Elsa Morante: L’isola di Arturo (Arturo’s Island)
Morante’s second novel is set on the island of Procida, the third island in the Bay of Naples and the one generally not known to foreign tourists. At the time of this novel – early in the twentieth century – it was rarely visited by foreigners. For Arturo, who loves his island, it becomes a symbol of his isolation from the real world as does the major building on the island, the castle, which was then and was, indeed, till 1988 a prison. Arturo’s father, Austrian by origin, called Wilhelm Gerace, has inherited a house that used to be a monastery. The previous owner, whom they call the Amalfitano (The Amalfian) was a dyed-in-the-wool misogynist. Effectively, apart from the brief stay by Arturo’s mother, who died giving birth to Arturo, no woman has lived in the house for over two hundred years, a fact of which Arturo and his father are very proud. Wilhelm is not particularly home-loving and spends ten months of every year travelling. We don’t know where he goes but Arturo surmises that he travels round the world, having exciting adventures like the ones Arturo reads about in his books. Arturo looks forward to his father’s return as they go fishing, swimming and hunting together.
But most of the time, the young Arturo is left to his own devices, except for the servants who look after him. This does not bother him at all, as he grows up on the island, enjoying what the island has to offer, as well as his books and dreams. He is eagerly awaiting his sixteenth birthday, when his father has promised to take Arturo with him on his travels. However, one day, Wilhelm turns up with a woman, who is, he tells Arturo, his new wife, Nunziatella. After initially getting on with her, Arturo soon becomes jealous of her, as she takes his father away from him and he starts to despise her. Wilhelm is now spending more time at home, though this gradually changes. Nunziatella eventually gets pregnant and has a baby boy – Carmine Arturo – while Wilhelm is still on his travels. Gradually, Arturo’s views change as he grows up and Nunziatella makes an effort to be nice to him, particularly after a failed and rather dramatic suicide attempt by Arturo.
Plot complications now start to abound as Arturo, approaching the age of sixteen, thinks he is falling in love with Nunziatella and when he is gently rebuffed by her, starts having an affair with her friend, Assunta. Then he sees his father returning from one of his trips and following one of the prisoners to the prison. He later sees his father trying to communicate with the prisoner in what Arturo thought was a secret whistling code known only to Arturo and his father, and finds his father rebuffed. When the prisoner is freed, Arturo learns a few things about his father, his eyes are (somewhat) opened and the novel ends with his departure from the island, apparently forever.
The symbolism of the island and the prison is a bit overworked but Morante tells a fascinating story of a boy who effectively lives in an enclosed world with little contact with the outside world. He is completely unaware, for example, of the impending war (World War 1, presumably) and cares even less. Till his departure at the end, he had never left the island and had had virtually no contact with people from elsewhere. He becomes arrogant, smug and self-satisfied, not to mention as misogynistic as his father. His stepmother does have an effect on him but then so does puberty. An interesting idea, well carried out.
First published 1957 by Einaudi
First English translation 1959 by Knopf