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Anna Maria Ortese: Il cardillo addolorato (The Lament of the Linnet)

This novel opens at the end of the eighteenth century as three friends from Liège – a prince, Neville, a sculptor, Albert Dupré and a merchant, Alphonse Nodier – make their way to Naples, specifically to visit a famous glovemaker, Mariano Civile. At Civile’s house, they meet his two daughters, Elmina and Teresa. Elmina seems somewhat strange and aloof and Neville, in particular, has a very ambiguous feeling towards her but it is Dupré who finally marries her. However, over the course of the book, Ortese reveals a whole complex of strange events that may or may not have happened, of people who may or may not be related to one another or married to one another and of people who may or may not be who they are said to be. At the centre of the story is Elmina, who seems to be aloof not only to Neville but also to us as we tend to see her only through the eyes of others and we therefore get a very ambiguous portrait of her. Neville seems to the main source of information about her as he follows her, off and on, through her marriage, the birth and death of her son and her own death, gradually discovering more about her, each discovery giving him a different view of her.

The key symbol throughout the book is the eponymous linnet. Doubtless the translator chose the English title to get the alliteration but a better translation would be The Grieving Goldfinch as the Italian cardillo is Carduelis carduelis, which corresponds more to the goldfinch. Ignoring the ornithology, the bird – linnet or goldfinch – plays a key role in forming Neville’s view of Elmina. He hears two stories about her. Firstly, the day of their first arrival, it seems that she has forgotten to feed her pet cardillo and it has died of starvation. She casually feeds the corpse to the cat, who is too embarrassed to eat it. He later hears that, when she was young, she stole into her sister’s room, who was sleeping with her pet cardillo, strangled the bird and threw it out of the window (though it did recover). His view of her is substantially based on these two episodes, both of which turn out to be inaccurate. However, the bird has a greater role, becoming a symbol for the book. Ortese says in one place that it is a symbol for love and, in another, for fate. What it really represents is the ambiguity of life (and of love and fate) for much that happens in this book is not what it seems. Ortese paints a wonderful portrait of late seventeenth century/early eighteenth century Naples but beneath her smooth surface, she shows clearly that relationships are ambiguous, that life is built on shifting sands and that, all too often, it is women that are the victims.

Publishing history

First published in Italian 1993 by Adelphi
First English translation 1977 by Harvill Press