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Rosetta Loy: Le strade di polvere (The Dust Roads of Monferrato)

This is a very simple account of a family in 19th century rural Italy, more or less from Napoleonic times to the latter part of the century. They are born, fall in love, go to war and die but nothing spectacular happens. Indeed, Loy makes it her business to not make this a spectacular book as there is relatively little dialogue, but merely narrative. This could have made for a very boring book but it is Loy’s skill to paint a beautiful portrait of this family and their actions and, in particular, their rural environment. Their attitude to war is one example of Loy’s skill of foregrounding the family to the exclusion of other events. War goes on all around. They see it or, at least, see the various armies passing by, though these armies are, to them, merely a spectacle to watch. They are involved as some of the men go off to fight but, even then, they are somewhat removed from the events. Luìs, for example, goes off to fight in 1848 and is confronted by three Austrians. He kills two, though the third flees. Though, afterwards he is afraid, the telling line is The day was unreal and the sun high beyond the trees, this just after he had killed the two men. Killing and war are unreal for this family.

It is not just killing and war that are distanced. Several family members die of disease and no death is better described than that of the eighteen month old Manin who, in death, is described as a beautiful child that everyone wanted to bend down and kiss. In short, her death is not seen as a tragedy but rather as an opportunity to praise her beauty. The book is full of these touches that make it a joy to read. Just don’t expect fireworks.

Publishing history

First published in Italian 1987 by Einaudi
First English translation 1991 by Knopf
Translated by William Weaver