Carmine Abate: Il ballo tondo (The Round Dance)
Carmine Abate comes from the Arbëreshë community. These are people who are ethnically Albanian but who fled Albania and, in particular, the Ottoman Empire between the 14th and the 18th centuries and settled in Italy. While they are still there, many emigrated to the Americas. This novel is about a community of Arbëreshë. The main action is set in Hora, a small Arbëreshë town in Calabria. We start with a legendary tale of Costantino il Piccolo (i.e. the Youngest). he is married for only three days when he has to go off and fight. After nine years he has a dream that his wife is about to marry someone else so he hurries back and just stops the marriage in time.
Our hero, Costatino Avati, knows this story partially because of the name of the hero but also because something similar happened with his parents. His father, nicknamed Mericano because he went to the US, has also spent much time working in Germany.
Costatino knows the legend of the arrival of his people in Italy and for him , it is Skanderbeg who is the hero, not Garibaldi. He also looks up to his grandfather, Nani Lissandro, who is very knowledgeable of the history and traditions of his people and imparts this knowledge to his grandson. More than once Costantino claims to have seen a real two-headed eagle, the Albanian symbol, though most do not believe him.
When he gets to school , he cannot find any reference to the Arbëreshë in the books or maps and the teacher denies there is such a place and punishes pupils who speak Arbëreshë. The teacher is advised by a group of locals to leave and he is replaced by by Carmelo Bevilacqua who, though Italian, is sympathetic and interested in the local culture. He is also interested in Costantino’s sister Lucrezia.
The absent father finally returns, accompanied by a friend, Valentini Narciso. It is clear that Mericano plans to marry his other daughter, Orlandina, to Valentini. Everything seems to be arranged and everyone seems to know about the planned wedding, except for Orlandina.
Things change when, after a further trip to Germany, Mericano returns with a lot of money saved and plans to buy the estate of Castello del Piccolo, with its small, castle.
This book is certainly a homage to the Arbëreshë culture, their way of life and their history and it is one of those novels – Cien Años de Soledad (One Hundred Years Of Solitude) – is the obvious comparison, though there are many more – where the village is the world. We hear about other places both in Italy and elsewhere but nearly everything happens in Hora and for most of the characters, Hora is the world.
However it is also a Bildungsroman. We follow the story of Costatino. Like his grandfather, he is very enthusiastic about Arbëreshë culture. He collects old tunes and legends and delves into the history of Skanderbeg, who is clearly his hero. As mentioned, he claims to have seen a two-headed eagle (the symbol of Albania) flying overhead but he is mocked and told that is probably just two gulls flying close together. Despite some doubts, he sticks to his story. His relationship with his grandfather, the carrier of the tradition, is far better than his relationship with his father, who is often away working in Germany. Inevitably he has a romantic liaison with a colourful young woman whom he links to his favourite legend : Once upon a time there was a king’s son who ate ricotta. While he was cutting bread, he also cut his finger, and so the ricotta was stained with blood. As soon as he saw the blood on the ricotta, he was fascinated by the scene, and he said: I absolutely must find a girl as beautiful as blood and ricotta. And then…
His sisters have their romantic problems. Orlandina is seemingly engaged without her knowledge, while Lucrezia is engaged (with her knowledge) to Carmelo but he seems to think he has a higher calling in life, to help humanity, despite his keen interest in Arbëreshë culture.
While the women do a play a role, the focus is more on the men: Costatino, his father and grandfather and Carmelo, as well as Skanderberg who pops up frequently, with excerpts from his life and a statue built in his honour.
While there are few fireworks, this is really an enjoyable book, telling us about a culture that most of us will not have heard of and describing it sympathetically but, nevertheless, with all its foibles.
First published in 1991 by Marietti
First English translation in 2023 by Rutgers University Press
Translated by Michelangelo La Luna