Magic realism in a post-war Italy
As is becoming tradition, I received a copy of this book in last year’s RedditGifts book exchange (in March 2017, to be precise), and I am only just now getting around to reviewing it. I’ve already received my book from the 2018 exchange, but it’s highly unlikely that I’ll get around to reviewing that until next year either. One thing I always put in my exchange preferences is that if my Santa is from another country, I really like to receive books from that country. While this doesn’t always work out to be particularly interesting because a huge proportion of people on Reddit are from the USA, in this case I was really excited to get a translated novel by a renowned Italian author.
“Timeskipper” by Stefano Benni and translated by Antony Shugaar is a magic realism novel about an eponymous young boy from the mountains in Italy who is on his way to school when he bumps into a god in the woods. Given the gift of a duoclock, Timeskipper now has the ability to see into the future. For his small village in post-war Italy, the future looks pretty bleak as the politics and progress threatens the idyllic rural lifestyle he, his family and his friends live in. The future is also filled with plenty of adolescent anxiety and this novel is a bildungsroman as much as it is political satire.
This was a rich and clever novel that captured the psyche of a teenage boy excellently. Timeskipper is a charismatic protagonist who tells the most outrageous stories that neither the reader nor the other characters can ever fully determine how much is true and how much is hyperbole. I think some of my favourite parts of the book are Timeskipper’s interactions with his long-term love and on-again-off-again girlfriend Selene and how irreverent they are with one another, and how they navigate the changing times. I also really enjoyed the absurdism of the student protests and I felt like Benni was at his best sending up the intricacies and self-importance of student politics.
However, there were some things that made this book a bit difficult. You can’t really talk about a translated book without some words on the translator. This is a very complex book, and Shugaar made a valiant effort to convey all the nuance of Benni’s very rich writing style into English. However, there were a lot of things in the book that did not seem to make sense and I couldn’t tell if it was a translating choice or if it was a mistake.
For example, throughout the book chickens are referred to as chickins. Typographical error? Specific choice? Benni’s joke that didn’t translated to English? I have no idea. Doing some additional reading, I think that there is a lot of symbolism and are a lot of references in this book to Italian historical events but to someone not familiar with Italy’s history these literary devices weren’t readily apparent. Shugaar is cognisant of this, but it is not until you get to the translator’s note at the end of the book that some of these issues are raised. I think that what would have been more helpful would have been to include footnotes throughout the book like other translations I’ve read to help convey meaning where a direct translation isn’t always available.
Anyway, while this was at times a difficult book to read, Benni’s playfulness and pointed observations nevertheless did make it through translation. It shows a different facet to post-war Italian history, and I’m tempted to read other work by Benni to see how it is handled by other translators.
I received a copy of this book courtesy of the publicist, and unfortunately due to some technological issues, I actually thought I wasn’t going to be able to read it at all. Luckily, when I went to collect another book from NetGalley, I saw that it was available again and I pounced on it. This book was actually a nominee in the Goodreads Choice Awards 2017 for best historical fiction so I was even more excited to read it.
“Beneath a Scarlet Sky” by Mark Sullivan is a historical fiction novel which is heavily inspired by true events experienced by a real person in Milan, Italy during World War II. Pino Lella, a happy-go-lucky 17 year old boy, is sent to live in the Alps after his hometown of Milan is bombed by the Allies. Staying in a Catholic boys’ school, he is enlisted by the priest to assist Jewish people escaping Italy via an underground railroad by guiding them through the treacherous winter mountains. However, despite the heroism of his early involvement, when Pino comes of age his parents insist for his safety that he enlists with the German forces. Disgusted by having to swap sides, Pino jumps at the chance to work for Hitler’s “left hand” and spy for the Allies. This new role is fraught with danger and Pino finds himself risking many important relationships, including his blossoming love with the beautiful Anna.
As the saying goes, “never let the truth get in the way of a good story”, and this is, without a doubt a good story. I felt haunted by this book for a good week after I read it. I found myself going back to it to reread certain passages trying to find answers and going over and over the events in my mind. Sullivan makes it abundantly clear at the beginning of this book that this book is not intended to be a biography, and that much of the story has been heavily fictionalised, speculated upon and perhaps even embellished. I don’t even care. It’s a fast-paced, exhilarating read and I got much more out of this book set in Italy during the war than I did out of “My Brilliant Friend” set only a short time afterwards.
Probably the biggest criticism some may have of this book is that the writing, while perfectly serviceable, is not especially literary in tone. Some may find it a bit simplistic but I personally found the tone perfectly in keeping with Pino’s youth and naivete. Even though he is involved in very serious and adult issues, ultimately Pino is still a very young man and I think that the writing style actually suits the narrative.
This is an emotionally charged, exciting and intriguing book and if even half of it is true it’s an absolutely incredible story. A solid story that still makes my heart wrench thinking about it.
I first really heard about this book when there was a media storm about the author’s real identity being revealed. The series had received a lot of acclaim, either in spite of or because of the author’s use of a pseudonym, and I was eager to see what all the fuss was about.
“My Brilliant Friend” by Elena Ferrante is a historical novel set in a poor, post-war neighbourhood in Naples, Italy in the 1950s. Playing and going to school in this grim era, blonde Elena meets the naughty and sullen Lila who dazzles the teachers with her intelligence. After a cautious beginning to their friendship, Elena finds in Lila the inspiration and competition to succeed at school. However, as the two girls become teenagers, their lives begin to take increasingly different paths.
I think this is one of those books where my expectations just didn’t match up to my experience. It’s translated from Italian, and the translation seemed perfectly fluid. Ferrante manages to convey a tense, sepia tone to the novel that evolves as the economic situation in Naples improves. Ferrente’s real strength however is shining a light on the gender inequality of the time. Elena has to be consistently excellent at school to be allowed to share the same opportunities as boys the same age who are simply mediocre. I also thought that Ferrente handled Elena’s developing sexuality as a young woman very convincingly.
The uneasy but intense relationship between Elena and Lila is presented as the highlight of the book. The author spends a lot of time making many pointed observations about Lila and her life from the perspective of Elena, who is constantly comparing herself to her friend. However, I felt like a large proportion of the novel is laying groundwork for something that ultimately doesn’t even happen in this book. Although the focus of the novel appears to be Lila and how her upbringing shapes her life, I actually found the protagonist and narrator Elena far more interesting.
“My Brilliant Friend” is one of a series of four novels, and while I enjoyed this one, I’m not sure I’m compelled to read any more of the books. Ultimately, this book is fine, good even, but I just didn’t find it brilliant.