Erri De Luca, Montedidio, Feltrinelli, 2001
Trans. Micheal Moore, God’s Mountain, Riverdhead Books, 2002
(May Erri De Luca, one of my favorite contemporary Italian writers, forgive the intrusion of my own personal mixed-media at the end of this entry. My ‘nomadic’ structure of reviewing has lead me, this time, to resurrect some of my own older creative pieces).
Nomadic as not permanent, transitional, liminal.
Naples, Italy lives on the threshold of an architectural liminality, in the permeability and instability of the tuffaceous material on which the city is built. Naples is “porous,” as Walter Benjamin has brilliantly defined it: “Building and action interpenetrate in the courtyards, arcades, and stairways. […] The stamp of the definitive is avoided. No situation appears intended forever” (Benjamin, 1925).
1960s, Naples. The crammed neighborhood of Montedidio, where “there’s not enough room to spit between your feet,” is the set of De Luca’s I-narration of a 13-year old boy. In transition to adulthood. He’s working as a carpenter and writing his days on a roll of paper that a printer gave him. He does not write in the Neapolitan dialect that his family speaks but in the Italian he learned at school, “because it’s quiet. I can put down what happens every day, sheltered from the noise of the Neapolitan” (2). On his birthday, his father gives him a boomerang. He practices throwing it from the building’s roofs. Here he meets Maria, his same age. While the strength of his arm, with which he throws the boomerang, grows, so does his love for Maria. It’s ammore in Neapolitan, with two ‘ms’ (instead of one as in standard Italian), explains the girl, “because this way it’s tougher, more real” (74). His mother dies, his father looses vitality. He befriends don Rafaniello – his nickname from having red hair like a ravanello, a radish. He’s a shoemaker. He’s an angel. He comes from a northern country “that lost all his children” (20) – Poland? Over there, his name was Rav Daniel. While travelling to Jerusalem at the end of WWII, Rafaniello ended on the wrong ‘God’s mountain’, Montedidio, in Naples. Not much difference, after all, because Naples is a “city of blood [….], like Jerusalem” (72), he says. So, he decided to stay. To make shoes for the children who were running barefoot on the streets of Naples. Now he repairs shoes for the poor, for free. He’s waiting that his wings, hidden in his hump, spread and take him to Jerusalem, to fulfill a prophecy he was given in a dream. On New Year’s Eve, on Montedidio’s roofs, “with a crunching of bones the boomerang breaks away” (167) and leads the way for Rafaniello, who spreads his wings wide in the blaze of the fireworks. And suddenly, from the throat of the narrator, “a donkey’s braying that rips from my lungs” (168). His voice mutates from adolescence to adulthood. “I shout, and there isn’t enough room for my shout on my whole scroll of paper or even in the sky above Montedidio” (168).
A coming-of-age story narrated in the present tense from the point of view of a young boy whose name will remain undisclosed. The fragmentary style of a teenager who has chosen to write in a language that is not his ‘native.’ But it is also De Luca’s typical ethereal, aphoristic writing. Which has been nicely rendered in the English translation.
Erri De Luca, an atheist who translates the Bible, a former militant in extreme-left political groups, has created an angel without mysticism. Full of bodily sensations, instead. His hump is itching, and “at night his wing bones squeak inside his hump. They try to move and they hurt” (40). And a pinch of Neapolitan superstition: the wings will be activated by all the hands that rub Rafaniello’s hump, believing that it’ll bring them good luck.
Rafaniello is a migrant angel. The essence of transience. Angelic nomadism.
And doubtless, a spore, generating the young boy’s new voice when he flies away.
Leaving behind a few residues: “On the ground are Rafaniello’s blanket, two feathers, and a pair of shoes” (168).
If this were a love story, they would lay on the dirty floor of an abandoned house where once the lovers made love. Forgotten after love has ended.
“When angels were devoured”
A silk kiss was circumcised, with surgical precision,
when I offered my head on what I believed was a silver plate – rust, indeed.
Sandpaper, I invoke, to peel the ghost
who’s hunting my lips – diverted
licking the pungency of a rotten apple
mistaken for a ripe orange.
Squeezing the juice – not from a woman’s pleasure:
grounded limbs of amputated desires
in a tangled web of wet kindling –
use for no fire
(photos and poem by Roberta Tabanelli – @copyright 2010)
(Photos of ‘devoured angels’ are property of the author. Please, do not use without permission).
Some essays on Erri De Luca, including one I wrote, can be found here.
One book by Erri De Luca, Tre cavalli / Three Horses (1999), has been used to compose my first ‘book spine poetry‘.