Arturo’s Island [1957/2019] – ★★★★
This coming-of-age story won the 1957 Strega Prize, Italy’s most prestigious literary award, but this review is of a newer translation by Ann Goldstein. The book tells of a fourteen-year-old boy Arturo Gerace living in Procida, Bay of Naples, Italy some time before the World War II. Growing up without his mother and with often absent father Wilhelm Gerace, Arturo is still happy to spend his days without rules or schedules running wild around the island, imagining being an adult and embarking on some sea adventure that would bring him eternal glory. That is until his father, whom Arturo idolises, brings home his new sixteen-year-old bride Nunziata. From that point on, Arturo’s world will never be the same and the shift in the household’s dynamics means that Arturo can finally confront his deepest subconscious traumas with a chance to experience both the joys and sorrows of secret love. Morante’s tale is deceptively simple, and is more psychological than first assumed. It evokes all the delights of childhood wonder and the longings of adolescence, the feelings of endless summers and the atmosphere of mysterious, isolated lands surrounded by aquamarine seas.
Arturo’s Island is more psychological than may appear at first. The story is about a lonely child who grew up without a mother figure and who is constantly trying to get the attention and approval of his distant and mysterious father who is always on some “vacation” from the island. Thus, the tale is also of quite irrational idolisation, we all experience in some form and at some point in our childhood. Arturo regards his father as “an absolute ruler” and the serving of his father is the greatest of honours: “his [father’s] brooding was grand, like the darkening of the day, a sure sign of mysterious events, as important as universal history”; “his [father’s] vulnerabilities were as mysterious as his indifference” [Morante/Goldstein, Pushkin Press, 1957/19: 22-23]; “with his rapid, graceful gait, slightly swaying like a sailor’s, and his blue shirt swelling in the wind, he seemed to me the messenger of a victorious adventure, of an enchanting power” [Morante/Goldstein, 1957/19: 29]; “For me his words were divorced from every earthly reason and value. I heard them as one hears a sacred liturgy where the drama recited is more than a symbol, and the ultimate truth it celebrates is bliss. This last, true meaning is a mystery that only the blessed know: pointless to seek an explanation by human means” [Morante/Goldstein, 1957/19: 61].
Arturo lives in relative seclusion in the now decrepit, but once opulent, mansion (“castle”) Casa dei Guaglioni that once belonged to a mysterious man who hated women. That man befriended Arturo’s father and left the house to him. It is no wonder then that Arturo’s imagination is running wild since he is inspired to his imaginary adventures only by the scraps of information he gets about his father’s friendship with “other great men”, and his beliefs, unfortunately, are largely shaped by this prideful, misogynist environment.
Never knowing his mother and largely hearing only negative things about women in the past, how Arturo is supposed to react when Nunziata, his new step-mother, arrives to live with his father and him? What is he supposed to think and feel? This is one of those stories where “a stranger arrives to town” and the discomfort sets in. Nunziata threatens to uproot what is familiar, known and established in Arturo’s life. From the moment of her arrival, it can be said that the two opposing worlds start colliding, and feelings of buried bitterness and love promised, but never given, resurface. Perhaps Nunziata is uneducated, submissive and even “average-looking”, but she is also deeply religious with a strong moral compass and devotion to family values. Her entering the house of boyish liberties, where any display of weakness is frowned upon, means that “the inward” invades “the outward” – “the spiritual” starts to encroach upon “the earthy”. It in this inner conflict of the feminine and the masculine that pushes Arturo, who never received his mother’s love (or anyone’s kisses for that matter), to experience the unfathomable: “I learn that the heart, in its competition with conscience, is as capricious, shrewd, and imaginative as a master costume designer. To create its masks, it needs almost nothing; sometimes, to disguise things, it simply replaces one word with another…And in that bizarre game conscience wanders around like a stranger at a masked ball, amid the fumes of the wine” [Morante/Goldstein, Pushkin Press, 1957/19: 252]. The real tragedy of the narrative lies in the fact that each character fears and is being reluctant to voice their true feelings openly. What is truly felt is never said, and the main issue stems from hidden feelings never voiced, love not openly displayed, and hurt buried deep and ignored.
The main problem with the novel is the lack of narrative substance and cohesiveness. There are contradictions, annoying repetitions and an overall feeling of the narrative growing rather inconsequential. The reader will simply not get the pay-off they probably expected when they first started the book and got emotionally invested in the characters. Moreover, the main character Arturo, who has inexplicable (but maybe understandable) changes of mood and temperament, grows less likable as the story progresses.
Arturo’s Island reads and feels like a classic. It is an “introverted” novel of a child lost at sea of life, desperately wanting understanding and love, but living in fantasies and denials, with his only guiding figure, his father, acting as a very inadequate and misshapen beacon to manoeuvre him back to land’s safety. This is a poetic novel of rich descriptions that has a quality of a dream, maybe narratively imperfect, hazy and a little unsatisfying, but still quite beautiful.
Elsa Morante (1912 – 1985) was an Italian novelist, short story writer and poet who is also known for her controversial, sporadically autobiographical novel History (La storia) , which tells of a partly Jewish woman during the World War II, and book House of Liars (Menzogna e sortilegio), which won the 1948 Italian Viareggio Prize. Morante married Italian novelist Alberto Moravia in 1941 and spent most of her life in Rome, associating with the literary circle there. This review was written as a contribution to my Italia Reading Challenge that runs from January to December 2022.