encountering the figure he’d seen moments before, the Count receives a shock:
Daddo’s surprise was tremendous. He had taken her for a shrunken old woman, but he was looking at an animal! In front of him was a bright green beast, about the height of a child – an enormous lizard from the look of her, but dressed in woman’s clothes with a dark skirt, a white corset, old and shabby, and a multicolored apron clearly patchworked from the family’s stock of rags. To hide her ingenuous little snout, which was a sort of whitish green, she wore yet another dark cloth on her head. She was barefoot.
As he gets to know the family, Daddo becomes increasingly obsessed by this curious being, at once so innocent, alert, grubbing and downtrodden. He is dismayed by how the brothers treat this apparent servant, Estrellita, speaking to her sharply and consigning her to a lightless basement where she sleeps amid rags and entertains herself by counting and burying a horde of stones the Count assumes she believes is her pay. The creature is a ruin, desperately afflicted and self-loathing: “She lived with a horrible suspicion. After a period, initially, when it was simply unendurable, it now so deeply grieved her that she could not address it at all: the suspicion, almost the certainty, that she herself was the Devil – ‘the spirit of the shades,’ harried by the wrath of God.” Daddo is further appalled when he learns that the brothers had purchased Estrellia, information that offends his sense of “chivalry” and an ethic that can see a “soul no different from his own and [hear its] appeal of brotherly solidarity.”
This exposition out of the way, the narrative then traces Count Aleardo’s efforts to restore Estrellita to her full human measure, while at the same time negotiating purchase and publication of the Marquis’ writings (a history of Portugal and a memoir), and also disentangling the secretive relationship between Estrellita and the Marquis against the background of a propitious impending marriage between the latter and a daughter of the Hopins family, rich Americans who’ve come to the island under obscure pretexts. Daddo’s sympathies and affection for Estrellita increase in tandem with his perception of the island’s malignance: “No, there was no such thing as order here, something even that made order impossible.”
With a tremendous sense of empathy for the destitute and miserable, Ortese sensitively depicts both the impact of the treatment doled out to Estrellita by the brothers, intent on reducing her to nothing, and Aleardo’s growth in determination to understand the iguana and her oppressors. Affecting at first a bourgeois do-gooder-ism, the Count is forced repeatedly to recalibrate his assumptions and noble intentions as they run up against new knowledge and complexities of the heart. Fog, a recurrent motif, underscores the situation’s moral opacity. With an epiphany only marginally more morally advanced than the behavior of the brothers, the Count realizes that “if the Iguana had been bought, she could be bought again and he could restore her not only to her freedom, but as well to all the dreams of her little bestial soul.” But through a continual dialectical process of re-evaluating himself and his sentiments for the poor Iguana, the Count gradually undergoes an almost Augustinian spiritual transformation, an orientation to the reality of suffering that pushes him towards being “healed of his fantasizing mind.”
Ortese uses Aleardo’s tossed-off story idea to delve into a range of themes, philosophical questions and metafictional devices unusual to find in a single volume, particularly one with such a fabulist bent. She queries the shadow line between animal and human; the nature of evil; the neglectful treatment of the natural world and the environment; the ability to transform moral indignation into numb acquiescence and vice-versa; the perils of assumptions, rescue fantasies and pity; the monstrous damages that poverty, isolation, and oppression can inflict; the hidden injuries of class; the destructive impact of speculation and profiteering; the damaging claims on knowledge made by an imperialist mentality (among other things, The Iguana ingeniously recycles that staple of European literature, the encounter with the exotic). Ortese even addresses the dubious place of God through a scene featuring a trial over the death of God that is at the same time surreal, moving and amusing (“’Where were the accused?’ inquired the judge…‘On their yachts, sir,’ answered Cole”). Ortese appears to reserve particular scorn for Milanese/Lombard values, castigating “the violence Lombards typically employ in doing good works,” and seeing in these northerners “a severe and almost stupid simplicity of heart that asks God no questions, awaiting only His orders and then giving them execution with infantile sense of scruple” (in Italy’s north-south division, it’s abundantly clear where Ortese’s sympathies lie).
Ortese’s manner of injecting these thematic elements initially seems jarring, almost as though, in planning her novel, she might have left unrevised placeholders for ideas later to be developed and emulsified into her narrative. However, one quickly comes to see this as a deliberate stylistic device; as a fairy tale, The Iguana leaves its viscera visible, as though the story's latent and manifest content were exposed in equal proportion. Like Bontempelli, Ortese also makes off with all kinds of authorial privilege, frequently appealing to “you the Reader” as though speaking aloud, slotting in subjects she wants to address, even announcing that she’s going to shift narrative direction. Ortese evinces both a mastery of literary devices and a playful distaste, paradoxical in so challenging a work, for the uses to which they are too often put. Freely, even mercilessly, she constantly reminds the reader that The Iguana is a fiction, in the process probing fiction’s purposes and meaning. From the beginning, the narrative attacks the commodification of literature (“purposely designed to excite precisely those feelings of perplexity and boredom that were a sure guarantee of good sales”). And like Bontempelli's own realismo magico, Ortese’s fantasy elements enhance the world rather than offer escape from it. Often as not, the “magic” is but a simple trick of perception, as when Daddo spies a light over the hill that he takes to be Ocaña’s “second moon,” but which reveals itself to be the lamp of a ship – or more accurately, both the lamp of a ship and a second moon. Everything on Ocaña multiplies and transforms; characters take on other names and other personalities; the olive trees become oaks; the “prop” house on the island becomes a “splendid” mansion; Estrellita is at once lizard, crone and serving girl. Time too is topsy-turvy; towards the end of the novel the Count notes that he’s been on the island only since the previous day, while on the same page another character suggests that years have passed since his arrival.
These metamorphoses plunge the reader into no small amount of confusion. Ortese’s title for the second part of the novel, “The Storm,” underscores this turbulence (and further points allusively to Shakespeare's The Tempest). Yet Ortese frequently tosses out subtle lifelines, even fusing the reader’s struggles at understanding with those of the Count himself:
He managed nonetheless to discern these words, in which reality and symbol were desperately, unfortunately intermingled, as in avant-garde novels…It was difficult to remember so many shiftings, just as it was difficult to see them in the first place, difficult to make distinctions within these continuous superimpositions of the real and the unreal…
Ortese wants the reader to work. Though the novel's tone is at times as light as a cloud, the questions the novel raises are as weighty as those in Camus’ The Plague. And while neither the numerous twists and transformations in the plot nor the demanding issues Ortese raises make for easy reading, The Iguana is a novel that sticks in the mind long after finishing it, not least thanks to the memorable and affecting character of the book’s title, whose wrenching protests of “Nao, nao, nao!” remain with one like an irreparable betrayal.
French-Sicilian writer Jean-Noel Schifano, in his Dictionnaire Amoureux de Naples, a collection of essays formed around each letter of the alphabet, selected Anna Maria Ortese as his entry for “O.” Though Ortese was born in Rome and passed her final decades in Rapallo, she called Naples “my native city,” having spent formative years in a poor neighborhood where, to borrow the title of one of Ortese’s earliest works, “the sea doesn’t bathe Naples.” The city would largely remain the geographical and psychological pole around which this remarkable autodidact's work would revolve (including as setting for a surrealist detective novel featuring as its principal character an Arizona mountain lion). Ortese is slowly coming to be recognized as one of Italy’s most important and distinctly original post-war writers. “She makes us think about things we do not normally think about,” writes Schifano in his appreciative essay. And while The Iguana, with its fantastical elements, gives ample evidence to support Schifano's pronouncement, it's also a book that displays an engagement with the realities of human suffering characteristic of much Neapolitan literature, disturbing our complacency concerning a status quo that works “to the harm of people who are weaker than we are…Something in our education, in our way of seeing the world, some fundamental error that calls down calamity on a great number of people.” One emerges from Ortese’s book in sympathy with Count Aleardo's life-changing encounter on this strange moving island, feeling that despite everything, "the world...is really such a beautiful place...the Universe something gracious," yet also with the conviction that literature is a force that can be used "to strike against" misery and injustice. While perhaps this may not be exactly what Aleardo's friend Adelchi had in mind, The Iguana makes a strong claim for indeed being "something really new, something extraordinary," a feat of real imagination to offer to readers fed on fantasy.