The Oyster dilemma

mala7Stephen Daedalus, James Joyce‘s alter ego, knew exactly what he wanted to be: an artist. He also knew that Dublin restricted society was not the most fertile soil where his artistic vein might attain and blossom. Differently from Eveline, he was determined enough to turn his back to a present made of family expectations and people who loved and knew him in order “to live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life” and explore “all the ways of error and glory. On and on and on and on!”(A Portrait of the Artist as a Young man). He was the Daedalus, after all, he who could flee from that labyrinth represented by Dublin. Had he stayed, he would not have been able to express his talent, thus becoming the martyr of art, as his first name seems to predict, as St. Stephen was the first martyr of Christianity.  But martyrdom was not in his fate, hence, once put on his wax wings, he quitted as soon as possible with not so many regrets.

mala9What would the right decision be, then? Did Joyce’s choice to go into self-exile assured him that happiness that apparently Eveline was denied by remaining at home or not? Not exactly. Freedom does not necessarily mean happiness. For example, once in Argentina, Eveline might have found out  that Frank was already married with children or that there was no trace of that home she had so longed for, but she had to live with her sick mother in law and look after her, while Frank was somewhere around the world on a ship. Hence, alone with no family and friends in such a foreign, distant land, who might have helped her?

mala10The Italian writer Giovanni Verga, would have certainly supported Eveline’s choice to stay.  Verga was convinced that all men were subjected to a merciless and cruel fate that condemn them not only to unhappiness and pain, but to a condition of immobility. Those who try to escape from the condition in which destiny has placed them cannot find the happiness dreamed, but undergo more suffering. Particularly those who belong to the group of the weak, and Eveline was one of them, need more protection and must stay connected to those family values they have grown with as an oyster clutched to a rock, in order to survive and avoid that the world, like a big powerful fish, may devour them.

mala12 Verga developed the so-called “ideal of the oyster” in his novel: I Malavoglia (1881). There is little house by a medlar tree in the picturesque little village of Aci Trezza in the Province of Catania (Sicily).  The Toscanos, a numerous family of fishermen live there. Although they are extremely hardworking, they have been nicknamed  the Malavoglia (The Reluctant Ones). The head of the family is Padron Ntoni, a widower, who lives with his son Bastian and the wife of the latter called Maria and their five children. Their main source of income is la Provvidenza (the Providence), a small fishing boat. But when Ntoni, the eldest of the children, leaves for the military service, Padron Ntoni attempts a new business and buys a large amount of lupins, in order to try and make up for the loss of income which the  absence of his nephew will cause.

mala 15Rocks are harsh and sharp, but as long as you are clutched to one them, you are safe. Starting a new business, Padron Ntoni attempts to leave his rock to swim in a new sea, hoping to find maybe a better one, but his choice will eventually lead his family to a disaster that will mine their unity. Bastian and the merchandise are tragically lost during a storm, furthermore there is the debt caused by the lupins which were bought on credit and the boat mean to repair. As this were not just enough, a long series of misfortunes will follow till the beloved house near the medlar tree, symbol of the unity of the family, has to be sold in order to repay the debt. In the end, only Alessi, the youngest of the brothers, the only one who had remained a fisherman, manages with his hard work to rebuild the family fortunes to the point at which they can repurchase the house by the medlar tree.  Padron Ntoni, who is now old and sick at the hospital, is informed of the good news. It is the last moment of happiness for the old man, who dies on the day he was to return. His last wish to die in his old house, on that harsh and sharp rock will never be granted.

Montalbano sono!!

salvo

Andrea Camilleri, interviewed by Professor Tullio De Mauro, has recently explained the reason why he chose Sicilian dialect to write the majority of his novels and his well-known series centred on his most famous creature: Il Commissario Montalbano. In his early years he had started writing poems ( the Italian poet Salvatore Quasimodo had offered to include them in a Sicilian anthology of poems) and short stories. Short, in fact, whenever he tried to write in Italian, it seemed as if he “ran out of breath”, he said, and couldn’t carry the narration any further.

camilleri1When his father, with whom he had always had a conflicting relationship, was diagnosed of an incurable disease, he decided to spend his last days with him. It was the last occasion to talk, to make things clear, to understand each other, if possible. In one of these daily visits, Camilleri explained to his father, that he had in mind a subject for a novel, but when it came the time to put words on paper, he just couldn’t make any progress. His father wanted to listen to his story and in the end he suggested: “Write it down, just the way you have told it to me“. In Sicilian. Certainly it couldn’t be used the pure dialect, as Camilleri, just like any other writer, wanted to be read and understood. Therefore he started to make meticulous linguistic experiments, analyzing the language that was spoken at home, for example, and after many attempts he eventually reached the perfect balance between Italian and Sicilian, that successful blend that makes Camilleri’s style of writing so appealing. Camilleri had been at his father’s bedside for a month and a half. One day the old man seemed for a while as reawaken from his state of torpor and said to his son lucidly:”Go, go to smoke a cigarette!”( Camilleri is still a heavy smoker with a raucous distinctive voice). He did what he had been said and when he came back, his father had passed away.

montalbano4_hg_temp2_s_full_lMontalbano‘s character is largely inspired by the figure of his father. The inspector is a shrewd intelligent man, not inclined to compromise, with a high moral standard and human understanding. He is also the hedonist who enjoys the pleasures of food (religiously in silence), long walks and swims, good reads, better if in solitude. In these moments the narration seems to slow down, as if to allow the reader to take part in Montalbano’s sensations and savour with him that moment of bliss and peace. These are the best moments, when he finds the right inspiration to solve the cases. Hence the slow time of hedonism and reflection gives way to the much faster time of action, when the inspector can display his natural instinct and cunning.

montalbano_liviaBeing a person who enjoys solitude, Montalbano can’t be a family man, for sure. He is eternally engaged with Lidia, who lives in Boccadasse, in Liguria, therefore far enough not to be involved in the dynamics of a couple, which he would certainly consider tedious, but he cannot escape the evening  ” sciarratine” (fights) on the phone. Even if Montalbano remains mostly faithful to Livia, apart from the last episodes, her greatest antagonist is Adelina, Montalbano’s housemaid. Adelina looks after him and cooks beautifully (while Lidia cannot cook even an egg). Whenever Lidia comes, she disappears. They hate each other heartily, but they are complementary in Montalbano’s world: the housemaid and the lover, thus avoiding all the complications of committment. Every man’s dream.

15693_montalbano09Camilleri ‘s great descriptive craft, and character building can be enjoyed in every page of his novels. The inhabitants of Vigata are a gallery of humankind, with their miseries, secrets, vices and that conspiracy of silence that Montalbano always tries to crack. The microcosm of the police station of Vigata is peopled by his colleagues, who, at least some of them, are also his closest friends. His vice inspector, Mimì Augiello is exactly his reverse. He is a “fimminaro” (womanizer), who eventually marries and names his child after him: Salvo. He is not endowed with a great instinct, which Montalbano actually sees in Fazio. Even if he is annoyed by Fazio’s pedantry, he trusts and admires him. Catarella is the clumsy simpleton with a tender heart. He maims every name, generating funny misunderstandings and even if he seems to be a little dimwit, he is a champion at Computer Science. I guess there is a subtle message here.

Montalbano’s co-star is undoubtely Sicily . Camilleri succeeds in making the reader live and enjoy all the colours and flavours of an enchanting country, which is too often in the limelight only for the criminal organizations which still control it. Food, art, culture, sea, warm weather and welcoming people are the treasures that can be found in that fortunate land; a land that Montalbano loves deeply and fights for.