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Category Archive for 'Italy'

With an introduction written by Jhumpa Lahiri, Domenico Starnone’s TIES gets a warm endorsement for this short but densely thematic novel about the ties and connections among four members of one family after the father decides to leave home to live with a much younger woman. Following the family through three plot sections which move from the children’s early childhood until the parents are in their 70s and the children in their 40s, the novel deals with the fact that we can put into “boxes” many aspects of our past and sometimes our present, but our ability to keep those boxes closed and “tied” depends on our emotional health and determination. Additional themes are concerned with aging, with making commitments, with planning for the future (as opposed to living for the moment), with how we define love and its connection to freedom, and with our search for contentment and whether it can be construed as a kind of love, adding density to the themes. Even the relationship between parents and children and how those are tied by a complex relationship that involves elements of both love and obligation is illustrated here. Though this novel is short, it feels much longer and much broader, without becoming tedious or turning into an allegory. Starnone, aided by his sensitive translator, makes every word count in this domestic novel of big ideas, and he keeps the story exciting at the same time.

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Within a swirling time frame and several settings which change suddenly through unexpected flashbacks, Italian author Erri De Luca creates a character whose life breathes with subdued passion and the tragedy of sudden terror. Now fifty, the unnamed speaker is working as a gardener/landscaper on a large estate in Italy owned by Mimmo, a filmmaker, someone the speaker knew when they were youths in Turin. Leading a solitary life, the speaker is surprised one evening when an attractive younger woman flirts with him while she is eating lunch with another man at a tavern. After she’s gone, he plans what he might say if he were to see her again. He has had little social contact with other people in recent years, using his gardening skills and his connection with nature for his satisfaction – “caring more about it than about people.” For twenty years he lived in Argentina, participating in the “dirty war” there, “days filled with trouble, ruined by death that tears away clumps of us folks, stuffs thousands of the living, freshly plucked, into its sack.” As he tries to sort out his life, the reader learns of his marriage there, his traumas, and his wandering life since then, and as the speaker contemplates the meaning of his present condition, the novel works its way up to a grand climax and startling finale. Themes related to life and death, war and peace, fear and commitment, and responsibility and self-preservation combine to affect the conclusion. Erri De Luca has been described by Milan’s daily newspaper Corriere della Serra as “the only true first-rate writer that the new millennium has given us for now.”

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“The Alligator’s” metaphorical description of northeast Italy, especially the area around Padua, comes so vividly to life in his series of Mediterranean Noir novels that the reader might be excused for wondering how author Massimo Carlotto obtained his inside knowledge of crime and criminals. His writing feels real. His thoughts on the judicial system in Italy feel far more sophisticated and far more complex than what one would normally expect to see in a popular mystery series. His own views of what constitutes “justice,” if his main character Marco Buratti, “the Alligator,” can be considered his “voice,” are more “flexible” than those of any other author I can recall reading. At one point in this novel, Buratti, who works as an unlicensed private investigator, comments that “you can’t leave someone alive if he might decide without warning to pump you full of lead or else hire someone else to do it for him.” He adds that “in the underworld, when situations arise that threaten to end in a bloodbath, the thing to do, if possible, is to arrange for negotiations that will at least limit the number of corpses.” In this novel, like the others in the series, Carlotto features main character Marco Buratti, who, with two partners, undertakes very private investigations in which he must rely on formation from informants and from people friendly to him in the underworld. He cannot go to the police – he is an ex-con and unlicensed – and his partners became his friends when he was in prison. There is no absolute concept of right or wrong in Carlotto’s novels. Justice is what works in a given situation and leaves the greatest number of good people safe, the greatest number of most hateful people, punished. As Buratti says, “Improvisation only makes sense in jazz.”

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As the novel opens, Jean B. is in Milan. An explorer and maker of documentary films, he has become disenchanted with his job, and his private life is falling apart. His wife is having an affair with Cavanagh, his friend and partner in the film business. Privately, the discouraged Jean B. has decided to stage his own disappearance, instead of taking his scheduled flight to Rio to begin a new documentary. Flying to Milan instead of Rio, he takes off from Orly, but upon arriving in Milan, he never leaves the airport. Having convinced his family and fellow filmmakers that he has left on the announced flight for Rio, he turns around and secretly flies back to Paris, planning to stay in a Paris hotel, not at home, and to change hotels regularly so that he will not be discovered. At some point he plans to tell his wife what he is doing – but not yet. The superimposition of past and present, so often featured in the work of Nobel Prize-winning author Patrick Modiano becomes not only the primary aspect of the plot of this narrative, written in 1990, but also a controlling idea in its structure. Jean B., the main character, appears in episodes from the age of twenty through his late forties, as the narrative switches back and forth among time periods. Modiano writes spare prose with little lyricism, but he evokes emotions so real that many of us have become addicted to his writing, perhaps in the hope that what he discovers about life will be applicable to our own. As Modiano says, “ Circumstances and settings are of no importance. One day this sense of emptiness and remorse submerges you. Then, like a tide, it ebbs and disappears.”

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I had great hopes for this current novel, Darkness for the Bastards of Pizzofalcone, since author Maurizio de Giovanni had given just enough individualization of his four main characters in the previous novel, The Bastards of Pizzofalcone, to make me think he might go further this time, bringing his main characters even more fully to life; his use of some trademark humor in that novel also made me think that might continue in this novel. The first half of Darkness…. was in keeping with my high expectations, despite the emphasis on the word “darkness” in the title. The novel begins with the kidnapping of Dodo, a ten-year-old boy who brings his Batman action figure with him, the boy is not mistreated, despite his being confined to a dark room, and he chats with Batman – and the reader – without much sense of fear. That plot line is paralleled throughout by a second line in which a robbery takes place at the home of a well-to-do couple, though what is stolen is a mystery. A third line, which is included in the narrative but not as an investigation, involves a priest, Brother Leonardo Calisi, a good friend of Deputy Captain Giorgio Pisanelli, who is suffering from prostate cancer. The second half is less successful.

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