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Michela Murgia: Accabadora (Accabadora)

Euthanasia is not a common theme for the novel but that is what this novel is about. Anna Maria Listru was the fourth child, all girls, of Anna Teresa and Sisinnio Listru. Anna Teresa said that fathering girls was the only thing her husband could do well. He could not even die well, being crushed by a tractor before Anna Maria was born, instead of being killed in the army when Anna Teresa would at least have had a widow’s pension. Anna Teresa has struggled to bring her daughters up on her own so when Bonaria Urrai proposes taking Anna Maria, she eagerly accepts. This is a form of adoption but less formal than the kind we know. There were no adoption papers. The child was taken into the home of Bonaria Urrai but maintained contact with her own family. She did not call Bonaria Urrai mother, though she was treated as a daughter. Apparently, this practice was not unknown in Sardinia where it has the name of fill’e anime, soul child. Anna Maria is treated well by Bonaria Urrai.

Anna Maria grows up like any other girl who is an only child. Bonaria Urrai had been engaged to the dashing Raffaele but he was killed at Pavia in the First World War, some thirty-five years ago. She has remained single ever since. As far as Anna Maria is concerned, Bonaria Urrai earns her living as a seamstress, for both men and women. She is a very good seamstress and does well. She also teaches Anna Maria the skill. Every so often, she is called out in the middle of the night. Anna Maria is concerned about this but does not know why and Bonaria Urrai refuses to tell her. What we soon know, if we had not guessed from the title, is that Bonaria Urrai is an accabadora. The word might translate literarily as something like finisher but what it really is involves what we would call mercy killing or euthanasia. Bonaria Urrai visits the house of someone who is clearly dying. She is adamant that the patient must be on his or her last legs. When she is called out to a man who can clearly speak and is not yet dying, she curses the family for calling her out before his time is due. However, if she is sure that the person is really dying, she smothers him/her with a pillow.

Anna Maria is very fond of Andria Bastíu, with whom she goes to school. She enjoys his company, enjoys working with him at the grape harvest. He, however, is in love with her but is too shy to say so. When he does, more or less at the same time that she discovers what Bonaria Urrai does, there is the inevitable crisis. Anna Maria packs her bag and heads off to Turin where she works as a nanny for a well-to-do family. But that, too, does not work out, not least because Anna Maria may look like a woman but, in many ways, she is still a child. Bonaria Urrai is now dying so Anna Maria returns home and learns, as many of us do, that life is not always so simple and so black and white.

Murgia’s story of euthanasia is sympathetic. The custom may seem unacceptable to many but Murgia and Bonaria Urrai show that it has a value, that there is no point in uselessly prolonging a life of suffering where there is no hope of cure. Anna Maria is a fascinating character, naïve in many ways but intelligent and aware in others. What Murgia shows us is that she has to learn life the hard way and learn it she does.

Publishing history

First published in 2009 by Einaudi
First English translation 2011 by Maclehose Press
Translated by Silvester Mazzarella