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Anna Maria Ortese: L’iguana (The Iguana)

The fable was not a very common genre in Italy in the twentieth century when Ortese wrote this book (though, possibly through her influence, authors like Alessandro Baricco have now started using it). For this story is a fable, using magic realism.

Count Carlo Ludovico Aleardo di Grees, known to his family and friends as Daddo, is single and rich. Every summer he goes round the Mediterranean buying up islands. One day he is chatting with his friend – his only friend – Boro Adelchi, a nouvelle vague publisher. Adelchi feels there is nothing to attract new readers and wants Daddo to help him find something extraordinary. Such as the memoirs of a madman who has fallen in love with an iguana? Daddo suggests. This is not what Adelchi is looking for but rather a poem that expresses the revolt of the oppressed. Daddo promises to see what he can do and sets out on his island-hunting trip. Off the coast of Portugal – further afield than he normally goes – he and his lone sailor find the island of Ocaña, unmarked on any map.

Ocaña is a not a particularly welcoming island. When he arrives he finds three men and an old woman. The three men are brothers, from the Guzmán family that has fallen on hard times, having lost their property in the West Indies. On closer inspection, the old woman turns out to be an iguana. Daddo’s emotions towards her are initially pity – she is not treated very well by the Guzmán family – but his emotions fluctuate throughout the book. Is she an attractive young girl, whom he might fall in love with or is she the embodiment of nature (which, in this book, is all too often considered as malignant rather than positive) or is she just a silly old servant who knows little and wants only the love of her master?

To make the matter more complicated, strange visitors suddenly turn up on the island, an island which, apparently, almost never gets visitors. There are the Americans who now own the Guzmán’s West Indian property and, apparently, own Ocaña. There is the strange archbishop and others whose role is not explained. The older Guzmán brother – don Ilario – changes. Initially, he produces the manuscript that Adelchi is seeking – a strange and archaic poem about oppression and is very condescending to Daddo. But, at times, he changes clothes (and, abruptly, name) and becomes a different person, cruel to the iguana, self-confident with his visitors, abrupt towards Daddo. Ortese plays on this change very much. It is she, as author, who tells us, without warning that she is changing don Ilario’s name, and for no reason, and she plays many other similar tricks on us. Of course, the reference to The Tempest is clear but Ortese goes well beyond Shakespeare in her musings on the nature of Nature and the civilisation versus nature debate.

This one of the most original and challenging Italian novels you are likely to read. It will be worth it. Indeed, you will probably need to read it at least twice to have an idea of what is going on.

Publishing history

First published in Italian 1965 by Vallecchi
First English translation 1987 by McPherson
Translated by Henry Martin