(Other Press, 2023)
The latest reading for APS Together, the group run by A Public Space and first set up in response to the COVID lockdowns, is a plague story out of Italy. Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed, completed in 1840, has long been revered at home (something like the Italian War and Peace), but recently the novel came to international prominence for how thoroughly, how chillingly, it portrays the ravages of a virus. In The Betrothed, the cataclysm visits seventeenth-Century Milan and poisons the entire fat seed-bag of narrative. But online, this spring, the discussion always made me think of a new novel⎯ Mario Fortunato’s South.
In Italy South appeared in the teeth of the pandemic, in mid-2020, but widespread disease is one of the few varieties of trouble that never tangles its many lines of plot. The novel instead details the impact of other calamities of the twentieth century, as it develops upwards of fifty characters, all linked somehow to two families down in Italy’s elongated toe, Calabria. Everyone’s knocked off their feet by major upheavals of their time and place. The scourges of Fascism and the Holocaust, along with their partisan backlash, shape the first half of the text, and the second dramatizes Italy’s challenges since Mussolini, both the boom of a new global economy (the text mentions both Fiat and Fellini) and the bust brought on by that same globalization. The novel also drops the name The Best of Youth, the Italian movie honored at Cannes in 2003, and in that story a Roman family comes apart, over the 1960s and ‘70s—not unlike Fortunato’s splintering Calabrian clans.
So sweeping a view, across a century and more, demands a narrative voice of both omniscience and subtlety, shifting registers without a hitch. It’s no easy trick, and South can sound for brief passages like a bean-counter, tabulating votes or the sales figures for Italian television. Now and again, too, it verges on the shrill, declaiming “that famous slogan… the personal is political.” Nevertheless, to the novel’s great credit, Fortunato never lets his storytelling stray far from somebody’s intimate life. Throughout, he relies on a highly sensitive measure for the warping brought on by vast cultural shifts, namely, the small cluster of folks in and around two extended families.
In both cases, the paterfamilias is designated only by a job title: the Notary and the Pharmacist. The device may seem dehumanizing, but in fact establishes that, amid the terraced hills of farm Italy, for most of the last century, they belong to a narrow social stratum. Members of the bourgeoisie, they enjoy some comforts, even a household staff (men and women mostly in lifetime positions). The Calabrians may rank nowhere near as high as Manzoni’s aristocracy, but they too must learn to adjust under pressures as inexorable as Manzoni’s plague. The changes are generally calibrated in summaries, rather than acted out in scenes—a common difference between American storytelling and the rest of the world’s—but those summaries are brought off with witty charm:
He was a cordial, expansive individual with a razor-sharp practical intelligence, thanks to which, from simple chauffeur, he had grown to be the Lawyer’s right-hand and left-hand man, his best friend and his alter ego.
Importantly, too, Fortunato’s women enjoy the same sharp-eyed attention, alert to surprises:
…for a few minutes Maria del Nilo abandoned the role of domestic help to which she had for a lifetime remained tenaciously faithful, and she etched herself into the memories of all present, in the form of a pint-sized Terpsichore, a down-at-the-heels goddess of the dance.
Such rhetoric asks a lot of a translator. The wordplay of “right-hand and left-hand man,” for instance, enlivens the summary, a gentle tease⎯ but the expression in Italian is very different. Julia MacGibbon pulls off a number of such difficult maneuvers, sustaining the vitality of a wide-ranging and densely peopled canvas.
The details of that canvas would never fit into a review, though then again, the plot defies any attempts at spoiling. Its vines coil off in all directions. I can say that the overall mood is elegiac, and even those who seem to have surmounted their hardships can ache with loss. One former partisan fighter mourns the homosexual lover he lost to the Nazis, and another man suffers over his lost Jewish heritage, even as he realizes that by tucking into “the provinces,… above all in the south” he shielded himself and his family from the camps. Several of the novel’s deaths sound notes that linger, operatic, and the most common literary reference (turning up in several chapter titles) is Proust’s long reverie of irretrievable time.
In short, while South runs a few hundred pages shorter than its models, it’s nonetheless weighty with history and sensibility. In Italy the book enjoyed great success, perhaps the capper to a distinguished career. Not that Fortunato’s previous novels did badly, they picked up a couple of awards, and he’s done literary and arts criticism all over the Continent (in The Guardian, for one). Still, this one is his first translated into English, and I imagine most American readers won’t be able to resist the comparison to Elena Ferrante. Her Neapolitan Quartet, after all, dramatizes many of the same countrywide changes. Myself, however, I’d single out a different fellow-traveler, the Colombian Gabriel García Márquez, whose performances tend to be wilder and more eccentric. Fortunato’s imagination, too, is chilled by the onset to autumn, and smothered in a magic rain of flower petals.