By Simon Sobrero
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Asking a Collective ‘Why?’

This article is over 17 years, 4 months old
Review of 'Conversations in Sicily', Elio Vittorini (trans. Alane Salierno Mason), Canongate £7.99
Issue 295

After learning that his father has abandoned his mother, a man reduced to dull apathy but gripped by abstract furies returns to his roots and is reintroduced to the land of his past. Over three days in the Sicilian countryside he engages in tragicomic conversations with its people and rediscovers some basic human values.

The anti-fascist sentiment becomes clearer and clearer as the book, written and published in 1941, goes on. Initially it escaped the fascist censors, although Vittorini was eventually jailed. The regime’s crimes are never tackled directly, but what of ‘the wronged world’ and ‘newspapers blaring new massacres’? Vittorini was deeply scarred by the Spanish Civil War and joined the Resistance in Italy.

A short foreword by Ernest Hemingway praises the author, not politically, but for bringing the rain ‘when the earth is dry’. It is a short story and a classic in the traditions of the movement.

Stripped of their feelings and thoughts, only the characters’ words, noises and physical descriptions remain, as in a play made up of haiku poems. There is a lot of allusion and metaphor too. The imagery snowballs with repetition so that some of the chapters overwhelm but impress. The symbolism, though sometimes direct, is not as blatant as Animal Farm. The script meanders from travel book to stream of consciousness to kitchen sink drama, but it is linear and coherent. However, people and themes overlap and can confuse – you may need a re-read and perhaps also a study guide.

The noble-looking men represent a reawakening of the spirit. The indomitable but dutiful mother, perhaps an internal voice, brings back a happy, albeit confused, childhood and a hopeful adolescence, but also the now inescapability of deprivation and disease. A knife grinder – clearly the Communist revolutionary – is frustrated by the lack of blades among the population. The local saddler could be a philosopher conserving an untainted world or the author himself as a hermit. The tailor demonstrates the resignation and false hope of religion – even he only owns half a pair of scissors. The author accepts none of these stances, so the men end up drunk and asleep on the publican’s abundant counter-revolutionary wine. The many characters are finally reunited under a useless nationalist statue to fallen soldiers, as they ask a collective ‘Why?’ Italo Calvino described it as ‘the book Guernica’, but I wouldn’t go quite that far.

Literary translators can be formidable novelists in their own right, but these Conversations are unnecessarily foreign-sounding, the author himself reminding us they could be taking place anywhere in the world. The frequent ‘ear strain’ spoils an otherwise flowing read already laden with plenty of striking and laconic imagery. The style is very simple, so why not spend time improving on phrases such as ‘we ate more or less like Christians’ (old-fashioned Italian for ‘ordinary people’), ‘we ate pasta in the broth’ (pasta soup, not that unusual), and a most bizarre ‘the [children] are coming on wolf-feet’. To be fair it was Mason’s first stab at Italian translation, and it is much more poetic than the last, sturdy, sensible, mid-century British English translation, but a touch extra localisation would have been more faithful to the late Vittorini, himself a pioneering disciple and translator of Poe, Defoe, Faulkner, Lawrence, Steinbeck and more. Despite these small details the beautiful prose blending modernist lyricism with fable, music and motion is highly evocative.

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