Wednesday, March 1, 2023

Madrid - Edmondo De Amicis

I was looking for De Amicis’ “Istanbul” and I found his “Madrid” instead.
De Amicis lived and wrote in the nineteen century, so expect style, vocabulary and mindset of that epoch. Yet, it is an extremely interesting, accurate and even modern account of one of the most fascinating European capitals.
This book was written after the Napoleonic campaigns and before the civil war, of course, therefore the city must have looked very different than what it is today, but I guess that a refined and erudite present day traveller to the capital of Spain could still tell similar things about the Plaza del Sol, the Prado museum or the Plaza de toros.
It is a short book, partly travel diary, and partly journalistic report. And it has definitely little to do with De Amicis’ masterpiece “Heart” (original title: “Cuore”).
I will keep looking for “Istanbul”, but this was a very nice detour indeed.


Tuesday, February 21, 2023

Interpreter of maladies - Jhumpa Lahiri

This is a collection of stories. The recurring theme is that of Indians living in the west, or Indians visiting or living in India as foreigners.
The author is an American woman of Indian descent herself, so she is familiar with most of the situations depicted in her stories.
I am both interested in good Indian literature (or literature about India) and short stories, and I definitely enjoyed reading this book.
I guess that what I found most fascinating is the author’s care for detail, her ability to dig into her characters’ personalities by fragmenting and observing closely each single angle of their behaviours and idiosyncrasies. At the same time she never says a word too many, which is a fundamental feature of great fiction writing. In this regard she reminds me of other American masters such as Hemingway, Faulkner, McCarthy or the two Roth (Philip and Henry).

A violent life - Pierpaolo Pasolini

Pierpaolo Pasolini - poet, novelist, journalist, political commentator, civil rights activist and movie director - is one of the very nicest Italian (and European) intellectuals of the 20th century. Clever, knowledgeable, well read, refined, independent, original and brave, he has had and still has a great impact on Italian culture, society and politics.
“A violent life” is his second novel based in post WWII Rome (the first one being “The street kids”, original title: “Ragazzi di vita”). Set among rubbles, dirt, mud and shacks, featuring the city’s poorest as main characters, the novel deals with the life of Tommaso Puzzilli, a confused young guy torn between the bad and the good sides of his character, which pushes him to pursue an adventurous criminal lifestyle today and inflames his heart with love and strife for justice tomorrow.
The Italian version is full of outdated Roman jargon, with which even Italians born and bred in Rome nowadays might not be familiar. Pasolini included a brief glossary (glossarietto) at the end of the book. Plus, the context makes most of the dialogs understandable anyway.
His style reminded me of Irvine Welsh’s “Trainspotting”, with all those Scottish expressions. Who knows, maybe Welsh at some time did read Pasolini’s works and was inspired by him. I’m not sure about him, but I definitely was.

Wednesday, February 15, 2023

M: Son of the century - Antonio Scurati

Classifying this book is no easy feat. Most of the time it reads like a fictional novel but - especially if you are Italian or a foreigner who’s well acquainted with contemporary Italian history and culture - you’ll be thrilled and quite upset by the fact that the characters portrayed are real life people such as Mussolini, Giolitti, D’annunzio, Sarfatti, Balbo, Togliatti, Kuliscioff, Marinetti, Gramsci or Matteotti, who had a tremendous impact on the events of that period in Italy, in Europe and worldwide as well.
Most of the chapters are supported by official documents, telegrams, letters, articles and recordings, which might temporarily interrupt the flow of the plot, but at the same time contribute to increase the sense of authenticity of the events narrated.
Fascism is exposed as the complex web of opportunism, ideology, determination, violence, brutality, polarising energy, tactical and strategic skills, political void, unscrupulousness and government blunders that managed to turn its founding father, Benito Mussolini, from a passionate socialist journalist and activist into a ruthless right wing dictator. A process that will contribute to mold Italian society, inspire German Nazism and Spanish Francoism, precipitate the European crisis that triggered World War II (Mussolini had already tipped the Italian public opinion from neutrality to intervention during WWI) and serve as an ideological model for extreme right wing factions all over the world to this day.
A page turner if you, like myself, are a history buff. A must read if you want to learn about the subject but are not much into academic essays.

Friday, February 3, 2023

The mystery of Majorana (Original title: La scomparsa di Majorana) - Leonardo Sciascia

In this book the famous Sicilian novelist and essayist Leonardo Sciascia (pronounced Shasha) delves into the mystery of the talented theoretical physicist Ettore Majorana’s disappearance.
A member of the “Via Panisperna boys” - a group of scientists lead by Nobel prize laureate Enrico Fermi - Majorana was considered a rare genius (he was only in in early thirties when he disappeared and had already proven to be greatly more talented than many of his colleagues, in Italy and elsewhere). In the mid thirties the group, working at the Royal physics institute of the University of Rome La Sapienza, made important discoveries in the neutron energy field, which a decade later made the construction of the American atomic bomb possible. The same Fermi, an Italian Jewish, defected to America after receiving his award in Stockholm.
According to the official explanation of the disappearance, Majorana, affected by some sort of depression, would have committed suicide by diving into the Tyrrhenian sea while on board of a ferry cruising from Palermo to Napoli. And that’s what the same scientist wanted everyone to know, as he clearly backed up that version of the story with a couple of letters addressed to his family and colleagues. Sciascia (and many others), though, is not convinced, and reconstructing the sequence of events by means of official documents, records and interviews, he gets to the conclusion that Majorana might have retired to a secluded place after getting a hunch of what the ongoing research would have lead to.
His peculiar character, his scientific genius and his acquaintance with colleagues such as Werner Heisenberg, with whom he spent a few months at the University of Leipzig, would justify such a decision.
Werner Heisenberg himself had the same kind of attitude towards that research field and was hoping that his colleagues in New Mexico would share his feelings and act responsibly rather than being instruments in the hands of the government and the military. Unfortunately that was not the case.
Heisenberg and Majorana, two of the greatest scientists of the twentieth century, didn’t manage to stop the process that lead to the Hiroshima and Nagasaki disasters, the Cuba missile crisis, the Cold War deadlocks and the ongoing nuclear nightmares that still affect civil societies worldwide nowadays. But they can’t be accused of not having warned us.

Monday, January 30, 2023

Mazzini - Denis Mack Smith

If there is a person that every Italian should be proud of, that person, in my humble opinion, is Giuseppe Mazzini. He probably deserves that even more than Giuseppe Garibaldi, another protagonist of the Italian Risorgimento (the 19th century Italian struggle for independence). Even though the famous general - due to his action hero aura - was arguably more famous than the Genoan ideologue, he has had a less far reaching influence on Italian culture and political education. Camillo Benso, count of Cavour, the third main character of that famous era, a very skilled politician and tactician indeed, can’t even compete with Mazzini as far as moral, philosophical and literary standing is concerned.
Giuseppe Mazzini has neither fought any battle against the Austrian troops nor politically schemed and signed useful military alliances with the French or the Prussians. Yet his ideas and teachings on revolution, independence, self determination, patriotism, democracy, civil rights and freedom have had a tremendous impact on the way of thinking of not only his peers but of all the future generations of Italians to this day. Furthermore this impact hasn’t been restricted to Italy, but has extended over the whole of Europe and even beyond.
Italian readers will particularly benefit from being exposed to the point of view of a foreign expert on Mazzini’s life, as this will help shed the veil of demagogy, propaganda and doubt that characterizes the chapters on the subject of our standard school texts. Denis Mack Smith, considered one of the main authorities on contemporary Italian history in the English speaking world, is definitely a good example of that sort of foreign expert.

Monday, January 23, 2023

凍りついた香り Kōritsuita kaori (Italian: Profumo di Ghiaccio) - Ogawa Yoko

I don’t think there is an English translation of this book. At least I couldn’t find one, even searching the web. That’s why I’m mentioning the Italian title next to the Japanese one. If there really isn’t a translation of this novel in the most important language in the world, well, that’s a pity. This story is a good example of the peculiar Japanese fondness for details, surgical change of pace, tactfulness, delicacy and melancholy. Even of their atavistic tendency for seppuku or harakiri.  
The novel is about the quest for truth of a young woman whose fiancé has recently committed suicide. A quest that will take her to the world of fragrance masters and mathematics geniuses, Japan and Czech Republic, hard reality and magical myth.
Ogawa Yoko deserves a place among the greatest contemporary Asian female writers. No, I’m wrong. She deserves a place among the greatest contemporary Asian writers, period.

Tuesday, January 17, 2023

The Mussolini canal (Canale Mussolini) - Antonio Pennacchi

Besides being an excellent read, this is also a very good summary of twentieth century Italian history: the rural society at the turn of the century, the First World War, the socialist uprising, the birth of fascism, Mussolini’s takeover, the Second World War, the post war reconstruction and the ensuing economic growth. These events are all part of a story which revolves around a family - the Peruzzi - from the Veneto (that’s actually where I come from). They are sharecroppers, people who - for generations - have worked the land and farmed animals, gone to war, brought up dozens of children, eaten meager meals and made up for that by drinking barrels of wine, coped with natural disasters and famines, economic crises, pandemics, political instability and social abuse, who have fallen in and out of love, made friends and enemies, fought family vendettas and formed strong social bonds.
By the end of the second decade of the last century the Peruzzi are finally well off, not rich but not poor either. Then the economic situation changes - the infamous “quota 90” - and they end up losing everything. The Peruzzi have connections in the fascist government though, and they manage to be included in the migratory wave that will bring them from the “Nordest” to the “Agro Pontino”, not far from Rome, a previously swampy area infested with mosquitoes, plagued by malaria and teeming with bandits, that neither the Romans nor the Pope nor Napoleon have managed to reclaim. Yet, the stubbornness of the fascist government, willing to leave its mark on history, has finally succeeded to turn the region into a modern farming jewel, awaiting expert farmers to work it. The Peruzzi, along with thousands other families from the Veneto, the Friuli and the Ferrarese, start afresh and join the mission. A new world is set on motion, with all its dramas, romances, tragedies, parodies, heroes and antiheroes.
This is the book the author claims he was born to write. It is a novel you will surely enjoy.

Friday, January 13, 2023

Inshallah (Insciallah) - Oriana Fallaci

A novel based in Beirut, Lebanon, during the 1982-84 Italian army peacekeeping mission..
The Israeli army has recently invaded the country and ousted the Palestinian fighters. Along with American, French and a few British soldiers, Italian sailors, paratroopers and Bersaglieri are patrolling the sensitive areas in and around Sabra and Shatila, where a few months earlier bands of Maronite phalangists had carried out a terrible massacre.
On October 23, 1983, two suicide trucks loaded with explosive hit the US and French headquarters, killing hundreds of army men. At the Italian base everyone is waiting for the third truck, which will never come. The following three months - before the contingent departure - Italian officers and privates will cope with war, guerrilla, poverty, desperation, love, pity and passion. Each one in his own way. For all of them life will never be the same.
Very interesting account of a key phase in the still ongoing Middle East crisis. Fallaci is a skilled and experienced war correspondent. In my opinion in this book she makes too mush use of stereotypes and regional lingo, along with frequent word-by-word repetition of some character’s thoughts. Still, this remains the most informative book on the subject I’ve read, along with “From Beirut to Jerusalem” by Thomas L. Friedman.

Tuesday, January 10, 2023

The diving pool - Ogawa Yoko

This is a collection of three short stories, novellas actually. Each story has a young woman as the main character. The first one is watching closely her childbearing older sister, the second one is visiting the boarding house where she used to live as a student - now almost empty - and the third one is experiencing a life crisis at the orphanage managed by her parents, where she also grew up.
Ogawa’s care for detail, both physical and psychological, draws the reader’s attention to the scenes and the circumstances of the stories in a very peculiar way. I felt that the author was playing with my deepest emotions when, for instance, the lady in the boarding house is looking for what could have been the blood dripping corpse of her cousin and turns out to be a honey oozing beehive instead. Or when the girl at the orphanage is sadistically harassing a toddler, ending up being discovered by the guy she loves, possibly losing him forever as an undisclosed consequence.
I really felt distraught and upset, something not even splatter movies directors are able to achieve. Pretty impressive.

Wednesday, January 4, 2023

Istanbul: memories and the city - Orhan Pamuk

I’ve seen this book on the same shelf of my parent’s house bookcase for a few years. I thought it was a novel, I don’t know why. When I finally picked it up I found out that it is actually a collection of memoirs. Every chapter deals with a different topic. Sometimes it’s an area of the city, sometimes a person, a building, a situation, a life phase. This work doesn’t feature a proper narrative thread. It is rather a set of recurring themes - mostly sensations - that keeps together not only the pages of the book, but - the author feels - also the city and the people who live in it.
Istanbul - aka Byzantium or Constantinople - and its inhabitants are torn between the desire for modernization and westernization on one hand, and the melancholy and longing for a glorious past which is no more on the other: poverty, mess and filth are always there to remind one of the reality of that loss. The author is himself caught in this contradiction. He feels sad about it and wonders if this is the same sadness that permeates the whole place. It’s a kind of sadness which the city doesn’t experience as a consequence of some misfortune, something that can be overcome with action or a change of mind, but rather like a basic feature of one’s character, which has to be worn with patience and dignity, even pride maybe.
The author’s style is very refined, his thoughts accurately woven, his prose elegant like the interior design of an Ottoman palace hall. The book is intentionally soaked in a (Turkish) bath of melancholy and sadness, which are corroborated by the beautiful black and white photographs that dot many of the pages.
I don’t remember exactly whether I had some of the author’s impressions when I visited Istanbul many years ago. It was a short trip anyway, just a stop-over really. I know for sure that I wish I will visit the city again after reading this book. And the others that Pamuk recommends as well.