July 2007

Elizabeth Bachner


Italian Tales: An Anthology of Contemporary Italian Fiction edited by Massimo Riva

The eighteen pieces of fiction in Italian Tales are consumed by space. In his introduction to the volume, Italian studies professor Massimo Riva describes the collection as a literary map and a travelogue, with the writer as a “virtual cartographer.” The writers included are contemporaries of Umberto Eco, Elsa Morante and Italo Calvino, the Italian authors most famous in the United States, and the landscape they visit in their work is a liminal, transitional Italy, a place of history, memory and ruins, a country where perhaps the view is familiar, and our vision itself is compromised. The selections are arranged thematically rather than chronologically, in sections titled “Ruins with a View,” “Memory Lanes,” and “Views from Afar,” and Riva has worked within translation constraints to showcase established authors, largely born in the first half of the twentieth century, whose work is accessible to, but not necessarily well-known among English-language readers. The pieces include stories and novel excerpts, all previously published.

The prologue by Luigi Malerba, “Consuming the View,” sets the tone for the entire volume. In it, despite the clean air and clear sky, the view of Rome has started to appear blurry, causing onlookers to get their eyes checked and professors to conduct tests on the local area. A doorman at City Hall has a theory that “the Roman panorama was being worn away by the continuous gaze of tourists, and if no action were taken, it would soon be entirely used up… a subtle leprosy was slowly corroding the image of the so-called Eternal City.” Locals begin a campaign to deter tourists from looking at all by beginning to “ridicule the panorama in general, the very concept of a view.” Indeed, the spaces mapped in each of Riva’s selections, despite some regional and stylistic diversity among the authors, reflect a tension between existing and being looked at or visited. These spaces -- ruins, a piazza, a hometown revisited by a traveler, an opera stage, a labyrinth -- are the true protagonists of each piece. Some of the human characters merge with the space so strangely and irreversibly that they vanish.

Other stories feature almosty poetic worlds that must be entered by the reader -- Gesualdo Bulafino’s baroque world, or Fabrizia Ramondino’s town of complicated flowers and mothers who “shit blood or angels.” In “Leo’s World” by Pier Vittorio Tondelli, a man returning home sees that despite the fact that “the way he is able to see and perceive the town where he was born is radically different,” no matter how much he has traveled the world or lived in other places “his whole life will be contained” in the space between his old family home and the local graveyard “along a path of incarnation and suffering.” In Giorgio Manganelli’s “The Self-Awareness of the Labyrinth,” the protagonist truly is a maze, opaque to himself, unable to die, forced to finally abandon all points of view, seeing nothing but “corners of totally ambiguous crossroads.” In the epilogue, “Leave-Taking” by Franco Ferrucci, God himself descends “along the small peninsula as it celebrated the victory of one army over the other, and reached the Tyrrhenian coast, at the mouth of the Arno, on a warm summer afternoon.” Though he is God, he prays, and he himself “wanders across the earth with an army of refugees and returning veterans.” He sees Death, who wears jeans and a cotton sweater, and dark glasses so he cannot see her eyes. Even God is lost, hiding and nostalgic, and he has decided on the day of his departure from the world, although “It won’t be easy to abandon such beauty… Confused prayers reach me, intersected by electrical signals. I can barely make out the words.”

This is the deeper theme of Italian Tales: Italy with interference. What are the ruins, and how do we see them? In his introduction, Riva takes pains to point out that the authors included have original voices, and are not simply offspring or bystanders of Eco or Calvino or de Lampedusa. However, American readers enamored of those high-profile Italians will relish the discoveries available in this volume. Fans of Calvino will be especially lovestruck. But the volume is so carefully, so precisely edited, that it can be hard to find the blood and guts and rawness within. Reading all the stories together can feel like peeking through a telescope at a mysteriously obscured landscape. This work will appeal greatly to academic readers, particularly scholars of comparative literature who do not themselves study contemporary Italian fiction. For lay readers or scholars in non-literary fields, the cartographic theme of the volume feels literal, as if you’re visiting a landscape you’re slightly confused by or estranged from, that you can almost see, that’s familiar yet distant. The view is worth straining your eyes to see, but where do you belong within it? You are called upon to look but then rebuffed by the landscape itself, like a tourist who got lost, or who wants to get lost.

Italian Tales: An Anthology of Contemporary Italian Fiction edited by Massimo Riva
Yale University Press
ISBN: 030012371X
296 Pages