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Riccardo Bacchelli: Il mulino del Po (The Mill on the Po)

Bacchelli’s novel is nearly 2000 pages long in three volumes so it makes for voluminous reading and tells an epic tale over three generations. The story starts during the Napoleonic Wars. Napoleon’s troops are retreating from Moscow in 1812. A group of men, who seem to have several Italians among them, arrives at the river Vop, in Russia. As one wit comments, when they went to Moscow, they were fat and the river was thin. Now it is the opposite. They have great difficulty in crossing. The captain in charge, Maurelio Mazzacorati, nearly drowns but is rescued by Lazzaro Scacerni. Mazzacorati dies anyway but, before he does, he gives Scacerni a letter which, he says, will get him wealth that Mazzacorrati pillaged from a convent in Spain. Scacerni manages, with difficulty, to get home but, as he cannot read, he does not know what to do with the letter. Finally, he manages to learn to read enough to know that he has to go to a Jew in Ferrara to get the riches. The Jew hands over gold and jewels, but will not buy it, leaving Scacerni with another problem. He goes to work for a ship-builder on the Po but, when the work runs out, decides to construct a mill with his wealth which, with difficulty, he manages to convert to cash.

The rest of the three volumes is about Scacerni and his descendants and the various problems they go through. Scacerni eventually gets married and he and his wife run the mill fairly during a difficult period. They face problems from bandits and the local mafia, from flooding, from non-payers and from a variety of other problems. The second volume is about his son, Giuseppe, who is involved in smuggling and does very well at it. He does have his problems. His son is killed with Garibaldi and a flood pretty well wipes him out. The final volume is about Cecilia, the widow of Giuseppe, who struggles to make ends meet. One of her sons is arrested for arson. The other son adopts a boy and calls him Lazzaro, after his grandfather. Lazzaro fights for Italy during World War I but is sadly killed while building a bridge of boats (reminiscent of his great-grandfather), ending the line.

Bacchelli’s story is rightly hailed in Italy as a great masterpiece, with its epic sweep of the Po region over a period of a hundred years. Bacchelli paints a rich portrait of the region and its people during this period and, despite its length, it is a rewarding read.

Publishing history

First published 1938 by Treves, Milan
First published in English 1950 by Pantheon (first two volumes); 1955 (third volume as Nothing New Under the Sun by Pantheon and Hutchinson)

Note the original Italian consists of three volumes – Dio ti salvi, La miseria viene in barca and Mondo vecchio sempre nuovo. The English translation is of the first two; the third volume was translated as Nothing New Under the Sun.
Translated by Frances Frenaye