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Grazia Deledda: Elias Portolu (Elias Portolu)

Deledda’s best-known novel is set in her beloved Sardinia. Indeed it is set near Nuora, her home town. Deledda is associated with the Verismo school, a school of realism that was inspired by naturalism and included Italian writers such as Giovanni Verga and Luigi Capuana. This novel tells a realistic story, set in Sardinia but one that is full of local colour. Deledda treats us to the full panoply of Sardinian culture and life, from the glories of the landscape and weather, to local customs, the language (the Italian text is full of Sardinianisms), the food and, of course, the values and behaviour of the Sardinians. Though when she wrote this, she had moved away from Sardinia, Deledda remained attached to Sardinia, its people and customs and this shows clearly in this book.

Elias Portolu had been imprisoned on the mainland for petty theft and, at the beginning of the book, is returning to Sardinia. He is welcomed by his family, with his mother, in particular, greeting him, while hoping that prison has taught him a lesson and that he will give up drinking and associating with bad company. She is very glad, for example, to hear that while he was in prison, when he was ill, he prayed to Saint Francis and vowed to say a prayer in the local church dedicated to Saint Francis on his return, which he does, with his mother. While he has been away, his older brother, Pietro, has got engaged to Maddalena, whom Elias has never met . Everyone speaks highly of her. At the party held to celebrate Elias’ return, Pietro and Maddalena are not there. When they finally do turn up and Elias meets Maddalena, he falls in love with her immediately. The rest of the book deals with consequences of this action.

Elias is, of course, mortified when he realises what has happened. He cannot contemplate the possibility of taking away his brother’s fiancée. He seeks out the advice of various people, particularly two – one a priest, Porcheddu, and the other an atheist, Martinu, known as the wild man of the wood. Both are sympathetic. Porcheddu, understandably, advises Elias to forget the whole matter and find another woman to love. When Elias suggests that one way out would be for him to become a priest, Porcheddu counsels against it, as Elias’ motives would not be pure. Martinu is more pragmatic, counselling Elias to tell his brother that he loves her and, as now seems, she loves him and that it would be ridiculous to ruin the lives of two people. Elias, naturally, rejects this solution. Meanwhile, the wedding day draws near and Elias contemplates going away, while it is clear that Maddalena does not love Pietro. Nevertheless, the pair get married. It is not a happy marriage. Pietro takes to drink and is abusive towards his wife. Elias stays but is miserable and his mother is well aware of this. Again he contemplates leaving and again he thinks about becoming a priest. Martinu advises him to find another woman but he cannot contemplate living with anyone except Maddalena. Maddalena and Elias see each other in secret but thing start to get worse when Elias finally makes the decision to become a priest and Maddalena gets pregnant.

Deledda tells her story well, even if Elias’ prevarication drags on somewhat. He is, of course, bound by the code of honour of his people – loyalty to his older brother and to his family and certain standards of behaviour, at least in public. However, it is clear that he does use the priesthood as an escape rather than as a genuine vocation and that, ultimately, the church authorities go along with this, perhaps, in part, to avoid any scandal in the family. It is a good book for its time, even though its main attraction now may be more anthropological than literary, with Deledda giving us a full portrait of contemporary Sardinia.

Publishing history

First published in 1903 by Roux & Viarengo
First English translation in 1995 by Northwestern University Press
Translated by Martha King