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Milena Agus: Mal di pietre (US: From the Land of the Moon; Australia: The House in Via Manno)

Neither English translation of the title reflects the Italian nor says much about the book. The Italian title works because it means kidney stones but translates literally as stone sickness which, to the Italian eye, will remind them of other kinds of sickness but, particularly, love sickness, which, to a great extent, this book is about. The story is told by a young Sardinian woman primarily about her paternal grandmother, but also about her other grandparents and her parents. However, the unnamed paternal grandmother is the focus. As a young woman, the grandmother was considered odd by her own family and insane by others. She was not violent or dangerous but prone to strange acts. For example, during church one time, she turned round and started making eyes at a young man, despite being told by her mother to desist. When she persisted her mother removed her from church while she cried out that she loved the boy and he loved her. As a result of her behaviour, though she sent passionate poems to and courted various young men, she received no offers of marriage till, in 1943, an older widower proposed to her. Her parents rapidly accepted, even though the couple have to live with them, as he has no property.

Neither seemed happy with this arrangement. Though they slept in the same bed, each slept as far over to the edge as possible, with the result that they often fell out. They used the polite voi form when speaking to one another. At her mother’s urging, she took him coffee in bed but left it at the end of the bed and then hurried away. For his sexual needs, he regularly went to the local brothel. But one day, in bed, he started to smoke and she was attracted by the smell of the tobacco. She made an agreement with him that if she did what the prostitutes did, he would put the money he would have paid to the prostitute into a box so that they could save for their own place, with a little bit left over for his tobacco. This they did and, eventually, they were able to get their own place. However, as we know from the title, grandmother had kidney stones which were painful and, in her view, prevented her from having children. Finally, she was sent to hot baths on the mainland. At first, she was lonely there. However, one day an elegant former sailor turned up. He was on crutches, as his ship had been sunk by the Germans and he had been sent to a concentration camp and then marched to the East in 1944-45. By the time the Americans had rescued him and his fellow prisoners, his leg was in a bad way and had to be amputated.

Grandmother and the sailor (also not named) became friendly and eventually started an affair. The sailor was married and lived in Genoa. He had a daughter but was well aware that he was not the father, as the child had been conceived and born while he was a prisoner-of-war. His wife had told him that the father was a partisan but he was of the opinion that the father was a Gestapo officer. Grandmother and the sailor ate together, slept together and spent time together. When grandmother returned home, she apparently knew his name but not where he lived and never received so much as a card from him. Nine months later, the narrator’s father was born. The narrator, eventually, puts two and two together and comes to the conclusion that the grandfather she knew and loved was not her biological grandfather but, rather, the mysterious sailor was.

The book tells the story of the family. The narrator’s father became a famous pianist. While he was still young, grandmother, i.e. his mother, had arranged for him to have piano lessons which she secretly paid for by working as a housecleaner for two old ladies who owned the piano. Eventually, they let her have the piano, with grandmother paying for it, also unbeknown to grandfather, by continuing to work for them. The family – grandfather, grandmother and father (when a young teen) – visit Milan, where the sailor was from. Grandfather and father go and look at the sights and go off to buy piano music, while grandmother searches for her lost lover. But the narrator does not entirely neglect the rest of the family, telling the more prosaic story of her mother and her parents and leaving us, right at the end, with a surprising plot twist.

As in her previous book, this is a witty and loving story of a quirky Sardinian family, though, like its predecessor, it does have a tinge of sadness to it. Both books are about looking for love and not really finding it or, at least, not finding the love they think they want. Perhaps the moral of the story is love the one you’re with.

Publishing history

First published 2006 by Nottetempo
First English translation in 2010 by Europa Editions (From the Land of the Moon), Scribe Publications (The House in Via Manno)
Translated by Ann Goldstein