Monday, February 22, 2016

“…the changing motions of indeterminate vibrations; but perhaps that was nothing more than the buzzing of bees and the flights of ladybugs” - Surprising Sicily in Giuseppe Bonaviri’s Nights on the Heights.

The death of the head of a household may be a common subject in Sicilian literature – think of di Lampedusa’s The Leopard, Federico De Roberto’s The Viceroys, even the works of Verga – but never has it been treated as in Giuseppe Bonaviri’s thoroughly immersive, surprising 1971 novel Notti sull’altura (Nights on the Heights in the English translation). In the passing of Donnané, patriarch of a family in the strangely-named hill town of Qalat-Minaw inland from Catania (modeled after Bonaviri’s hometown of Minèo, “the navel of Bonaviri’s universe” according to translator Giovanni Bussino), the usual parade of grieving and handwringing relatives scheming for favor or bemoaning the passing of a whole way of life scarcely exists. Replacing it is a deliriously bizarre series of endeavors aimed at locating what might remain of this “mild man” in the universe and at coming to grips with the emotions surrounding death, both Donnané’s in particular and mortality writ large. Italian literature from its beginnings demonstrates a recurrent entwining of the real and fantastic, but Bonaviri’s short novel, the stand-alone second volume of a trilogy, is in this regard unlike anything I’ve read from Sicily, unlike anything I’ve read from anywhere, for that matter.

Not that Notti sull’altura is a surrealist or magical realist work. It defies pigeonholing into any such categorization, sharing neither surrealism’s arbitrary and privileged manipulations nor magical realism’s application of varying degrees of torsion to reality. Rather, its fantastic elements come across as organic, intrinsic aspects of the novel’s world, rooted deeply in the natural and human history of Sicily; drawing on such literary sources as mythology, chivalric romances, Dante and the Arabian Nights; and above all sifting deeply through the rich loam of regional folklore. In Bonaviri’s preface to his Saracen Tales, a collection he claims to have adapted from his mother’s transcriptions of tales she’d recounted to him when he was a child, he reveals the debt he owes to stories handed down and embellished over centuries by people even of “rudimentary education,” and which contain a vitally rich mixture of practical wisdom, anecdotes borrowed from literature, and no shortage of the bizarre and implausible. Over the two hundred pages of Notti sull’altura, Bonaviri consistently invigorates and examines the world, investing everything in it with a potent, powerful extraordinariness.

And yet, making one’s way through one after another of the writer’s strangely imaginative paragraphs, one easily sees Sicily itself. The island comes completely alive under Bonaviri’s imagination: stark hills, rugged valleys, dusty plains, volcanic ravines, “dwarf” rivers, prickly-pear and orange trees, medieval castles, “an occasional peasant or emaciated donkey, right in the middle of the winding clay paths,” the unpredictable and erratic ringing of church bells, snow-capped Etna hovering in the distance and the blue Ionian Sea glimpsed from the heights. And no one who has visited Sicily will want to miss Bonaviri’s occasional references to Sicilian food and drink:

“Uncle Pino, with his expertise, killed a young goat and, after having punched holes in it with a knife, filled the meat with sharp cheese, pepper, rosemary, potatoes and Vittoria wine.”

“Yahin wanted first to offer us some wine from an old carafe; it was like water animated by a little rosy devil that stung the palate and made ideas reemerge.”

“Lucrezio, taking advantage of Nergal’s moments of silence, told us that there existed a town in which with eight ounces of sugar, some bitter orange rinds, nutmeg, grapes, cloves and pomegranate seeds, and what is more, all that mixed with ground cinnamon, tangerines and some more sugar, one could, with a proper fire and by whipping and stirring, make a pastry such as no human mouth could ever have tasted.”

Bonaviri also digs vertically through the strata of Sicilian history to reveal the passing of Greeks, Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs, Normans and others, all those who have inhabited and impacted this crossroads of the Mediterranean. Names of characters reflect both this diversity and Sicily’s mythic and literary traditions:  Zephir, Lucrezio, Rowley, Aramea, Orlando, Totosimic, Ibd-al-Atir, Bethsam, Al-Hakim, Tirtenio, Abdfilip, Gheorgy, Nergal, Mullhalel. Despite the presence of an airplane in the opening scene, time too seems askew, as though Sicily’s history has coalesced into a concentrated present. There may not be a variety of the island’s geology and topography, quality of light, species of flora or fauna, ethnographic composition or historical influence that Bonaviri doesn’t reference at some point. As an evocation of landscape, Notti sull’altura already stands out as an exhilarating work.

But Bonaviri offers far more than a mere atmospheric appreciation of Sicily, as is evident from the novel's curious plot. After Zephir arrives at Qalat-Minaw and confirms Donnané’s death, he and various family members notice a few oddities around the place, including a couple of large eggs, with symmetrical black and red circles, on the terrace. Reports arrive of a fireball and of a large “thanatobird” seen in the region. Zephir recognizes that “…one could no longer resort to the usual empirical observations that when compared to one another yielded general laws suitable for calculating the time of day or for discovering what was happening within us.” And as the National Almanac also proves useless for comprehending “the lack of correspondence between my thoughts and the oscillations coming from those extremely vast spaces shut in by mountains whose massive ridges and clay slopes rose up with an irregular morphology,” Zephir and his relatives organize teams to track the mysterious bird and seek out his father’s traces. And so begins a series of explorations to understand the material and immaterial consequences of Donnané’s death.

In this “love peregrination,” the groups grasp at any tool they might use to discover the “Whispers? Waves? Imperceptible sounds?” that might mark Donnané’s passing: intuition, calculations of stellar positions, provisional empirical examination of rocks and plants, mathematics, alchemical processes, the measuring of winds and streams of solar ions, clairvoyance, the crude interpretation of portents, signs and symbols in whatever form they might appear.

Each of us had a task: to jot down celestial signs, loops and squiggles, or to spread out maps in order to track down the lost traces. And some, like Lucrezio and Orlando, in an effort to get less tired, looked with a squint at those lights and those whorls in which dust and pebbles were continuously grinding and polishing one another.

In one chapter, a team turns to the topography of the moon and planets for succor. In another a group sets off to seek vestiges of Donnané in the hieroglyphics of the sea:

Yusuf, our Arab relative, spoke further of waterspouts rising perpendicularly to the sun, and of globular waves rising up behind and in front; and not only that, but also of the daily activity of the oceans that rise and fall along the sides of the earth, creating trenches and abysses abounding in fish. And the sea, like men, knows no peace, its paths continually opposed by tides and occasional conches. What is more, at night, it is swollen by warm lunar rays and the bustle of large, sleepless fish.

In the novel’s most ambitious project, the experimenters graft a human child onto a carob tree in an effort to link the animal and vegetal kingdoms and thus avoid missing any possibility of an answer lying somewhere between the two, creating a “human-wooden combination” that brings to mind Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio.

Because Bonaviri spreads these multiplying experiments with such consistency across the novel, a selection of passages can barely hint at the immersive spell the accumulation of these attempts weaves for the reader. All of this wandering activity, these tentative and grasping efforts of the human intellect and heart in the wake of death and grief, is moving, raising innumerable questions about how one proceeds after such a loss. In which direction does one go? What remains of the deceased? How does one communicate the loss to others? What care does one need to take in attending to one’s bereavement and going forward? What are the implications for future generations? What is death?

Bonaviri’s interrogation of these aspects of life and death is filled with imaginative conceits, yet also shot through with humor. Occasionally, Bonaviri charmingly follows a disorienting explanation of the teams’ fantastical methods by acknowledging his audience: “All this is said for the common reader who is probably perplexed.” Frequently too he’ll amusingly ground a character’s stratospheric musings with an earthbound detail, such as when one character, extemporizing on the possibilities of “green molecules united in gelatinous complexes with detractions and connections to atomic aggregates,”  touches a snail, “which for a second retreated into its shell.” Skepticism greets each new proposal and each failed experiment: “What shall we do?” “What’s our destination?” “What devil brought us here?” “We’re spinning our wheels!” “Why continue to count the stars?” “We’re all going crazy.” The aptly named Orlando, in a moment of exasperation, exclaims, “It’s a muddle…Out of a common mortal event, we’ve made a romance!” Cooler heads like Aunt Agrippa, “shrewder than any of” the group, say nothing, though she appears periodically and is rumored to have special powers requiring none of the nonsense in which the others are engaged. Zephir’s sister Welly, for another example,

…considered it senseless for us to search for the exact time and position of stellar wheels and to plunge into them with hearts full of emotion. In her opinion, that would take us away from our father’s splendor and his uncontaminated journey from the heavens to the earth with inanimate rhythms. To make us understand that she pursued love and not the empty labors of the mind, she left town for the rich valleys and the multitude of nocturnal shadows.

Bonaviri also draws on the droll conflict between the peasants of Qalat-Minaw and these searchers, whose frenetic activity they consider suspect, perhaps aimed at stealing the moon. These infusions of humor, the wonder at nature’s manifestations as well as at human attempts at knowledge and at confronting emotion, give Notti sull’altura a remarkably warm, bemused, receptive and affectionate tone.

That such a rich and distinctive literary voice seems so little known today is puzzling. Bonaviri appears to have few close literary relations, though at a distance Notti sull’altura finds company in the works of João Guimarães Rosa, Jorge Luis Borges and Italo Calvino, the last an early champion of the writer. Bonaviri’s writing should interest anyone who appreciates challenging literature of rare caliber and beauty, and those at all familiar with Sicily will likely revel in the narrative’s evocation of the place. Though Bonaviri occasionally and quietly references Sicily’s poverty, episodes of hunger, the clash of intellect and peasant superstition, and aspects of change such as industrialization, deforestation, the misuses of science, the encroachment of a bourgeois mentality unable or unwilling to perceive the island’s marvels, these elements are so subtly incorporated into the narrative that they scarcely stand out thematically - nor do they need to. Though many modern Sicilian authors have concentrated on the grimmer human realities of the place, its anguish under deprivation and the Mafia, its frustrated search for justice and prosperity, the intensity of intra-family conflicts, Bonaviri has taken an entirely different approach. One could see in this an element of escapism. But in transforming the island’s spectacular natural, historical and cultural treasures into a defiant and startlingly original affirmation of its infinity of wonders, Bonaviri reveals a magnificence that can only make one feel more deeply the waste incurred in the problems that have afflicted Sicily, “the half-moon lost in the sea.”


Top: Thomas Cole, "View of Mount Etna," 1844, Private Collection (public domain)
Bottom:  Giuseppe Bonaviri, photographer unknown

Friday, February 12, 2016

"Prouder than before to be human" - Paolo Mantegazza's Utopian Novel, The Year 3000. A Dream.

Veduta della città ideale, circa 1480-84, variously attributed to Piero della Francesca, Fra Carnevale, Luciano Laurana, Francecso di Giorgio Martini. Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, USA (Creative Commons licensing)

Now here’s an Italian oddity: an 1897 novel entitled, The Year 3000. A Dream (L’anno 3000. Sogno), by Paolo Mantegazza, a “Renaissance man” once described as a “Physician-surgeon, Laboratory-experimenter, Author-editor, Traveller-anthropologist, Professor, Sanitarian, Senator.” Well-known inside and outside of Italy and respected by Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud and Havelock Ellis among others, Mantegazza wrote some one hundred works including treatises on medicine, psychology and education; travelogues on South America, India, and Lapland; and novels ranging from sentimental romances to the scientific-futuristic work discussed here. The Year 3000, a quintessentially Italian contribution to utopian literature, comes filled with nifty conceits, a few cringe-worthy ideas, and quite a bit of charm and humor. I found myself laughing aloud on numerous occasions.

The Bison Books edition of The Year 3000, the first English translation of the novel, is worth picking up if only for the rich introduction by Nicoletta Pireddu, who offers a masterful assessment not only of Mantegazza’s work but also of utopian literature of the era in general, describing other utopian and science fictions from Italy and elsewhere. Some of these – Folliero De Luna’s The Political Mysteries of the Moon, for example - practically beg one to want to hunt them down. Pireddu also connects Mantegazza’s novel to wider scientific ideas as well as to political debates following Italy’s unification just 36 years before the novel’s publication.

The concept of unification is evident from the novel’s beginning. Europe, united following a war that has ended all wars, by the year 3000 has joined the rest of the world in forming the United Planetary States under a common language, Cosmic. A young Roman couple, Paolo and Maria, leave home in their flying “aerotach” for an extended tour of this new world. Following a trajectory that takes them from Rome to the Ligurian coast then to Egypt, Ceylon and India, the couple arrives in the world’s capital at Andropolis, the former Darjeeling, at the foot of the Himalaya, where they settle for several months to explore its wonders, and where Maria’s impatience over a secret that Paolo has promised to reveal there reaches a climax. Mantegazza uses the couple’s impressions as a means to explore his vision of the fourth millennium and as a platform for advancing his ideas concerning government, religion, education, health, gender, race and culture.

Mantegazza anticipates many technological advances. His world features clean energy, provided both by breaking down water into hydrogen fuel and by organic production of electricity based on a 26th century discovery exploiting the mechanism of bioluminescence in fireflies. Nearly instantaneous prefab building construction assures universal housing, with a variety of models from which to choose. Communities are meticulously planned. The remarkable medical accomplishments of the 31st century include the elimination of pain, advanced imaging methods to allow near instant diagnoses, tissue engineering for quick wound repair, and the pantomass, a whole-body massage/workout suit used in gymnasiums, and that in only a month can turn a “pale bookworm weakened by study” (present!) “into a stout traveler.”

Some of Mantegazza’s notions of future technologies, however, seem quaint, even retrograde. Communications employ luminous characters on a screen but also primarily take place thanks to “the ancient telephone…greatly improved.” The first leg of Paolo and Maria’s trip in their aerotach, from Rome to the coastal town of LaSpezia, takes “only a few hours,” as it does today by car. Readers may also be less than impressed to learn that human longevity has been extended to an average age of 60. Exploration of space is limited to more and more powerful telescopes, including one introduced late in the novel that will finally allow humans to see the inhabitants of nearby planets. And though Mantegazza presciently references human impact on the earth’s climate, today’s climate scientists might demur with his treatment of the subject. In the year 3000, humans have “so deftly controlled the forces of nature that it was enough to direct a strong current of warm air towards the poles to melt the immense ice formations that once occupied the polar zone,” thus cooling Europe by replacing the deserts of Africa with a vast new sea, seen lapping at the foot of the pyramids of Giza when Paolo and Maria swing through Egypt.

In terms of human moral, psychological and social development, Mantegazza’s ideas seem more at home and range more extensively, revealing the writer’s intense interest in psychology, evolutionary biology, and an “elastic” and “proteiform” human nature. In fact, in the year 3000, “Philosophy has been banned…even in name, and replaced by psychology and anthropology.” Religious tolerance abounds, but religion as known in the 19th century has been replaced with belief in “an imaginary God” who serves as a repository for vague spiritual yearnings (the italics are the author’s - readers may be forgiven for laughing at that). Mantegazza’s emphasis is on the practical betterment of humankind, towards which he places enormous faith in individuals gently governed by an elite of the wise.

Among Paolo and Maria’s stops on their travels is Ceylon, known as the Island of Experiments, a living museum of political systems. These include transparently-named metropolises such as the socialistic Equality and the dictatorial Tyrannopolis, as well as less evident smaller agglomerations like Monachia, “a small city made up entirely of nuns devoted to the cult of Sappho.” Something objectionable can be found here for those of almost any political persuasion. These systems, however, allow people to test alternatives to the world government seated at Andropolis, a vision both utopian and dystopian. While governmental power has become extremely de-centralized, the decisions of the elite entrusted with limited central governing include dramatic intrusions into private life, such as ascertaining whether a couple is fit for marriage and parenting and in fact whether babies demonstrate enough fortitude to merit not being incinerated. The book’s most morally ambiguous scene presents a young mother faced with not only the wrenching decision of whether to keep her “weak” baby or have it destroyed, but also a crass doctor who tells her: “Your baby has no awareness that it exists, and its elimination procedure is neither painful nor lengthy. A minute will reduce it to smoke and a small heap of ashes you can keep. You’re young still; you can remarry and bear other children.”

Though Maria in this scene serves as a moral foil to the doctor’s abysmal bedside manner, Mantegazza’s own attitudes towards women express a mixture of liberality and fustiness. All women have the franchise and divorce is a universal right, but the gender roles displayed in the novel are nearly as conventional as Mantegazza’s linear narrative style. Maria defers almost entirely to Paolo, describing herself at one point as “an ignorant little woman” then expressing amazement at her ability to grasp politics. Women, in Mantegazza’s “dream,” seem to have little place in science or industry, and are excluded from certain places, such as Andropolis’ Temple of Deists.

Though a faith in eugenics appears to run through The Year 3000, as is evident in the destruction of frail babies, Mantegazza’s treatment of race and ethnicity appears largely progressive. Increased comingling between different peoples has produced among humans “…a new type, indefinitely cosmopolitan.” However, Mantegazza’s choices in relating the complete disappearance of various ethnicities (sorry, aboriginal Australians and Maori!) may reveal a certain racial tension; the intercourse between the world’s peoples means that “in Africa there is no longer a single pure black person.”

Despite Mantegazza’s faith in cosmopolitanism and globalism, The Year 3000 possesses a charming Italo-centrism. Early on, Paolo revels in translating for Maria from Cosmic into the “dead” language of Italian, asserting that “never did another language have a nobler, greater geneology.” He extolls its having produced among the finest writers in history. Many, if not most, of the historical figures alluded to in The Year 3000 are Italian, and Mantegazza frequently digresses into issues with a particularly Italian flavor.

But perhaps the most charming element in The Year 3000: A Dream is Mantegazza’s depiction of the arts and entertainments of Andropolis, a city of ten million that contains an impressive “fifty theaters” (whatever the merits of Mantegazza’s imagination, his notion of a city of ten million people lacks realistic scale). To give the reader an idea of the capital’s cultural life, the narrator provides a marvelous three-page list of a sample day’s theatrical offerings. These include a production of Hamlet (in Cosmic) at the Theatre of Classical Tragedy; Sophocles’ Oedipus at the Panglosse (in ancient Greek and “reserved for the highly cultured”); a stage spectacular featuring “the cycle of cosmic pleasure, from Homer to the year 3000”; and a show in which the only performers are “speaking flowers, walking plants, and whispering meadows,” and which “depicts the struggle of monocotyledonous of coal-bearing soil against plants of the modern era.” There’s also a kind of electric Kool-Aid acid test sound and light experience and a revue of showgirls. 

And of course there are books. It’s disappointing that Mantegazza doesn’t devote more of his vision to art and literature, but it’s clear where his prejudices lie. While praising Italy as having throughout its history stood at the pinnacle of human artistic expression, the narrator notes a blotch on that record around the end of the 19th century, when artists turned to impressionism, pointillism and decadence, a period that also witnessed the nadir of Italian literature as decadent writers produced an “epidemic of Preraphaelitism, of the superhuman, that affected very high and powerful minds.” As an example, the narrator offers Gabriele d’Annunzio, who, instead of being “one of the great masters,” became “merely a great neurasthenic of Italian literature.”

Of course, since Paolo and Maria are on vacation, they take along some reading material. Of chief interest to them is a book written “ten centuries earlier by a physician with a bizarre imagination who tried to guess what human life would be like a millennium on,” which Paolo intends to translate as they travel, both out of curiosity as to “how well this prophet guessed the future” and in expectation of finding in the book “some beauties to laugh about.” With another 984 years still left to go until Mantegazza’s future arrives, one can already, in 2016, enjoy both his prophecies and quite a few such “beauties” – perhaps a few more than Mantegazza might have intended.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Mama Dearest: Roberto Alajmo's A Mother's Heart

I’m going to try to write around the conceit at the center of contemporary Sicilian writer Roberto Alajmo’s 2003 novel Cuore di Madre - Un Cœur de mère in the French translation I read, or A Mother’s Heart as I’ll refer to it here. Even though I’m normally inclined to reveal spoilers for novels not yet translated into English, dammit, in this one so much is constructed around the central conflict, which holds such a limited universe of possible resolutions, that I feel I’d be giving too much away. For those of you nonetheless willing to stick around, I’ll try to keep your interest by adding that A Mother’s Heart is one of the funniest novels I’ve read in a long time, as black a comedy as black comedies come, one that probably could have been written nowhere but in Sicily. Its peculiar blend of laugh-out-loud humor with the appalling way a child gets treated in the story might not sit well, for example, with some sensitive American tastes. The novel also contains many specifically Sicilian resonances; in fact, Alajmo’s dark comedy takes aim at what might be Southern Italy’s most crucial social fulcrum: the relationship of a son with his mother. While such territory has been mined by other Sicilian writers, even for comic effect – Vitaliano Brancati comes to mind – Alajmo elevates (correction: descends) the mother/son relationship to serve as an elaborate and devastating metaphor for the status quo of modern Sicily.

One barely gets a whiff of the direction Alajmo’s story will take from its opening pages, which begin by dissecting the possible reasons one Cosimo Tumminia, proprietor of a bicycle repair shop in the dusty village of Calcara south of Palermo, has no clients. Perhaps Cosimo’s social isolation stems from a botched repair job, perhaps from innumerable small events that have accumulated into intractable negative gossip, maybe from a vengefulness born out of some old antipathy, its origins lost to time. Whatever the reason, the villagers keep their distance, and callow youths make rude gestures each time they pass Cosimo’s shop, although they do so “mechanically, like those things one does because one does, without demanding why one does them.”

Cosimo seems not to mind much, or even to notice. Passive, incurious, something of a big lug who lives alone in a house in the countryside, he has few interests. Having long ago failed in his few attempts with women, he keeps pornographic magazines under his bed and visits – albeit rarely – an aging prostitute on the edge of town. The “pillars on which Cosimo’s culture rests” consist almost entirely of the stories, jokes and puzzles included in each issue of Games and Crossword Puzzles Weekly, a habitual form of recreation in which he’s indulged for some twenty years. On occasion, he supplements this thrilling diversion by watching whatever happens to be on television or by listening to a radio show on which long-distance truckers call in to report on their locations.

The single other significant element in this vacuous life is Cosimo’s mother, whom he visits in town every day, largely for the purposes of being attentively reminded of his failings and supplied meals he can take home, which his mother prepares for him with relentless maternal insistence.  

But now another feature has come into Cosimo’s circumscribed world, a tremendous change he’s scarcely capable of acknowledging as a more than a blip in his routine. This obligation he’s unable to refuse, one foisted upon him by a handful of local Mafiosi who’ve seen in his social disconnection the qualities perfectly suited for a patsy in a criminal scheme of which the details – though not the hugely un-ignorable central fact of it – remain obscure to Cosimo. The role assigned to him, compromising everything in his quotidian existence, unexpectedly stretches from a promised “few days” to an indeterminate and increasingly untenable period, with no guarantee that those who’ve placed him in this situation will ever return to get him out of it.  

Much of the comedy in A Mother’s Heart stems from Cosimo’s bumbling inadequacy and incompetence in handling his new responsibility. Much of the rest - predictably - stems from his inability to keep his overbearing mother from getting involved. Though relationships between mothers and sons feature frequently in Italian literature, I can’t think of a work in which such a relationship has been so expertly milked for horrific comic effect. Alajmo is deft at creating little comic touches, for example, in using what passes on television as a repeated, humorous counterpoint to what’s happening in Cosimo’s life, or when he reveals the mother’s pride in a set of progressively-sized food containers into which she daily and dutifully shifts a progressively-shrinking amount of leftovers, or when he zooms in on her obsessiveness over the precise point at which a dish is ready to eat. I suspect that more than a few Sicilian sons may have found this book exceedingly discomfiting; even so, they probably still couldn’t wait to get home for mama’s cooking. Like Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano mysteries, Alajmo’s novel gleefully indulges in Sicilian food, as Cosimo’s mother prepares dish after dish: meatballs in tomato sauce; pasta with sardines, anchovies or tuna, with and without garlic; fried eggplant; and above all brociolone. I’ll let you look up a recipe for yourselves, but should you happen to have a Sicilian relation coming to dinner I’d advise care in choosing among the variations. Disputes over familial differences in preparing Sicilian specialties can turn deadly.

When Cosimo casually suggests that his mother’s brociolone tastes better the day after it’s been cooked, he missteps into a typically impossible exchange with her:

“Why? You didn’t find it good just now?”
“No, for pity’s sake, it’s very good.”
“What about it didn’t you like? Did the potatoes seem too undercooked?”
“No, never in your life!”
“Well, then why did you say you didn’t like it?”
“Who, me, what did I say?”
“That you didn’t like it. Just now, you said it.”
“But when?”
His mother placed the casserole on the table, a sign that she wanted her hands free in order to get to the bottom of things.
“You take me for an imbecile? Just now, you said it.”
“I said that when I ate it the next day it seemed better…”
“So, today’s…”
“What do they have to do with one another? I was speaking in general. Today’s will be even better tomorrow, but it’s already good now.”
“But that the dish would be better when reheated tomorrow you couldn’t yet know, so when you said that it was good, you’d perceived, in fact, that it wasn’t as good as usual. You don’t have to bother my head about it.”

If such exchanges characterize the mother/son relationship in matters so inconsequential, one can imagine their amplification when it comes to the serious circumstances into which Cosimo has fallen.

Alajmo hews closely and leisurely to details, painting a richly textured portrait of the situation. For example at the beginning, in describing the three hypotheses regarding Cosimo’s ostracism, the third-person narrator takes up an entire four pages, a pace so protracted as to test the reader’s patience. Similarly, a description of the contents of the Games and Crossword Puzzles Weekly stretches over multiple pages. But like the tortoise catching up with the hare, slow and steady wins the race, and Alajmo thus creates an almost giddy tension, such that when the problem reaches critical mass, the narrator’s insistence on unhurriedly relating granular details drags the reader through the full measure of the awfulness involved. This combines with the novel’s great black humor to push the reader into a deliriously appalled state. Rarely have I encountered a novel that uses its pacing so effectively to heighten an intended effect.

A Mother’s Heart would be enjoyable if it only aimed for laughs, but Alajmo’s humor pokes pointedly into the particular Sicilian disease of Mafia influence on daily life as well as into the universal ways ordinary people can inertly submit to domination by becoming trapped into routine, acquiescent, and by extension, complicit. One emerges from Alajmo’s clever novel with a tragic sense of his having pierced into the core of a state of things capable of starving off hope for future generations, one far too deeply and menacingly woven into the fabric of Sicilian life. It’ll take more than a mother’s heart to unravel it – more than this mother’s heart, anyway.

A huge thanks to JLS for having recommended Roberto Alajmo’s books. At the moment, only one of his works appears to be available in English, his delightful non-fiction “anti-travel guide” Palermo, worth reading even if only to get a flavor of Alajmo’s singular humor and great talent. 

Above: Photograph of a photograph by photographer Giovanni Ruggeri installed in a doorway in Catania, Sicily, 2014.