John Domini’s stunning new novel, The Color Inside a Melon, concludes his trilogy set in Naples after a fictional earthquake. Risto, an immigrant from Somalia, investigates the brutal murder of a more recent African emigrant. As readers, we’re caught in a gripping mystery while submerged in a dream/nightmare Naples: its immigrants and its racism; its beauty and its bureaucracy. Domini’s language is as poetic and mythical as his vision is dark and disturbing. Domini’s characters come from many different cultures, and his novel is located in far-ranging locales. I had several questions for Domini about what inspired him and where his knowledge and experience ended and his imagination began.
The Millions: In the Italian newspaper La Repubblica in 2017 you referred to your father as “un eroe delle Quattro Giornate di Napoli,” or “a hero of the Four Days of Naples,” referring to his experiences during WWII as Neapolitans rose up against Nazi occupation. Can you talk about your family history in Naples and how it led to your trilogy set there?
John Domini: The Repubblica headline indulged some journalistic hyperbole. That word wasn’t one I used, and as for my father, it would’ve set him shrieking with laughter—and outrage. He preferred not to talk about the Four Days at all. When he finally opened up about those guerrilla days, he was sick and soon to die, and what little he shared sounded nothing like heroism. Rather he revealed the chaos and desperation of teenagers fighting for their lives. These days, the anecdotes call to mind the catastrophe of contemporary Aleppo. My father came through an apocalypse; that’s how I see it: The world as he knew it was falling down around his ears. The complex feelings this generated, spurring him to the New World, to decades of secrecy, must’ve been part of my inspiration for Risto, my new novel’s protagonist in devastated Mogadishu. The survivor’s inner turbulence would be diagnosed as PTSD, in some flavor or other, and throughout The Color Inside a Melon any turn of thought may cause those flavors to once more flood my man’s mouth. A few times, to be sure, Risto gags on the taste.
Besides that, my father didn’t leave Naples until his 20s, and left behind, as you say, close family. This had a more practical impact, both for The Color Inside and all my Naples work. I grew up—well, the word “bicultural” sounds a tad hifalutin, I never heard it around the kitchen, but I suppose it fits. Among the evidence, there’s my grasp of pop’s native language, its rhythms if not its subtleties. As for those, the subtleties, I learned them later, in midlife, when I suffered bad breakdowns both personal and professional and, in effect, fled to Naples. That’s more hyperbole, to be sure. I always had a job and a rental in the States, and I learned a lot simply from reading. I discovered both Elena Ferrante and Roberto Saviano (Gomorrah) in Italian. Still, I first read them over in the Sirens’ City, where I’d impose on family and friends as long as I could and try to relocate. I’m writing about that period now, my renewal via Naples, a memoir of a kind. Before I could tackle that project, though, I first needed to clear my head of the vision I had at about age 40, on the ancient streets of the centro: the image of an eternal downtown, forever the same city yet forever changing, as yet another new world order flexes its muscles.
TM: The novel centers around the African community in Naples. How did you research that topic? Italy shares anti-immigrant politics with other Eastern and Western European countries but has received many more refugees than all of them save Greece, with many Africans making the dangerous boat journey from Libya to the island of Lampedusa. Can you also give us a general sense of how you see Italy’s response to the refugee crisis and how that may be represented by the lives of Risto, your protagonist, and your other African characters.
JD: Look, there it is again: the unchanging city, going through a fresh sea change! Naturally, my inspiration also has other sources, in particular my decades of devotion to Calvino’s Invisible Cities. But there’s no denying the impact of watching, throughout the 90s and the 2000s, the waves of immigration out of devastated regions in Africa. In parts of “the South,” as it’s known, if a warlord didn’t drive you out, global warming would ravage your farm. Your only option was “the North,” where the landings easiest to reach are in places like Lampedusa: the European South. Not that this made Italy more welcoming, alas; the Italian process of naturalization is one of the worst on the Continent. Myself, seeing the results, seeing Naples make grudging room for more and more illegals, here called clandestini— one major street market is now referred to as “Calcutta”— I realized I couldn’t abide the usual fiction of privileged Anglos in benighted Southern Italy. I couldn’t play Elizabeth Gilbert’s game, in which the old centro becomes a mere backdrop for her so-called fulfillment. My work, rather, needed to challenge assumptions of identity. What’s the North, really? Who can claim it? How do they do that, and thereafter maintain their holdings?
So the loose trilogy that concludes with The Color Inside a Melon had to use different perspectives. In Earthquake I.D., I worked with Americans, their comfy assumptions knocked to bits on the first day in town; in A Tomb on the Periphery, with a native Neapolitan wrestling with core questions about how to live. So the African refugee protagonist of this one, in the terminology of old seagoing navigators, completes the necessary triangulation. And that took work, no question, achieving even a decent approximation of an orphaned Somali’s point of view. That took research, sure, like putting in days of interviews in a refugee camp. I went through more of the same with the city’s Immigrant Council, as well as with their lawyers and counselors. I read the papers and often visited that market I mentioned, “Calcutta.” Importantly, though, Risto has escaped Calcutta. Just as you say, he’s an immigrant success story, which I see now reflects my concern with identity in flux. The outsider, in this case, has broken in by way of the arts. Such work has always offered one of the best paths to acceptance; just look at what it’s meant for African Americans. And speaking of our own country, too, no answer for this question would be complete without acknowledging how much it meant to be exposed, throughout my life, to the multicultural mélange of larger American cities. If I’ve brought off a worthwhile portrait of a port city’s complexity, its peoples in flux (if I have…), that owes a great deal to the immigrant mix in which I grew up.
TM: Your novel brings us back to Risto’s early years, evoking a sophisticated European-seeming Mogadishu of the past and a more recent Alexandria, among other places? Again, I wondered how you may have used travel, research, and your imagination to render these very different eras and locales.
JD: Storytelling should never be confused with sociology, right? The compulsion generated by a long narrative, an extended reading experience, is rooted ultimately in empathy and wonder, not in learning. My Risto ought to set off shivers, tangled as he is in tricky reconstruction challenges, in knotty moral questions. In other words, I often conducted research simply by looking inwards. The man’s nearing 40, in fact his age surprises him at a couple of points, and so I made the arduous journey back into the caves of midlife. My father too figured in these investigations, inevitably. To look at him, you’d have said he’d done well in his New World, but as I pointed out earlier, he suffered lingering chills from across the Atlantic. Then too, considering the importance of Risto’s marriage, both for him as a man and for the story, I looked at the remarkable women surrounding me, partners, mothers, sisters, all wise to how the world works yet open to love and its adjustments.
But if Risto’s not simply a representative of a type, his type is part of the drama. He’s an endangered species, namely, the secular and cosmopolitan Afro-Arab. The Middle East and much of Africa, through much of the century just past, offered cultural hubs that rivaled Paris or Berlin. Beirut, as recently as the early 1970s, was synonymous with sophistication, not civil war. Alexandria—well, check the Quartet of Lawrence Durrell. Such places have suffered breakdowns too complex for any interview; the U.S. complicity in the tragedy goes back to the ‘50s, when we handed power to the Wahabbi Sauds. As for Mogadishu, it lies on major trade lines, and was one of the places celebrated as “the jewel in the Horn of Africa.” That lost dream stayed with Risto’s parents, it deluded them into coming back, but of course they weren’t alone in trying to salvage their Golden Age. Somalia too had its educated class, it progressive thinkers, some of them still with us. Nuruddin Farah’s novels may not always work, but they amount to an outcry for what might’ve been. See too the magnificent work of Elias Khoury and Khaled Khalifa, their villages and neighborhoods formerly humane, indeed enlightened, but now sheer hell.
TM: The scope and sweep of your Naples trilogy—told from many perspectives, from tourists to immigrants to natives—everything from race and immigration to natural disaster, murder, the threat of terrorism. How do you move on from such a vast and ambitious project? What is in the works for you? Further exploration of Naples? Returning home to use your writing to address our own addled country?
JD: As for scope and sweep…You know, as I grasped the shape and direction of The Color Inside, as I saw the centrality of solving the murder, I felt uncomfortable. No mere mystery plot could contain the vastness I had in mind, surely. Lo, I had been long in the wilderness. I’d wandered midlife wilderness and come back with a revelation.
Seriously, I’m satisfied with how this one crime winds up pointing to others, and in some cases to better dealings and doings. It looks to me as if I wrestled a sizeable chunk of the changing South and North into these texts, especially after the last novel’s run-throughs with so assiduous an editor as Michelle Dotter. If I’m right about that, if I’ve brought off roughly what I hoped to, then the memoir of my Naples rebirth seems the natural next project. That’s well along, I’d say; it may even have a title, The Archeology of a Good Ragù. Certainly it’s taught me things, like how reminiscence is an act of imagination, a creative effort, in which honesty demands, like these novels, multiple viewpoints.
What else? I’ve always got my reviewing and such, even now I’ve two or three deadlines hanging, and I guess I’ll never shake my sense that this work both helps define what I’m about and sustain a larger, much-loved community. Every now and then, too, it gifts me with a critical essay, a longer exploration and celebration of another talent; the latest case was Jenny Erpenbeck. As for something like fiction, actually I’ve been whacking my way through the jungle of a sort of historical drama, an exploration I’d never have suspected I’d investigate. It feels awfully strange, up-to-the-minute as well as historical, but it feels like a novel. Maybe this one can stand on its own.
We wouldn’t dream of abandoning our vast semi–annual Most Anticipated Book Previews, but we thought a monthly reminder would be helpful (and give us a chance to note titles we missed the first time around). Here’s what we’re looking out for this month. Find more September titles at our Great Second-Half Preview, and let us know what you’re looking forward to in the comments!
Transcription by Kate Atkinson: As a fangirl of both the virtuosic Life After Life and of her Jackson Brody detective novels, I barely need to see a review to get excited about a new Atkinson novel—especially a period novel about a female spy, recruited by MI5 at age 18 to monitor fascist sympathizers. Nonetheless, here’s some love from Booklist (starred review): “This is a wonderful novel about making choices, failing to make them, and living, with some degree of grace, the lives our choices determine for us.” (Sonya)
The Golden State by Lydia Kiesling: File The Golden State under “most most-anticipated” as it’s the first novel of The Millions’ own brilliant and beloved Lydia Kiesling, who has has been wielding her pen and editorial prowess on this site for many a year. Two months pre-pub, The Golden State is already off to the races with a nomination for the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize and a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly, stating, “Kiesling depicts parenting in the digital age with humor and brutal honesty and offers insights into language, academics, and even the United Nations.” Kiesling herself has written that “great writing is bracing, and makes you feel like making something of your own, either another piece of writing, or a joyful noise unto the Lord.” The Golden State promises just that. (Anne)
She Would Be King by Wayétu Moore: It’s the early years of Liberia, and three strangers with nothing in common help smooth the way for the nation. Gbessa is a West African exile who survives certain death; June Dey is running from a Virginia plantation; Norman Aragon, the son of a colonizer and a slave, can disappear at will. Their story stands at the meeting point of the diaspora, history, and magical realism, and Edwidge Danticat calls the novel “beautiful and magical.” (Kaulie)
Washington Black by Esi Edugyan: Edugyan’s last novel, Half-Blood Blues, won the Scotiabank Giller Prize and was a finalist for the Man Booker. Attica Locke calls this one “nothing short of a masterpiece.” When Wash, an 11-year-old enslaved in Barbados, is chosen as a manservant, he is terrified. The chooser, Christopher Wilde, however, turns out to be a naturalist, explorer, and abolitionist. But soon Wash and Christopher find themselves having to escape to save their lives. Their run takes them from the frozen North to London and Morocco. It’s all based on a famous 19th-century criminal case. (Claire)
Crudo by Olivia Laing: Olivia Laing, known for her chronicles of urban loneliness and writers’ attraction to drink as well as critical writing on art and literature, jumps genres with her first novel, Crudo. It’s a spitfire of a story with a fervent narrator and a twist: The book is written in the voice of punk feminist author Kathy Acker performed in mash-up with Laing’s own, as she considers marriage (with equivocation) and the absurdity of current events circa 2017. Suzanne Moore at The Guardian says, “Here [Laing] asks how we might not disappear…She reaches out for something extraordinary. Crudo is a hot, hot book.” (Anne)
Boomer1 by Daniel Torday: Daniel Torday follows his acclaimed debut, The Last Flight of Poxl West, with a second novel that carries a menacing subtitle: Retire or We’ll Retire You. It’s apt because this is the story of a millennial loser named Mark Brumfeld, a bluegrass musician, former journalist, and current grad student whose punk bassist girlfriend rejects his marriage proposal, driving him out of New York and back to his parents’ basement in suburban Baltimore. There, under the titular handle of Boomer1, he starts posting online critiques of baby boomers that go viral. Intergenerational warfare—what a smart lens for looking at the way we live today. (Bill)
The Lost Art of Reading by David Ulin: In the book, David delves into the current political and cultural milieu, ultimately offering a hopeful message: “Why should we fear one another’s stories? The true act of resistance is to respond with hope. All those voices are what connect us. In a culture intent on keeping us divided, they are, they have been always, the necessary narrative.” (Edan)
The Shape of Ruins by Juan Gabriel Vasquez (translated by Anne McLean): In this, his sixth novel in English translation, Colombian writer Juan Gabriel Vasquez plays mischief with history, a string of murders, and the conspiracy theories that commonly arise alongside. Add a storyline carried by a duet of narrators—one with a healthy dollop of paranoia, the other with a fixation for real crime so engrossing he’s turned his home into a kind of museum of crime noir—and you’ve got a gripping read and a solid reflection on the appeal of conspiracy. (Il’ja)
The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker: Barker is best known for her fantastic World War I Regeneration trilogy, including The Ghost Road, winner of the 1995 Booker Prize. The Silence of the Girls sees Barker casting her historical imagination back further, to Ancient Greece and the Trojan War. Captured by Achilles, Briseis goes from queen to concubine, from ruler to subject—in this retelling of The Iliad, Barker reclaims Briseis as a protagonist, giving authorial voice to her and the other women who have long existed only as powerless subjects in a male epic. (Adam)
The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish by Katya Apekina: Edie finds her mother Marianne in the living room only just surviving a suicide attempt, while her sister Mae is upstairs in a trance. Marianne is committed to a mental hospital, and the sisters are sent to live with their father, far from their native Louisiana. But as they spend more time with their father, the girls grow further apart, torn by their deep loyalty to opposite parents and their own grief and confusion. Apekina’s debut novel plays with tricky family relationships and the way fact and fantasy, loyalty and obsession, can be so difficult to tease apart. (Kaulie)
Ordinary People by Diana Evans: The third novel from Evans, the inaugural winner of the Orange Prize for New Writers, Ordinary People follows two troubled couples as they make their way through life in London. The backdrop: Obama’s 2008 election. The trouble: Living your 30s is hard, parenthood is harder, and relationships to people and places change, often more than we’d like them to. But Evans is as sharply funny—in clear-eyed, exacting fashion—as she is sad, and Ordinary People cuts close to the quick of, well, ordinary people. (Kaulie)
The Caregiver by Samuel Park: Park’s third novel takes place in Rio de Janeiro and California. Mara is an immigrant whose beloved mother Ana, a voice-over actress, was involved with a civilian rebel group in Rio. In California as an adult now, Mara works as a caregiver to a young woman with stomach cancer and grapples with her mother’s complicated, enigmatic past. Shortly after finishing the novel in 2017, Park himself died of stomach cancer at age 41. (Sonya)
Sea Prayer by Khaled Hosseini (illustrated by Dan Williams): Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner, has written a short, illustrated book about the refugee crisis. Told from the perspective of a scared Syrian father to his son as they prepare to leave for Europe, Kirkus’s starred review calls the book “an emotional gut-punch…an excruciating one.” (Carolyn)
The Piranhas by Roberto Saviano: An explosive novel about the Neapolitan underworld by the author of the nonfiction book Gomorrah, a publishing event that caused the author to go into hiding (where he lives and writes still).
Patient X: The Case-Book of Ryūnosuke Akutagawa by David Peace: A biographical novel about the master writer Ryūnosuke Akutagawa from the Granta Young British novelist who wrote the Red Riding quartet. According to a Guardian review, his latest is “a novel composed of 12 stories which retell incidents from the life and work of the writer who lived from 1892 to 1927 and is often referred to as the father of the Japanese short story; he is renowned in the west as the author of “In a Grove”, which was the basis for Akira Kurosawa’s film Rashōmon.” (Lydia)
River by Esther Kinsky (translated by Iain Galbraith): One of the unsung attractions of London is the transitional areas at the edges, where city meets country meets industry meets waterfowl meets isolated immigrant laborer. A book in which scarcely anything ever happens, River is, however, filled with life. Resolute in her take on the terrain as the outsider looking in, Kinsky skillfully chronicles the importance in our lives of the homely, the unobserved and the irrepressibly present. A book for those who would gladly reread W.G. Sebald but wish he had written about people more often. (Il’ja)
The Real Lolita by Sarah Weinman: Sarah Weinman uncovers that Sally Horner, an 11-year-old girl who was kidnapped in 1948, was the inspiration for Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. Through her thorough research, Weinman learns that Nabokov knew much about Horner’s case and made efforts to disguise this fact. Megan Abbott writes that The Real Lolita “offers both nuanced and compassionate true-crime reportage and revelatory cultural and literary history. It will, quite simply, change the way you think about Lolita and ‘Lolitas’ forever.” (Zoë)
The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar: Shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, Gowar’s debut novel features a prosperous merchant whose life is thrown into chaos when he receives a mermaid and meets a mysterious, older woman. In a starred review, Kirkus describes the the novel as ambitious “with enough romance, intrigue, and social climbing to fill a mermaid’s grotto to the brim.” (Carolyn)
After the Winter by Guadalupe Nettel (translated by Rosalind Harvey): A story about love and consciousness that takes place in Havana, Paris, and New York, by the Mexican author who Katie Kitamura called “a brilliant anatomist of love and perversity…each new book is a revelation.” (Lydia)
The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell: A runaway hit in the UK already, this memoir of bookselling in remote Scotland is now published in the U.S. by Melville House. Dwight Garner called it “Among the most irascible and amusing bookseller memoirs I’ve read.”
Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke by Sarah Smarsh: An uncomfortable reality of contemporary American society, one of many, is that where social mobility is concerned, the so-called American Dream is best achieved in Denmark. If you’re born into poverty here, in other words, hard work won’t necessarily pull you out. In Heartland, Smarsh blends memoir—she comes from a long line of teen mothers and was raised primarily by her grandmother on a farm near Wichita—with analysis and social commentary to offer a nuanced exploration of the impact of generational poverty and a look at the lives of poor and working-class Americans. (Emily)
Writers Under Surveillance: The FBI Files by MIT Press (ed., JPat Brown, B. C. D. Lipton, and Michael Morisy): Obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests by MuckRock, a nonfiction dedicated to increasing government transparency, this collection reveals former FBI investigations against writers such as James Baldwin, Hannah Arendt, and Allen Ginsberg. (Carolyn)
The Dictionary of Animal Languages by Heidi Sopinka: A novel based on the life of the surrealist painter Leonora Carrington, who Sopinka interviewed for The Believer before the artist’s death. Our own Claire Cameron said of the book, “With stunning prose, lavish details, deep wisdom, and emotional precision, reading this book is like falling in love–my interest in everything else was lost.” (Lydia)
These Truths by Jill Lepore: A one-volume history of the United States by the brilliant writer and historian, focusing on the promises and contradictions of the republic. Henry Louis Gates Jr. says “With this epic work of grand chronological sweep, brilliantly illuminating the idea of truth in the history of our republic, Lepore reaffirms her place as one of one of the truly great historians of our time.” (Lydia)
My Pet Serial Killer by Michael Seidlinger: Writer and Electric Literature alumnus Seidlinger has written a horror novel that Alissa Nutting calls “A rowdy menagerie of the unexpected, this book will delight and disturb even the bravest of readers; all preconceptions of what to trust and what to fear are masterfully upended.” (Lydia)
A Key to Treehouse Living by Elliot Reed: A novel in glossary form narrated by an orphan growing up in the midwest. Joy Williams calls the book, “Disorienting, weirdly wise, indescribably transparent, impossibly recognizable. Fun, too.” (Lydia)
The Personality Brokers by Merve Emre: The Myers-Briggs personality test is the most popular test of its kind in the world, and affects life in ways large and small–from the hiring and career development practices of Fortune 500 companies, to time-wasting Facebook tests to, amazingly, people’s Twitter bios. (I’m allegedly an ENFP, incidentally.) As it happens, the test was contrived by a team of mother-daughter novelists with a Jung obsession. Scholar and trenchant literary critic Emre uses archival research to tell this story, revealing the fictions woven into a supposedly “scientific” instrument. (Lydia)
Static Flux by Natasha Young: From the streets of Brooklyn to the hills of Los Angeles, this witty debut novel follows Calla—a millennial with a personality disorder—as she leaves post-Great Recession New York for LA after failing to make it as a writer. (Carolyn)
Near the beginning of My Brilliant Friend, the first of Elena Ferrante’s series of novels about a complicated friendship between two women from the slums of Naples, the girls, then in elementary school, play hooky and sneak out of “the neighborhood,” their claustrophobic network of courtyards and stairwells filled with violence and poverty. Lenú and Lila aim for the sea. Though Naples is a port city, neither of them has seen the “vague bluish memory” of water. After hours of walking, Lila becomes suddenly afraid and turns them back, while Lenú, usually the timid one, discovers that distance “extinguished in me every tie and every worry.”
The Neopolitan Novels, as they are known, expand this dynamic tension between the pull of Naples, the city, and the expansion of the girls’ consciousness as Italy enters the modern era. This is a story of self-realization alongside the self-realization of a nation. Acutely sensitive to the workings of class and power, Ferrante subtly works in black market war profiteers, fascist collaborators, mafiosi, the workers’ movements and radical terrorism of the 1960s and ’70s, and the arrival of wealth and consumer goods to Italy’s new middle class. Ferrante attaches the story of Lenú and Lila to the history of postwar Italy in a way that never feels contrived.
That’s also the history of feminism in Italy, a story that remains unfinished. Lenú escapes the confines of the neighborhood thanks to her book smarts, but remains tethered to Lila, and to the alienation and difficulty that makes “the form of a female body break.” The burden of the physical, the invisible work that makes up women’s lives, is a recurring theme in Ferrante. Radical Italian feminists once proposed wages for housework, but Ferrante is writing, after all, in the Italy where Silvio Berlusconi hosts bunga bunga parties with underage girls, and jokes that to prevent rape, the country needs “as many soldiers as there are beautiful Italian women.” In Ferrante’s early novel The Days of Abandonment, set in contemporary Italy, the protagonist has a breakdown trapped in her apartment. Her children whine and one falls ill; it’s unnervingly possible she may ignore them entirely. She mentally runs through her chores to calm herself. “The vomit stained sheets. Run the vacuum.” “Housecleaning,” is the last word of the chapter, sinking like a sentence.
I wonder if, for the American reader, part of Ferrante’s appeal is that her Italy — with its complicated women and its political history — is an antidote to popular destination literature and visions of expat romance like Eat, Pray, Love, Under the Tuscan Sun, or Beautiful Ruins. The next and final installment of the Neapolitan novels, which have become a surprise hit in the U.S., will be brought out in English this year (her website says only that an as yet untitled fourth volume in the series will be published in September 2015). In the meantime, here are a few suggestions for those hungering for more of Ferrante’s dark Naples and Italian feminist heroines.
A History of Contemporary Italy
Ferrante’s heroines, Lenú and Lila, are born in Naples in 1944, at the very end of World War II. In September 1943, American troops landed south of Naples and marched up the peninsula after the Germans, who retreated looting and killing along the way. Italy — a country then less than a century old — soon found itself “with national state authority having dissolved, two occupying armies and three Italian governments…claimed the obedience and allegiance of the Italians,” writes Paul Ginsborg in History of Contemporary Italy, an exhaustive accounting of Italian politics from the war to the 1980s, paying special attention the position of Italy’s poorest, in the South.
Naples, with over one million inhabitants, was devastated and impoverished by the war. Sewers and water systems barely functioned, Allied bombing left 200,000 homeless, and the black market commandeered what little supplies existed. Ginsborg quotes an Allied report describing “many hundreds of urchins” roaming the streets, “pimping, prostitution of minors, acting as ‘fences’ for stolen goods, etc.,” and “little girls ill and pregnant, at thirteen and even twelve years of age.” Even as Italy experienced enormous economic growth in the 20th century, the South continued to lag stubbornly behind, remaining until today the poorest part of Italy. Ginsborg also explains the consolidation of the reign of the mafia, romanticized in American mob movies and exposed as very real in Gomorrah, Roberto Saviano’s account of the mafia wars of the early 2000s. The children that Saviano finds fed into the Camorra’s violent underworld are modern-day remnants of the destitution that has long characterized Naples: the city’s reputation is still dirty, difficult, and dangerous.
In the spring of 1944, Mount Vesuvius erupted violently. American troops captured footage of villagers on the outskirts of Naples preparing to evacuate, holding a religious procession before billowing ash filled the streets and smashed their homes. It must have seemed like the end of the world.
This is the dark setting of The Skin, a novel by Curzio Malaparte, a former fascist and political shapeshifter, perhaps better known now for his pink modernist villa on the rocks of Capri, where Bridgitte Bardot sunbathes nude in Contempt. The book’s narrator is an Italian Army captain also named Malaparte who has been assigned to escort occupying American officers around the “dreadful Neopolitan mob.” (The novelist, born Kurt Suckert, invented his name, which means “the bad part,” the opposite of Bonaparte.) Dressed in the bullet torn uniforms of dead Allied soldiers, Malaparte and his troops now have “to show ourselves worthy of the shame of Italy,” a people simultaneously liberated and conquered. Malaparte’s Naples is lurid and apocalyptic. He applies caustic humor equally across the decaying pretensions of European aristocrats, the naïve crowds cheering the arrival of U.S. troops, and the dangerously blithe good faith of the Americans. Misogyny abounds: the only women are prostitutes and Nazi collaborators, easy metaphors for Italy’s prone postwar position.
But Malaparte’s chilling prose and bantering wit animate the most surreal horrors of postwar deprivation. The book’s finale is a frenzy at the summit of Vesuvius after its eruption, where supplicants pray and fling offerings into the volcano beneath the “blood-soaked sponge” of the moon. All the book’s cynicism rises to a sincere effort to make sense of the sacrifice the country made to war.
Discovery of the World
Luciana Castellina was 14 in 1943, when she began keeping a “political diary.” On the day it begins, she played tennis with the daughter of the fascist leader Benito Mussolini. The girl was called off the courts abruptly — her father had been turned out of government and arrested. Four years later, when her teenage journals end, Castellina has become a student radical and gone to volunteer building railroads in Communist Yugoslavia. Discovery of the World: A Political Awakening in the Shadow of Mussolini, is a memoir “reconstructed” from these diaries, so we get rather a lot of Castellina, now an elderly former politician and prominent figure on the Italian left, interrupting to explain her younger self. Nonetheless, the diary excerpts are charming. They begin with a dutiful student whose notebooks are marked with her fascist party membership number, to whom the war arrives as the sudden need to hide Jewish relatives, to smuggle rations, and to await the Allies while hiding from their air raids. Later, she learns about the resistance, becomes enmeshed in Communist politics and debates on modernist painting and the atom bomb. It was a historic intellectual moment, when fascism’s fall seemed to have created an opening for utopian political reforms. Though it may be hard to follow for someone unfamiliar with the history of the European left, there’s still something infectious and familiar in the adolescent excitement that declares, one day, “It’s two years since Rome was liberated. What have I learned? Almost nothing. My ideas are more confused than ever,” and on another, “I am happy with everything. The world is mine and I want everything.”
The Art of Joy
“The world is mine and I want everything” might be a motto for Modesta, the ironically named firebrand heroine of The Art of Joy, a novel by Goliarda Sapienza. Completed in 1976, the book didn’t find a publisher until decades later, saturated as it is with sex and blasphemy (one Italian critic called it “a pile of iniquity.”) If Ferrante elegantly weaves history through her protagonists’ lives, Sapienza’s Modesta drags the 20th century behind her by the hair. Born in 1900 in a peasant hut in Sicily, she rises through a mix of guile and happenstance to become the unorthodox matriarch of a prosperous family. Her purpose in life is the pursuit of pleasure and freedom from authority in any form: she battles Catholicism, fascism, Freudianism, and even the demands of lovers and children. She realizes very young in life “how many false concepts I had fallen victim to.” Self-educated in business, politics, and history, she determines to take up every word she encounters, “wipe away the mold, free them from the deposits of centuries of tradition, invent new ones, and above all discard and no longer use…the most corrupt ones, such as sublime, duty, tradition, self-denial, humility, soul.” The first half of Sapienza’s mammoth book is that breathless wreckage, as Modesta’s self emerges from an angry, eccentric, and impoverished child. Later, it sometimes lapses into didactic dialogue and tedious political exegeses. But the initial brilliance of the book is, as with Ferrante, in watching the formal evolution of the narrator’s voice from the sensual environs of childhood to a sharp awareness of herself and her place in history.