Maurizio Maggiani: Il romanzo della nazione [The Novel of the Nation]
Calling your novel The Novel of the Nation could be considered to be either arrogant or merely tongue in cheek. As Maggiani does not do humour, at least in this novel, I shall go for the former view, not least as he implies that his family more or less represents the nation, in this case, obviously, Italy.
When I started, I anticipated that this novel would be a sort of potted Italian history as seen through the eyes of one family. To a limited degree it is but, I stress, only to a limited degree. Above all it is the story of his family and what can best described as a combination of a son’s obsession with his father, with whom he does not seem to have had a very good relationship (and, to be honest, not much better with his mother) and the story of his family, particularly his father.
The other key theme is death and as that is where Maggiani starts, I shall start there. He starts, of course, with the death of his father. He sees his father as somehow representing Italy, the repository where the remains of the nation were kept. The casket. Again a bit arrogant.
His father had Alzheimer’s – the darkness as he (the father) described it. He was looked after by a nurse. We know little about her, though she plays a fairly significant role, except that she is foreign, a devout Catholic (she watches over the body after he dies) and she is big, as she is invariably called The Giantess. No name is ever given. She is compared to the nurse of the mother (who died before). This nurse is Puerto Rican. Our narrator was not around when his mother died. The nurse immediately left, leaving only a bill for her services.
The death of his father has, he says, somewhat derailed his plans for The Novel of the Nation ,as he wanted to get more information from his father. However, clearly it has not derailed it too seriously as I have just read the book. He does add that his mother also tried to derail the book.
His parents were both deadly serious. Focussing on his father, as he does, we learn that he rarely spoke to his father. Indeed, apart from to his friend, his father rarely spoke. There was no affection between his parents. He comments, for instance that his mother (both parents enjoyed music), sang about love but never used the word in her life in normal conversation. Indeed, he never saw his parents kiss one another.
His father had had a tough upbringing. His father essentially starved him and his brother, as he was always broke. The grandfather, i.e. his father’s father (Riccardo) was hated by his two sons and they could not wait to get away.
As we are on grandfathers, there is far more about Garibaldo (yes, named after Garibaldi), his mother’s father. He first comes to notice when naming his daughter (the future mother of our narrator). The tradition is to use religious names. Garibaldo’s wife wanted to call her daughter Maria, at the suggestion of the local priest. Garibaldo is having none of it and wants her called Adorna, not a Christian name and a very unusual name. (Interestingly, Maggiani wrote a book called La Regina Disadorna, which translates literally as The Queen Unadorns. This may or may not be relevant. It has been translated but not into English.)
The priest refused to baptise the child Adorna. However, Garibaldo had a friend in the registry office and he accepted the name, so Adorna she was called. Even the priest eventually accepted the name, not least because he was apparently more scared of Garibaldo than of God.
Getting back to Dino (the narrator’s father), he and his brother went off to military school (this was during the Fascist period), not least to get something to eat. Dino fought in the desert campaign in World War II and was at El Alamein, where he had to drink his own urine to avoid dying of thirst, was deafened by the sound the shells and got malaria.
Back home, he joined the Resistance and went to the nearest house to get food. This was Garibaldo’s house where he ignored Garibaldo’s beautiful daughter and concentrated on the food. He continued to do so till after the war when he then focussed on the daughter, Adorna, whom, we know, he married.
He became something of a Communist, worked hard all his life as an electrician and, as we know became austere. Both he and his wife despised their son for his literary career, not real work and therefore immoral. His son was therefore surprised to find, death, thirteen poems his father had written, including the following:
A mia moglie Adorna.
Nella mia solitudine
Nel mio silenzio interno
Una musica suona
Una dolce sinfonia
Nel mio cuore arido
Si è accesa una luce
Tutto questo sei tu.
Questa luce sei tu.
To my wife Adorna
In my solitude
In my internal silence
A sweet symphony
In my arid heart
A light has come on
You are all of this
You are this light
The third last line was crossed out but still legible.
As far as the narrator (Maurizio because he was born on St Maurizio’s day) is concerned, he never showed any such affection in his life.
As we are on his birth… His birth was very difficult. He only appeared two days after his mother’s waters broke, nearly killing her in the process. (He likens his birth to the Big Bang for, as far as he was concerned, his birth was the beginning of the Universe. More arrogance.) Incidently, during the whole process, Dino took time off work but sat on a chair reading a book, never enquiring about the health of his wife or son. Garibaldo had really, really wanted a grandson and here is why. (We are back to the death theme.)
Garibaldo had a favourite son (as well as daughters), called Cesare but invariably known as Cesarino. Cesarino used to sleepwalk but his mother would steer him back home. Garibaldo was the local customs officer and he had a shed where the contraband was locked up. One night he heard a noise and suspected thieves. He took his gun and went out. He heard a noise and challenged the person. Three times. The person continued. He fired low, aiming at the thigh. It was, of course Cesarino and low for him, as he was small, was his chest. He had killed his beloved son.
Maggiani is clearly not interested in plot as there is not really a plot, merely various tales of his family. He tells us that any human life is much longer, more interesting and certainly more intricate and zigzagging (his words) than any novel, hence how this novel is written. He does go off on tangents. For example, for some reason we follow the history and use of the La Spezia Naval Base where Garibaldo worked, not least as it seems a key part of the Italian nation’s history.
We follow our hero’s own life, particularly with his friend Giannino who,as like many young Italians of that era, listen to British and US rock music and get involved in demonstrations and the like. As our author likes death, we get more, such as Giannino’s eighty-year old mother who gets up in the middle of the night, unnoticed, as usual, by her husband, walks five-six kilometres and throws herself into the sea. But we also hear about the effect of the deaths of Martin Luther King and the Kennedy brothers.
The book opens with the line This is the story of a nation that has died. A bit melodramatic but, of course, meant to indicate that things have changed. Modern Italy is not like Italy of times past. The same, of course, probably applies to every country in the world.
Death, father-son relations, not showing affection, a life well lived, then and now, old age and its problems and, of course, death, are all themes of this book. It is a mishmash and I cannot see it being translated into English. (It has not been translated into any other language, as far as I can tell).
First published 2015 by Feltrinelli
No English translation