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Fausta Cialente: Ballata Levantina (The Levantines)

The title may be somewhat misleading to English-speaking readers as the Levant is normally taken to mean what we used to call the Near East, i.e. Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria and most of Turkey. In this book the Levantines are the well-off European expatriates living in Egypt, primarily in Alexandria. Unsurprisingly, Cialente focusses on expat Italians but we meet people from other countries: Britain (which controlled Egypt during much of the period of this book). France and Greece being the key ones but not the only ones. Interestingly, though the book is set almost entirely in Egypt (with a couple of visits to France and Italy) we meet hardly any Egyptians, except as incidental characters. Most of the Italians in Egypt fled the Bourbon and papal persecutions of 1848 or are their descendants.

Our heroine/narrator is Daniela, named after her grandfather Daniele aka Mikail. He was a rich Greek and had been married when young. However his wife was perpetually ill so there was no prospect of any children. However he had an affair with his cousin and the result was two children, adopted by his wife, who died after fifteen years of ill health.

He later has an affair with a young (thirty years younger than him) dancer called Diamante. He will not marry her but treats her lavishly. They have two sons, Bernardo and Matteo who will both play a key role in this book. He then has another affair with another Italian dancer, Francesca and has a daughter, Leila, by her. The daughter marries and they have a child, our heroine, Daniela. Sadly her parents are both killed in an accident. Daniela is brought up by her grandmother, Francesca, still unmarried but seemingly very well-off.

Daniela gradually learns that while her grandmother has various friends, she is excluded from high society because she was a kept woman. We also learn that British high society rarely mixes with other Europeans.

Daniela spends a lot of time at what is known as the Hovel. The owner of the Hovel is Livia who seems to have made her money out of smuggling. She seems to be despised by many but though often bitter she looks after Daniela and, indeed, her often wayward husband. He is Matteo, son of Diamante. We learn that the two boys had essentially been brought up in a brothel. Bernardo now runs a fairly successful company, where Matteo works, but Matteo is interested in contemporary culture and left-wing politics and, indeed, Daniela learns a lot about modern literature, music and art from him and spends a lot of time at the Hovel. At her grandmother’s opulent house, she is looked after by her grandmother, Soàd, a former Nubian slave from Sudan who essentially runs the house and the various gossipy women who visit her grandmother. Eventually she is sent to school but refuses to return when one of the other girls suggests that her grandmother was a belly dancer. Tutors are hired to educate her.

She watches next door, where the Pasha has a harem (six wives, slaves and eunuchs). She and we gradually learn about her grandmother’s grandfather’s story.

One summer next door is rented out to a French family while the pasha and his entourage travel. While Daniela is playing in the hut she has built, with the help of the gardener, a boy climbs over the wall. He is Gilbert. He is an orphan and is with his aunt and uncle whom he does not like. They are bigoted and mean and he is perpetually hungry. He will be her first love and they use the hut for their trysting. When he leaves, he writes a couple of letters and then stops. She later learns he had gone missing and his drowned body had been found. The gardener destroys the hut and she realises that her childhood is over.

Her grandmother teaches her about men. You must never for any reason at all yield yourself until after marriage, sometimes it does happen that a man wants just one woman and no other. But generally men like a change, they would change every night if they could. Men are pigs; start from there and you’ll hardly ever go wrong, you’ve got to give men trouble that’s the thing to remember and men are liars. They lie about everything you know. However, she concludes by saying men are everything, the most important thing in our lives. Happiness, and success, our whole life depends on them. A woman without a man is sterile land.

Her grandmother has a stroke and she goes to live with Matteo and Livia. When her grandmother dies, it is discovered that she had a lot of debts. Livia manages to purloin a few valuable items for Daniela before the creditors get there. She also advises Daniela not to depend on men.

Matteo and Daniela are invited to his lakeside villa in Italy. In what appears to be a family trait, Bernardo has a mistress, Cosima, but he has declined to marry her, though has made a few promises that he would. When he does not she has tantrums and smashes. the place up At the villa, Daniela learns that Matteo is not faithful to Livia and has a German mistress with him.

From here on we follow the gradual approach to World War II, starting with Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia and the Spanish Civil War. Matteo and his friends are very much opposed to Mussolini and Franco while many of the other expats in Alexandria are in favour of both. The Levantines lead their somewhat messy lives. Affairs, adultery, gossip and bitchiness seem to be the order of the day. No-one seems happy. Most marriages/relationships seem unhappy with arguments, extramarital affairs and general unpleasantness. Daniela essentially has three relationships, none of which works out well. She has various jobs and helps the Allied cause in Cairo, even as we see the Italians and Rommel approaching Egypt. She also moves around and even buys a car. However, like virtually everyone else, she is something of a lost soul, unsure of what she wants and what to do with her life. While the war, of course, seems to make life worse, it seems that, apart from those Italians interned (though many have managed to get other passports) their life is no better or no worse during the war. Many of the Italians are opposed o Mussolini though most Englishmen just cannot understand how an Italian can possibly be against Mussolini who has done so much for Italy.

While this is certainly a fascinating portrait of a community which most English-speaking people will know very little about and is certainly a lively story, with a lot going on but little achieved, either in terms of happy relationships or a settled calm existence, it is neither uplifting nor cheering. It is probably safe to say that pretty well every character is often miserable and, if there is anything cheering in their life, it soon disappears as much if not more from human failings rather than outside events such as war. Cialente herself spent much time in Alexandria with her husband during this period so we must assume that at least some of it is autobiographical and based on actual people and events.

Publishing history

First published by Feltrinelli in 1961
First English translation in 1962 by Houghton Mifflin
Translated by Isabel Quigly