Sunday, November 13, 2011

Canaviais no vento

“All books are stupid, there’s never much truth in them, still I’ve read a lot over the last thirty years, I haven’t had much else to do, Italian books too, all in translation of course. The one I liked most was called Canaviais no vento, by someone called Deledda, do you know it?”

- Antonio Tabucchi, The Woman of Porto Pim (1982)

As a matter of fact, I did not know Canaviais no vento (1913) nor its author, Grazia Deledda (1871-1936), but a mention of any work of literature in a book by Italian writer Antonio Tabucchi almost inevitably sends me off to track it down – and bait like the above was completely irresistible. One seldom knows, however, when one writer mentions another writer so obliquely, whether or not a compliment is intended. In Tabucchi’s enchanting story the title is given in Portuguese (the original Italian title of Deledda’s novel is Canne al vento, rendered as Reeds in the Wind in the English translation by Martha King), as the speaker of the passage is a singer in a bar in the Azorean port city of Porto Pim who tells the visiting Italian writer an intimate tale of his youth, one with some relevance, it turns out, to the Deledda novel he so admires. Nonetheless, I took Tabucchi’s bait, and much to my surprise chomped down on a surprisingly lyrical, moving and unusual novel - authored by a winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature (1926) no less.

With a title as naturalistic as Reeds in the Wind - and indeed, the title refers to the main character’s assertion that people “are like reeds in the wind…We are the reeds and fate is the wind” - one might have reason to expect a banal slog through romanticized, deterministic peasant life, but from the first pages Deledda’s novel proves a humanistic and intensely lyrical work of intimate, strong emotions; intricate moral struggle; the complexities of caste, power and poverty; and the quest for meaning and redemption.

Set in a small village just inland from the east coast of Italy’s island paradise of Sardinia, Reeds in the Wind is largely a novel of the poor and the aged. The main character, Efix, is an elderly servant on what remains of what was once a large farm belonging to Don Zame and his four daughters, the Pintor sisters. We learn early on that one of the daughters, Lia, escaped the island many years before, leaving behind her three sisters and an enraged and shamed father who, during his search for his escaped daughter, had been found dead one morning, perhaps of a stroke, though a small mark on his neck suggests that something else – a malevolent island spirit, or perhaps a more human intervention – might have been to blame. Lia’s disappearance, however, has not been altogether complete; shortly after her decampment, a letter from mainland to her sisters had assured them she was well, and, as the novel opens 20 years after her departure, the sisters have received another letter announcing the imminent arrival in the village of their nephew, Lia’s now grown son, Giacinto. In a small and superstitious community like this, the mere receipt of the letter is enough to cause concatenating ripples. And as the novel unfolds, Giacinto’s visit – and his struggle between duty and dissipation - is recounted through the impact it has throughout the village and the devastating consequences it holds for the sisters and for Efix.

Deledda captures beautifully the overlapping of emotions built up over decades between people who live in tangential relations and who have a long history of buried feelings towards one another bespoken by only the most laconic of communications. As well, she captures the weight of such uncommunicated emotions and of the poverty that presses upon Efix and the Pintor sisters, who have seen their holdings decline steadily until they themselves are threatened with direst poverty. As though to mock their fall, the ruins of an ancient baron’s castle dominate the valley in which they live. Deledda’s characters are replete with human frailties and weaknesses, spiritually and psychologically deformed by the poverty, superstition, and guarded, buried emotions that mark their lives, bent like reeds before the wind by the vicissitudes of events that they see as beyond their control.

With its acute attention to the landscape and to the cultural practices of the inhabitants of the region, Reeds in the Wind might easily have slipped into a sort of anthropology of Deledda’s native Sardinia, and there are certainly strong ethnographic elements in the novel, especially in the various festivals and saint days that provide glimmers of joy in the villagers’ otherwise mean existence. Particularly fascinating are the various superstitions and spirits believed in by the inhabitants, who have managed to keep such beliefs alive despite a strongly superimposed Catholic faith (I was reminded immediately of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s observation of polytheism’s generous ability to welcome and absorb new religious traditions). But Deledda’s intentions are not so shallow as to simply give us a portrayal of village life in Sardinia. Her plot unfolds with constant surprises and unexpected turns of event, and levels its focus at the shifting attempts of Efix to establish meaning and free himself from guilt in a pitiable life circumscribed by poverty, loneliness, and neglect. Perennially well-intentioned, Efix’s most charitable efforts often lead to unintended calamities; on top of this his fundamental goodness holds a dark secret. Attempting to balance what little he has in life with a sense of his own inner worth (continually undermined by the sisters, who see him as a mere servant despite his being closer to them than anyone else in the village), his benign attempts to be heard, to be recognized as good in others’ eyes, lead him drifting into an untethered, almost picaresque, searching life implicative of Christ’s wanderings in the desert (though considerably more handicapped by the infirmities and indignities of age). That Efix is a Christ figure is altogether obvious, even from the cross that ends his name, but Deledda is far too humanistic and subtle a writer to allow this memorable character to be in any way diminished by his employment in symbolic service.

If human communication is constrained and sublimated in Reeds in the Wind, it seems to find its outlet in the rich manner by which the natural world is invested with imagination and life. What’s perhaps most evocative in Deledda’s novel is her obvious infatuation with Sardinia’s landscapes; everything is alive in this novel (an occasional, subtle shifting of tense from past to present helps enhance this vitality). The crepuscular light casts into sharp relief a world that is magical and mysterious, and not a little frightening. Each plant or flower seems imbued with spirit. Each shadow is alive. The night that sees the human world constrict and contract into safety behind doors also sees, in the world outside, a wild explosion of animation, beauty and mystery:

Efix remained motionless, waiting. The moon rose before him, and evening voices told him the day had ended: a cuckoo’s rhythmical cry, the early crickets’ chirping, a bird calling; the reeds sighing and the ever more distinct voice of the river; but most of all a breathing, a mysterious panting that seemed to come from the earth itself. Yes, man’s working day was done, but the fantastic life of elves, fairies, wandering spirits was beginning. Ghosts of the ancient Barons came down from the Castle ruins above Galte on Efix’s left and ran along the river hunting wild board and fox. Their guns gleamed in the short alder trees along the river bed, and the faint sound of barking dogs n the distance was a sign of their passing. Efix could hear the sound that the panas – women who had died in childbirth – made while washing their clothes down by the river, beating them with a dead man’s shin bone, and he believed he saw the ammattadore (the elf with seven caps where he hid his treasure) jumping about under the almond woods, followed by vampires with steel tails.

A more careful reader than I might, as an experiment, apply some basic astronomy to Deledda’s wanton literary use of the moon, which seems to leap full into the sky nearly every night to cast its eerie and encompassing glow over the countryside and sea.  I hope I don’t in any way diminish Deledda’s accomplishment by comparing this attention to the landscape to the early fabulations of quasi-anthropologist Carlos Castaneda, whose melding of fiction with fact in ethnographic treatment of practices of sorcery among the Yaqui Indians of Mexico’s Sonora desert contains, for all its obviously kitsch elements, a stirring and memorable evocation of landscape and light as almost living entities with hidden powers. The same sort of vital and mystical atmosphere pervades Deledda’s (mercifully) more sophisticated writing, and the world cannot but look different and more sentient to a reader emerging from her captivating descriptions.

In her introduction to the English translation of Reeds in the Wind, Sardinian ethnographer Dolores Turchi notes that Grazia Deledda wrote of her native Sardinia from a “veiled” nostalgic distance, and suggests that this distance provides a somewhat romanticized, fabulist vision of the island and its inhabitants. Turchi also notes the irony of Deledda’s retrospective affection for this community, which had always been “severe” in its judgment of her:

When barely launched on her writing career the harsh criticism of relatives and townspeople…had blocked her literary vocation for some time. Good girls did not write stories and novels to be published for all the world to read, whose characters could be cause for ridicule.

In order to write, Deledda left Sardinia at an early age for mainland Italy, ultimately settling in Rome, where she was to spend most of the rest of her life. It is difficult to absorb this history without seeing, in the escaped Lia, an image of the author herself in the story. Though taking place 20 years prior to the point at which the novel begins, Lia’s flight acts as the novel’s chief precipitating event, one that governs the subsequent actions of the novel’s characters.  Efix’s good-hearted, protective championing of her escape seems to make of Lia an unusual secondary main character, never present (at least not in the flesh – though she appears to Efix occasionally as a kind of trick of light and shadow) but constantly hovering above the novel like a kind of resonating overtone, an overarching presence. She appears to serve as a token of Deledda’s own courage in fleeing the island to carve out a life for herself as a writer, an unusually modernist autobiographical artifact inserted into the novel as an explicit, gentle and forgiving riposte to the community she lovingly depicts in the novel’s fatalistic and insular characters. Though the novel vividly communicates the psychological complexities of this community, it also expresses a distinctly self-reflexive awareness of the writer as observer, raconteur and servant to the articulation of the unarticulated. It’s easy to see how Tabucchi’s own raconteur might have come to value Deledda’s novel above all of the “stupid” books he’s read.

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