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Ginevra Bompiani: Vecchio cielo, nuova terra [Old Sky, New Earth]
This is a short novel and reads more or less as a short story. If I had to sum up the story it would be with the quote from Henry Thoreau, picked up by Pink Floyd, lives of quiet desperation. Guido and Costanza are old. Indeed, at the start of the book they are referred to merely as grandpa and grandma. They live in Rome. Guido is a retired army officer. They live with Elisa, Guido’s simple-minded sister, their maid, Rosario, and Tuscia the (female) cat and Atalanta, the (female and very virgin) dog. The two animals are key, as Bompiani cleverly portrays their behaviour, as mirroring that of the other inhabitants. There are, she maintains, cats and cat people, those who live in themselves, and dogs and dog people, those who live in what she calls an uneasy exile, i.e. who are visibly dependent on others. Cats are very sure in their catness but dogs are not always sure of their dogness. Costanza is a cat person and Guido a dog person. Alessandro, Costanza’s brother, used to live with them, but he died ten years ago. He was a composer, though only one record of his work was ever recorded, a series of piano pieces, so he worked primarily as a piano teacher. Alessandro had lived with his and Costanza’s younger sister, Cecilia, in their parents’ old house in Milan, all his life, till she died of cancer. The death had left him devastated, so much so that he did not come to the funeral but disappeared for ten days, before he was found wandering around Rome. He later wrote his finest piece, Ode to Saint Cecilia. He then came to live with Guido and Costanza but deteriorated, getting up only during the night. Costanza claims that he used to prefer her as a child but lost interest in her when she started being interested in the opposite sex. Cecilia always remained devoted to him. Being shy, not pretty, nervous and dressing badly, men were never attracted to her.
Guido himself had some artistic talent but once he met Alessandro, he realised that, to be an artist, meant giving up power and he was not prepared to do that. He likes order but not as much as his wife, who likes everything in its place. This was symbolised by their garden. The gardener was fired – no reason was given – and the garden started to fall into disarray. Costanza likened this increasing disarray to wind coming in from the desert, the obverse of the desert-into-garden theme of the American Western. And she likens it to a Western she had seen of the desert wind blowing into a small town, to reveal a unshaven, dangerous-looking stranger, possibly A Fistful of Dollars. The trend to disorder had been accentuated when she was mugged by two youths. Since then she has stayed at home, watching TV and reading magazines and books with happy endings. Guido himself rarely goes out except to walk the dog on Sundays. Rosario, who is Galician, and mangles Italian, even slipping in some Spanish words, writes to her family, telling them that this family is mad.
Elisa at 65 is the youngest of three but behaves as though she is the oldest. As a child she had four elder brothers who watched very carefully over her. She was always trying to sneak out but always accosted by one of her brothers who brought her back. When she finally did get away, she got pregnant but miscarried when her father died and since then lived with her mother and, after her brother’s death, with Guido and Costanza. During the course of this story, her bird will die, Rosario will throw it away but, wishing to give it a proper burial, she goes to retrieve it from the rubbish and then wanders off, to be brought back later, after having fallen while climbing a wall, still seeking to escape. Guido, meanwhile, is writing a tribute to his brother-in-law. Bonomo, whose real name is Bruno Bonomi, their son-in-law (Bonomo and his wife had divorced and both remarried, though Bonomo’s second wife had subsequently died) comes to lunch with his daughter (Guido and Costanza’s grand-daughter) Cristina and her boyfriend. Cristina, we learn, had previously been a drug addict but has been treated for it. The story ends with Bonomo concluding that we can only make the best of what we have or, in other words, live our lives of quiet desperation.
This is a story that shows a slice of life, with backward glances to show what led the characters to where they are. Bompiani makes the somewhat cynical comment that couples do eventually drift apart but also says that this is natural and normal. In short, as entropy increases and disorder reigns outside us, we must, as the cat does, live within ourselves and try and set up our own life, or struggle like the dog, trying to deal with others.
First published 1988 by Garzanti
No English translation