Neapolitan dramas

Matthew Jakubowski reviews two powerful novels by Erri De Luca, which both reflect the author's adventurous life and his upbringing in the southern Italian city of Naples.

The Italian writer Erri De Luca. Ulf Andersen / Getty Images
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There's a scene in the Italian author Erri De Luca's newly translated novel, The Day Before Happiness, where an older man named Don Gaetano speaks to the teenaged orphan he's raised, to explain why he's been sharing so many stories from the days he helped drive the Nazis and fascists from the streets of Naples in 1943.

"I'm telling you these things," he says, "so that one day, if you become president and they want to make you sign your name to a war, and you've uncapped your pen and are about to put your signature on the paper, all at once you will remember these events and maybe, who knows, you will say: I'm not signing."

With those words, the scene ends, and De Luca makes it easy to imagine the boy nodding, absorbing this call to pacifism as a foreboding sunset adds shadow to an otherwise lovely panorama of 1950s Naples, the book's setting. Adding further import, we also know at this point that the older man, bridging generations, is himself an orphan.

High hopes in clear language, cautions against real evil, and scenes thick with poetic sentiment - these elements fuel the warmth to be found in De Luca's brief but affecting novels.

De Luca, born in 1950, has won numerous literary awards and published an astonishing number of books - more than 60, by all accounts. They've been translated into dozens of languages, but only a handful into English: Sea of Memory (Ecco Press, 1999), God's Mountain (Riverhead, 2002), and Three Horses (Other Press, 2005).

Now, Other Press is publishing The Day Before Happiness by pairing it, for marketing purposes, apparently, with a reprint of Sea of Memory under the title Me, You. In both, De Luca's adroit, fragmentary approach to storytelling - using no chapters, but scores of section breaks - allows him to form rich, cohesive mosaics from seemingly disparate elements, giving the coming-of-age story a weightiness and epic feeling in its scope.

The two books have much in common, including odd quirks belonging to the aesthetic that reflects De Luca's adventuresome life. He has been known since the late 1960s as an active political dissident, and The Believer magazine reported in 2005 that he was at one point barred from entering the US after helping with relief convoys in Yugoslavia in the 1990s, against international sanctions.

Likewise, De Luca's main characters are men with a distaste for war. In turn, they have gained in both these books added psychic and spiritual power - as if their profound empathy for those affected by war, in particular the mass death of the Holocaust, has awakened in them the courage and sad wisdom of old souls.

The Day Before Happiness is narrated by an unnamed teenager, an orphan who tells of his childhood and formative years learning from Don Gaetano, a humble but remarkable caretaker of a Naples apartment building. "Don Gaetano was familyless, too," the boy tells us. "Raised in an orphanage, then a seminary, he was supposed to become a priest. But they say he fell in love with a streetwalker and 20 years later he was far away, in Argentina. He came back in 1940, just in time for the war."

Don Gaetano's years alone in Argentina gave him the ability to hear people's thoughts, an element De Luca casts less as magic, more of a deep intuition. He tells the boy countless stories over hands of a card game called scopa and the motif of chance and strategic thought needed to win at cards gradually becomes an overarching metaphor for what the boy learns about life.

Don Gaetano is depicted as much more than a mere eccentric mentor. The book's main theme is in the title, The Day Before Happiness, a hard-won survivor's refrain Don Gaetano invented and teaches the boy - a name to give to bad days, to transform them into preludes for great joy tomorrow. And Don Gaetano has seen people suffer bad days.

The boy is eager to learn more about the war, which no other adults will discuss with him, and Don Gaetano yields answers about "the violent summer of 1943" in Naples, when "the city sprang like a trap." Citizens banded together to firebomb German tanks and hunt down fascist snipers. Most importantly, Don Gaetano helped save the life of an unnamed Jewish man by giving him a safe place to hide underground. They played scopa during air raids, and the Jewish man, as Don Gaetano tells the boy, called the game "a fight between order and chaos". The man later leaves Naples, taking a stone. "I'm going to put it in the wall of the house I'll have in Israel. There we will build with the stones they've thrown at us."

After the boy turns 18, the plot turns toward melodrama when Anna, a girl the boy liked when they were children, returns to the neighbourhood. A tragedy is brewing as Anna seduces the narrator, then tells him her fiancé is about to get out of prison. Don Gaetano gives the boy a knife, and the Chekhov rule is not broken. Anna's something of a stereotype, a mad girl who "wants to see blood", and speaks in strained dialogue: "Can I kiss you now?" the boy asks. "No," she responds, "you are pollen, you must obey me. I am the wind."

In conclusion, the boy learns facts about his parents, then faces off against Anna's beau. Given Don Gaetano's lessons and the fascinating history he relates, the book doesn't end feeling like a semi-tragic teen romance. De Luca's main interest is the inner struggle of man against violent urges and the strength that pacifism requires.

Me, You, a worthy reprint, has much in common with Happiness, and it's interesting to read both and appreciate how De Luca uses similar means to achieve different ends. It's also set near Naples in the 1950s, narrated by an unnamed, teenaged boy mentored by an older man. The boy, 16, spends one summer on an island, splitting his time between his older cousin and friends, and days at sea with a wise fisherman named Nicola. With a touch of foreshadowing, the narrator says, "I was a city boy, but in the summer I turned into a savage."

This boy is also interested in the war, but Italy's shame is pervasive. He sees his father "burdened by regret, not to have committed a single act of sabotage, not to have saved anyone outside of himself and his family." Nicola, on the contrary, tells all about his time as a begrudging infantryman in Sarajevo. "There were Jewish women, they asked us to save their children, they handed them over to us, to us, Italian soldiers who were the enemy, and we could do nothing." The boy thinks to himself, in response, "Nothing. Only you, Nicola, managed to say this word, digging it out of helplessness and fear."

Through his cousin, the narrator meets a Jewish girl named Caia, falls deeply in love and learns that her family was killed in the Holocaust. "She came from a people who had been eliminated house by house, her parents killed." In Happiness, Don Gaetano had mildly clairvoyant abilities. In Me, You, the twist is a remarkably effective spiritual channelling where Caia feels and hears her dead father's presence through the narrator. "I know there are moments," Caia explains, "when someone I lost comes close and inhabits an unfamiliar person ... I feel protected by this multitude of hardly perceptible signals." It's a risky but deeply moving device, a testament to De Luca's deft touch.

The finale begins after the narrator notices that Germans have always been on holiday on the island, too.

In Caia and the German tourists, he sees that "there were still witnesses, victims who had survived, murderers in good health". After an implausible run-in with Germans who are "singing the anthem of the SS" at a pizzeria, he takes revenge, alluding to a future that involves "a juvenile prison".

These books show young Italian men struggling to either hold their country to account for its part in the war, or acknowledging those who stood up and resisted. In both cases, De Luca seems to say, the necessary passion to fight evil must be handled with immense care.

Matthew Jakubowski is a writer and critic who serves on the fiction panel for the Best Translated Book Award.