Friday, October 14, 2011

Take me back to post-war Italy

A few recent spoils at $1.50 ea
Being a full-time mom and part-time teacher and proofreader means I have very little time to read for pleasure. This makes for one extremely picky reader who is particularly distrustful of fiction. If a novel hasn’t won the Man Booker prize or come personally recommended by my speed-reading stepmom, I’d much rather be leafing through a National Geographic article on Neanderthals or a book of interviews with British nuns as to why they took their vows. At least Neanderthals and nuns are not made up.

My snobbishness as a reader, however, stops at the English language. Because when it comes to books in Italian, my second language, I have much more vulgar tastes. My last supply of books in Italian came from a stall set up at Auckland’s latest Italian Festival fundraiser, a random assortment of second-hand books at $1.50 a pop.

Rummaging through all the dusty tomes on sedimentology and Topolino comic books for some sort of novel-like item, my only two criteria were that it 1) be a love story and 2) be set in post-war (or wartime) Italy. A nice understated cover would be a bonus, one with at least partially concealed breasts.

My uncomplicated tastes here have only partly to do with my ignorance of Italian literature and the fact that I faked my way through both my exams in letteratura italiana at university in Naples (because I couldn’t help but feel, like my fellow Italian students, that homegrown authors were not nearly as exciting as their Russian, French and, for goodness’ sake, American counterparts.) No, my preference has more to do with the post-war setting and the language generally used to describe it.

Here are a few things I love about post-war or wartime Italian novels. (This is a very personal list based on a sporadic and haphazard reading experience over the last few years, so I would strongly advise against echoing these ideas in any Italian Literature exam or on a dinner date.)

1) They tend to be set in small towns, the ones flung high up in the hills with a single piazza and fountain, at a time when Italy was definitely not considered cool.

2) Unlike today, there weren’t so many men hanging around in the piazza.

3) People were poor. The women wore thick woollen tights and shawls in the winter. They knitted and darned socks.

4) It was cold.

5) It wasn’t very clean: there were flies, soot, peeling plaster.

6) People were always building fires, with detailed descriptions of how the kindling, paper and logs were placed.

7) They ate strange meats like lark and jackrabbit.

8) There were no tourists or souvenir shops.

9) People were always drinking wine. Apparently, water wasn’t so trustworthy back then.

10) Descriptions of the setting tend to include detailed changes in the shapes of clouds at dawn, midday and sunset.

11) There were lots of interesting smells: burning wood, musty rooms, aromatic armpits, wild animals.

12) There was a lot of looking and not much touching.

13) The dialogue tends to be terse. Much goes unsaid.

14) They often have a meandering plot and a hanging – and usually unrewarding – ending. But who needs a satisfying plot when you have all this other great stuff?