Thursday, December 26, 2019

"Lost between Europe and Africa, and belonging to nowhere" - Some Novels from Sardinia

Capo Caccia, Sardinia

A few months ago, all I’d read of Sardinian literature was 1926 Nobel Prize winner Grazia Deledda’s Reeds in the Wind (Canne al vento, 1913), which came to my attention thanks to a mention in a short story by Antonio Tabucchi. I’d relished Deledda’s novel despite finding the conceit behind its title – that people “are like reeds in the wind…we are the reeds and fate is the wind” – a bit trite. But then the wind in Sardinia was something I’d never experienced. Visiting the island for the first time this October, I caught the tail-end of a three-day Mistral. My respect for Deledda and for the Sardinians who must contend with such elemental forces deepened considerably. 

My appreciation for Sardinian literature also deepened considerably, thanks to sampling a handful of other Sardinian works. This small effort, further limited by the paucity of titles available in translation, seemed almost mocked by the sagging shelves of the Sardinian literature section of the Mondadori store in Alghero. But just considering the few works I’ll discuss here, I might dare some generalizations. Each work engages a life shaped by forces no less powerful or fateful than Deledda’s winds and also possesses, as one might expect, a strong regional emphasis, delving deeply into Sardinian culture, history, tradition and landscape, as well as the lasting impact of 19thcentury land reforms. Each of these authors mixes Sard with Italian, with translators choosing (or requested by authors) to retain some Sard words even in translation. Another commonality: each of these works casts a retrospective glance, as though the past, with its deep traditions, occasional barbarities and commonplace cruelties continuing well into the 20th century, has an especially strong hold on the present. And finally, all of the authors here spent extended periods on the continent or, among those still living, make their homes there today, underscoring the peculiar tension between the island, the most isolated major island in the Mediterranean - closer to Africa than to the Italian mainland - and the rest of Italy. 

Most Sardinian literary activity appears centered in Nuoro, largest town of the rugged and rocky interior known as the Barbagia, and in the surrounding villages with which Nuoro carries on a vigorous intercourse. In fact, of the five Sardinian authors I’ve now read – Deledda, Salvatore Satta, Marcello Fois, Michela Murgia and Milena Agus - all but Agus, from Cagliari, hail from this cultural capital. Dominated by one of the island’s highest peaks, Mount Ortobène, Nuoro is something of a geographical peculiarity, sloping from the summit of a high hill down to a valley below, with social implications all along the differential. Despite the city’s commanding setting, cheap modern apartment blocks hem in the historic center, making for a less than spectacular first impression. But the town, known as “the Athens of Sardinia” in Deledda’s time, still wears its literary past on its sleeve. Many of its numerous piazzi pay homage to literary figures, as do plaques on walls marking homes and haunts. Deledda’s house is now a museum. Even today an undeniable poetry hangs about the place, often explicitly scrawled on walls. Books hang from the ceiling in the town’s most famous literati gathering spot, the Café Tettamanzi. A reputable annual literary fair occurs in a neighboring village. Of the more contemporary writers I read, most are tied to or on the periphery of the “Sardinian Literary Spring” that began in this city in the 1980’s and still continues as one of Italy’s most notable contemporary literary schools. 

 Ceiling decor in the Café Tettamanzi, Nuoro, Sardinia

On to the books themselves:

Milena Agus, From the Land of the Moon 
Ann Goldstein, translator, Europa Editions
The original Italian title of Agus’ 2006 novella, Mal di pietre, might be translated as “Stone Pains” or “The Aching Stones” or “Sick of Stones.” My own failed effort to find a non-jarring English equivalent seems to have been shared by translator Ann Goldstein, who avoided a literal translation altogether. The original title references Sardinia’s most evident geological feature - the rocky, barren, moonlike roughness of the place - as well as the kidney stones that plague Agus’ main character, the narrator’s paternal grandmother. Deeply troubled as a girl, the grandmother’s arranged mariàge blanc is little more than the family’s effort to wipe their hands of her. Sent to a spa outside Rome after WWII for treatment of her kidney problem, she meets a man referred to only as “The Veteran,” and their meetings blossom into a passionate and temporary affair resulting, nine months after her return to Cagliari, in a son. A hyper-romanticized 2016 film adaptation capitalizes on the more schmaltzy aspects of this story: and, bizarrely, rips the action completely out of its critical Sardinian context by transporting it to France. Agus’ novel actually proves to be a fairly grim view of the position of Sardinian women. Contradicting an intentionally ironic comment in another of these novels that “Women don’t exist in Sardinia,” Agus may amply demonstrate that Sardinian women not only exist, but possess extraordinary qualities; however, these often lie buried beneath circumscribed roles that, at least up until the recent past, could easily consist of an unending succession of oppressive, destructive trials. Her main character is pulled out of school at an early age for fear of the unhealthy influence of literacy, passes through an adolescence of self-mutilation and neglect, and enters a madness that, in the novel’s twist ending, lays waste to the romantic elements that have pulled the reader along, leaving exposed the rocky contours of a culture that could facilitate such oppression. 

Michela Murgia, Accabadora
Silvester Mazzarella, translator, MacLehose Press
A more in depth look at the lives of women in Sardinia is provided by Murgia’s 2009 novel, which delves into some particularities of roles women play in Sardinian culture. I particularly liked Murgia’s honing in on these almost ethnographic Sardinian details, which she uses to unlock a wealth of observations about social life and practices on the island. She begins on the first page by revealing that the narrator, an impoverished 8-year-old girl when the novel opens, has been “conceived twice, from the poverty of one woman and the sterility of another,” a “fill’e anime” or soul-child essentially sold by her family to a relatively wealthy spinster in order to serve as help-maid. This was apparently not an uncommon practice in rural Sardinia up into the last century, and the book’s dedication - “To my mothers, both of them” - suggests Murgia may have a more than passing familiarity. The book’s title, key to the plot, is omitted from the glossary of Sard words Murgia includes at the beginning of the book, but refers to another covert and remarkable social role practiced by the girl’s guardian, and which serves as the driver for the plot unfolding around the child’s growth into adulthood and discovery of her guardian’s secret life, with attendant consequences. I found this a terrific short novel, particularly for the light it shines on traditional aspects of life in the Barbagia and for the way Murgia uncovers the tension between tradition and modernity in this deeply entrenched culture. 

Supramonte mountains, near Oliena, Sardinia

Marcello Fois, The Advocate
Patrick Creagh, translator, The Harvill Press
Marcello Fois is probably Sardinia’s pre-eminent living writer. In his novella The Advocate (Sempre caro, 1998), Fois deftly employs a concentrated style that nonetheless manages to convey the Sardinia that, in an epilogue, Fois calls both “my joy and my torment.” At 117 pages in Patrick Creagh’s English translation, Fois’ tale of a stubborn lawyer pursuing justice for a young man fleeing an alleged livestock theft and then consequently suspected of a murder possesses the suspense and tension of a fine mystery (one strongly reminiscent of Sicilian writer Gaettano Savaterri’s La Congiura dei Loquaci, another tale of a young man accused of a crime and forced into hiding). But Fois uses this vehicle, and its giallo qualities, to evoke the whole world of late 19thcentury life in the Barbagia, using carefully placed details to replace the laundry lists one finds in fat realist novels and creating space for the reader’s imagination to fill in the rest. A trio of different narrators helps to expand the novel’s perspectives.  

Marcello Fois, Bloodlines
Silvester Mazzarella, translator, MacLehose Press
Fois’ The Advocate had me wanting to read more of this exceptional Sardinian author, so in Nuoro, in a bookshop across from the city’s infamous Café Tettamanzi, I purchased an English translation of Bloodlines (Stirpe, 2009). This proved a considerably more ambitious work than The Advocate, with a more daring narrative style and a far grander sweep, an epic account of the Chironi family of the small village of Lollove on the slopes of Mount Ortobène just outside Nuoro. Stretching over a period of some 50 years – and with backwards glances to the family’s origins via a Spanish envoy, Don Gaspar de Quiéron in the 17thcentury – the novel describes the family’s passage through a kind of hell arranged, in fact, in a three-part structure referencing Dante, only Fois’ work starts with Paradiso and ends with Purgatorio, with Inferno occupying the lengthy middle. 

The novel opens with young Michele Angelo Chironi, the novel’s protagonist, falling in love with Mercede Lai during a church service. Marriage follows, then a large number of children, a good half of whom die before or shortly after birth. These seem to be the luckier ones, since great trials await the poor family, and if Fois’ novel were a straight linear narrative, tragedy would pile upon tragedy in an unbearable manner. But Fois is interested largely in how people cope with trauma and history, and the narrative form, within its structure of a rearranged Divine Comedy, further breaks up linearity and instead seems to turn in spirals, perhaps an echo of Dante’s multiple circles. Fois’ omniscient narrator breaks in frequently to cut off a story or defer it until later. An incident is indicated, then fully revealed only further on in the work, as stories build upon one another, get truncated by other events, come back around like eruptions of memory, the full tale dependent upon the proper time for its telling. In the background, the first half of the 20thcentury - with the intrusions of two world wars and of Fascism – unspools around a scouring portrait of Sardinian village life. Unlike the treatment of adversity in Agus’ novel, kept under a romantic veneer for much of her book, Fois offers little in the way of consolation aside from the beauty of his writing and the courage of his good people. Bloodlines is the first of a trilogy exploring the Chironi family up to the present day; all three volumes are now available in English translation.

Nuoro, night

Salvatore Satta, The Day of Judgment
Patrick Creagh, translator, Apollo
As a motto, “My glass may be small, but I drink from my glass,” might fit Salvatore Satta’s The Day of Judgment (Il Giorno del giudizio, 1979), a deep quaff taken of the author's native Nuoro. The glass through which he viewed his city (darkly) almost certainly rested on his regular table in the Café Tettamanzi, just a few steps from the author’s home. But this is no small novel, as suggested by the scores of international editions of it on display today in the café and which point to the eminent place Satta’s novel occupies in Sardinian literature and beyond. The debt to the work owed by his successors is strikingly obvious in all the contemporary Sardinian literature I read, Fois in particular, as he engages with The Day of Judgment to the point of referencing specific scenes and lines, in Bloodlines even modeling Satta’s novel in using the family patriarch’s life as a temporal measuring tape. 

Curiously, however, despite the many translated editions of the book and high praise from influential critics in Italy and abroad, Satta’s novel seems to have flown largely under the radar; the otherwise excellent Cambridge Companion to the Italian Novel (2003), for example, omits mention of the work and of the writer entirely, rather odd given his prominent role in Italy. “Writing is not my trade,” confesses the modest, unnamed narrator of this largely autobiographical work, and indeed Satta spent his public life as a renowned jurist and legal theorist, responsible for expunging the Fascists’ emendations from the Italian legal code following World War II. His juridical works remain standard legal references in Italy today. The manuscript of The Day of Judgment, Satta’s only novel, was discovered unfinished only at the author death. He had worked on it in secret for some 30 years. 

And what a manuscript. Though the book’s title may suggest something in the mystery genre, the biblical connotation is operative here, or rather what that might mean in Nuoro’s fundamentally “pagan” environment where religion seems merely incidental to ways of life in some ways unchanged for millennia. Recounting the life of town notary Don Sebastiano Sanna (obviously modeled on Satta himself), the narrator’s stoic, panoramic portrait of his Nuuro is an attempt, in his narrator’s words, to summon together, like a “ridiculous god,” its people “for the day of judgment, to free them forever from their memory.” The narrator’s attitude towards his hometown edges on resentment (“Nuoro was nothing but a perch for the crows”), his project no less a critical, careful reckoning than the one a judge like himself might levy on trying a case – or on weighing his own life. In notes appended to the end of the unfinished manuscript, Satta wrote that he created his characters perhaps not to free them from their lives, “but to rid me of mine.” 

Such a treatment seems at times almost pitiless; this a book draped in black crêpe and written in ashes and dust - “a cemetery of living beings.” More than fifteen references to death appear even before one reaches the end of the third page. Comparisons might be made to other works in which an author measures his fellow townspeople’s lives against the inevitability of death, such as Dylan Thomas’ Under Milkwood or Máirtin Ó Cadhain’s The Dirty Dust. At times the narrator’s take on his fellow citizens is withering - “Anyway, they had all grown old, in Nuoro, and no one remembered anything anymore, partly because there was nothing to remember” – but his inescapable need to come to grips with the circumstances of his origins betrays a grudging affection, even a loving one, the appreciation of an intellectual rendered alienated and apart from the community that nonetheless produced him (the social impact of reading and intellect in such a community as depicted in a chapter focused on the arrival of books into the Sanna household is particularly memorable). Satta’s refined, penetrating intelligence and bone-dry ironic tone also give the novel a subtly comic cast that betrays his narrator’s repeatedly grim pronouncements. The ambit of the author’s gaze radiates out from family to town to region to island to encompass the whole of life and death, alighting here and there to ponder some corner of Sardinian life, some practice, some recalled person, some great troubling question, all in the process of receding into the past and vanishing from memory. In the notes appended to the novel’s last page, Satta appears to view judgment not as punition, but as a creative imperative: the need for “someone to gather us up, to revive us, to speak about us both to ourselves and to others, as in a last judgment.”

Like Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s The Leopard (Il Gattopardo), The Day of Judgment depicts a disappearing way of life – di Lampedusa on Sicily, Satta on Sardinia - and if I were stuck on an island and could choose only one of these books, my decision would almost certainly come down to which island I happened to find myself on. I hardly expected to find a novel of such monumental stature in Sardinian literature, but this is certainly among the finest of the many Italian novels I’ve read. Maybe just throw out the qualifier “Italian” – The Day of Judgment gave me the same excited sense of stumbling upon a little known classic that I experienced in finding Miklós Bánffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy

From the Castello dei Doria, Castelsardo, Sardinia

Before I leave off this brief commentary on Sardinian literature, I feel a mention of Antonio Gramsci is warranted. Though his former home in Ghizeria, a small town in the middle of the island, was closed for renovation, a small and friendly visitor center provided information about this extraordinary 20thcentury figure, whose notebooks and letters are nearly as valuable as literature as they are for 20thcentury political philosophy. It felt remarkably fitting that the last book I read in Sardinia, a newly-issued unfinished work by Antonio Tabucchi entitled Et enfin septembre vint (E finalmente arrive il settembre) unexpectedly turned directly towards Gramsci and to the disappearance of local languages like Sard. I felt as though I’d come, via a path strewn with extraordinary treasures, full circle. 


  1. What a fascinating post, one that truly gives sense of Sardinia - both the landscape/climate and the cultural 'feel' of the island. Accabadora sounds particularly interesting, as does The Day of Judgement. The former reminds me a little of Donatella Di Pietrantonio's novella A Girl Returned. Have you read it by any chance? if not, you might find it of interest.

    1. I was deeply impressed by the quality of all of these books, especially Satta's, but that's a pretty high bar. And except for Satta, all of these authors have numerous other works not yet in translation - something to look forward to.

      Coincidentally, I almost bought A Girl Returned at a used book sale recently. Dang. I will look for it again.

  2. Ditto what Jacqui says above--lots of food for thought to chew over here. I will try to get to the Satta at least next year, but I appreciate the rest of this Sardinian overview all the same. Grazie.

    1. Thanks Richard. I'd be very curious to see your assessment of the Satta novel, so let me know if you get around to it!

  3. Great to have you around again. If you haven't done any Sardinian non-fiction, I recommend Emilio Lussu's One Year on the high Plateau and the movie of the same (Uomini contro) with Volunte. Fois is a favorite.

  4. Hello JLS! Good to be back, and I'm grateful for this holiday period to allow me to gather a few scraps of posts that have been trailing about these last few months. Lussu is on my radar, so thanks for the recommendation. I also consciously opted out of reading (for now) another Sardinian - Gavino Ledda - since I'd just seen the Taviani brothers' Padre Padrone, the most Sardinian thing I've ever seen (perhaps even surpassing Sardinia itself in its Sardinianness). I'm glad to hear you like Fois; he is terrific, and I read Bloodlines without being aware of the two volumes that follow it. I'll get to those this year for sure. Bonne année and felice anno nuovo to you!

  5. Padre Padrone is an unforgettable experience, no? Their two Pirandello versions, Chaos and You Laugh are also in a class by themselves. Fois' The Abyss is on Kindle cheap right now. I await your reviews of the two Bloodlines sequels.
    Happy New Year to you!!