Marcello Fois, according to our sleeve, was born in Sardinia in 1960 and is one of a gifted group of writers called “Group 13”, who explore the cultural roots of their various regions. He writes for theatre, television and cinema, and is the author of several novels, including The Advocate (2003) and Memory of the Abyss (2012).
I’m not conversant in Italian and I’m am definitely not going to insult the art of translation and use an online translation tool, therefore the internet information about Fois is limited being primarily in his native tongue.
Our novel is set in the mountainous regions of Sardinia, with two orphans meeting and falling in love, Marcelo and Michele, all because of a glimpse in the perfect light. This is during our “First Canto – Paradise (1889-1900)”, Dante’s Divine Comedy replayed but in a different order, a family saga beginning with a short visit to Paradise, a much longer visit to Hell and a short ending in Purgatory.
Their love has travelled a long way. They have moved like two pilgrims heading for a distant sanctuary, expecting at every step to see at least the top of the bell tower, but they never see anything. So they have to love each other, again and again, in spite of everything: the dust clogging their hair, the temptation to accept a lift from a cart, or simply, drenched with rain, to abandon themselves to despair, plodding along with uncertain steps in muddy shoes, or with palates parched by scorching heat, or fingers blue with cold, and their eyes fixed on a goal that always, always, turned out to be no more than a starting point.
They have walked straight on, never turning to look back, moving as anonymously as it is possible to imagine. The edge of the road which, from high up on a gig, looks comfortable, but at ground level, trudging on shifting gravel, seems terrible and endless. Occasionally, they meet another person but never, never, anyone they recognise, because they are on their own, two and yet one, seeing nothing and knowing nothing. All they have is their love: obstinate, unyielding, banal and blind.
Written in the third person this work could have been a sprawling history of a single family, however it is not that simple a plot, it is also a skilled history of the region, taking wanderings to the early invasions under the “immunity of the Inquisition” right up to the establishment of the village itself:
Now our account of this transformation is merely a synthesis to help explain how History can move backwards and forwards, and sometimes in a spiral fashion, or in a circle or in more than one direction, but it never, ever proceeds in a direct line, whistling straight like an arrow…No, History slithers like a water snake, starting at a certain point, then disappearing as if under a mirror, and there is never any knowing where it will reappear. All we can see are coils ruffling the calm surface of the pond. That is how we become aware of History: from signs.
The backdrop for our tale is set to the craft of blacksmithing, and throughout there are beautiful references to the metal, alloys, malleability, forces to meld a different shape, all tales in their own right, but metaphors for the history of the family.
As we move into the largest section “Hell” (1901-1942) World War One comes along, we have conscription, it is a “world” war, “worldwide means everybody” and the daily solitude of a small village is forever impacted, especially our family.
Marcelo and Michele have a number of children (no spoiler alert), and one of the male siblings, Luigi, and educated one, volunteers for WWI, relieving his family of the conscription burden. But he eventually goes missing, is he dead? Gavino, the older brother, finds out the truth from a returned soldier, who has lost a leg and half of his face. Here the horrors of war are recounted:
Gavi, I’m talking about Monte San Michele, June 29. We had a whole battalion in waiting and something new and previously unknown began to rain down on us from the Austrian lines, smoke bombs stinking of rotten hay. Strange, but apparently insignificant. Except that next morning some of the boys began to feel bad, seriously bad, coughing till they were blue in the face, then foaming at the mouth before falling to the ground. Those who saw them claimed that those smoke bombs with their stink of the stall wouldn’t kill, but they turned out to be weapons without bullets, a poison that our boys breathed in. The Ultimate Evil, people say, striking inside the lungs like the wrath of God, against the worshippers of the molten calf in the desert. Worst of all, they took many agonising hours to die, as if drowning on dry land, their lungs dissolving into putrid liquid. No-one survived at Monte San Michele; sixty thousand lads wheezing to death in the trenches, blinded, scalded, distorted by blisters. Until eventually the Austrian high command ordered the lines cleared by a platoon armed with clubs bristling with nails. Did you get that? No point in wasting bullets on those who would die anyway. They’ve written about that somewhere, Gavi?
The family includes young twins, the two brothers mentioned above and their sister:
But we must now turn our attention to Marianna, who has been waiting all this time in the wings. She is not destined to remain a minor character since, in the structure of this bloodline forged by suffering, she represents a secret hope hidden in a bottom drawer.
This is a skilful novel, immersing us in tales of love, abandonment, the horrors of war, the Fascist movement, the politics and the simple day to day life of living in a small island village. It is so much more than a family history, melding various narrative techniques together quite seamlessly, whether it be conversations with the dead, or addressing the reader directly, or straightforward storytelling.
Personally I did find a few sections a little removed emotionally and when I revisited the last 100 pages after a three week hiatus I had lost my connection with the family passion, however as a reader you are a voyeur here, peering in on a family oh so far away from the reality of my own existence, that feeling of being detached is another skilful highlight.
A work deserved of inclusion on the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize longlist and thanks to the jury for highlighting it to me as I would have been highly unlikely to have found it through other channels.