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Vasco Pratolini: Metello (Metello)

This is the first of a trilogy called Storia d’Italia, which can be translated as Story of Italy or History of Italy. Regardless of your translation this is undoubtedly the best of the three and is justly famous throughout Italy. The novel is set in Florence at the end of the nineteenth century/beginning of the twentieth century and, while it is essentially about Metallo Salani, the hero of the book, it is also about labour agitation and trade unions in Italy at the turn of the century.

Metello is the son of an anarchist, known as Caco. Caco is drowned in the Arno when Metello is still a baby and Metello is brought up in the country outside Florence. When he is fifteen, he decides to take a walk to Florence and, eventually, arrives at the Florence market. As he is big for his age, one of the market owners offers him a job as a porter. This is his first lesson as a man, as his colleagues berate him for taking a lower rate and he finds it hard work, so much so that when they are eating after work, he falls asleep. He is taken in hand by Betto, an old friend of Caco, who has recognised Metello as being Caco’s son. Betto advises him not to become a porter but, rather, to take up a trade. He decides to become a bricklayer and, apart from a spell in the military in Naples, spends the rest of the book as a bricklayer.

His personal life is given much attention, with his affair with an older woman, Viola, and then his happy relationship with and marriage to Ersilia. However, the key event of the book is the bricklayer strike. This has all been prefigured as Betto teaches Metello about Marx and socialism and Metello is soon getting into trouble with the authorities in demonstrations and even ends up in jail for a spell. He becomes the de facto leader of the bricklayers at Badolati’s. Badolati is not a bad employer by the standards of the day but Metello and his colleagues feel that they exploited and underpaid. Agitation among the workers eventually leads to a strike at all construction sites in Florence. Pratolini gives us a detailed account of how the workers struggle, of how they stick together, of how the women help and the fight with the employers. Eventually it comes to a head when some of the workers can take no more and go back to work. There is a confrontation and deaths but the workers gain some of what they want.

While there is no doubt which side Pratolini is on, he paints a generally sympathetic portrait of Badolati, while stressing the rights of the workers. But it is the character of Metello, the human but still larger than life worker and union organiser, that makes this novel and has made its reputation in Italy. He is uneducated, a bit rough, not necessarily the best of husbands to Ersilia but still comes out as much more than just a character and one that will make Pratolini’s reputation. Of course, the book is out of print in the English-speaking world at the time of writing.

Publishing history

First published 1955 by Vallecchi, Florence
First English translation 1968 by Chatto and Windus
Translated by Raymond Rosenthal