#RivetingReviews: Aneesa Abbas Higgins reviews MARIANNA SIRCA by Grazia Deledda

I confess that before this novel came my way, I knew almost nothing of the Nobel prize-winning author Grazia Deledda. Fortunately, this edition comes with an introduction by the translator, Graham Anderson: Deledda was a prolific novelist, dramatist and short story writer, who counted among her admirers both Maxim Gorky and D. H. Lawrence. She was born on the island of Sardinia in 1871 into a middle-class family and lived until she was thirty among people whose way of life had changed little over hundreds of years. Her writing brings to life the moral and ethical dilemmas faced by men and women from close-knit families living in isolated outposts among the rugged Sardinian hills, where bandits roam and the church exerts a powerful influence. Poverty and affluence exist side by side in a society bound by strict social conventions and the arbitrary distribution of wealth and power. 

Marianna Sica is set in the cork-oak forests and sheep pastures of the mountains above Nuoro. The eponymous Marianna has just come into an inheritance: a small farmhouse bequeathed to her by her uncle, a relatively wealthy priest. Sent by her parents to live with him as a child, Marianna has spent her life in isolation, caring for her uncle: She was to be his little caged bird, in exchange for a possible inheritance. Now aged thirty, she has become a woman of property, but as she herself realises, she is sadly inexperienced in matters of the heart. Alone and at peace, she wanted for nothing. But she is introspective and self-aware, acutely conscious of her own innocence: And now she was waking up after so many years. Thirty of them already, and still she knew scarcely anything of love. So when the handsome bandit Simone Sole comes to call on her, she is ill-equipped to resist his magnetic charms. As children, the two had been fellow servants in her uncle’s house. But now, driven by a combination of poverty and pride, Simone has become an outlaw, albeit a somewhat reluctant one, while Marianna has acquired the status of a respectable, virtuous woman of property. The social barriers that now exist between them seem insurmountable. While Marianna strives to find a way to overcome those barriers, all those around her present further obstacles. Fidela, her faithful servant and lifelong companion, has witnessed terrible violence at the hands of bandits and sees only disaster ahead for her mistress. Sebastiano, her cousin, who considers himself to be the only one worthy of Marianna, is driven to violence by the intensity of his feelings for her. Church, family and townspeople seem united in their determination to deflect Marianna from the desire to follow her heart. 

Reading this tale of thwarted passions, I felt I had been transported to the set of an opera: the twists and turns of the plot are epic in scope, melodramatic perhaps, but reminiscent of that world. As Marianna wrestles with her conscience, desperately searching for a way to reconcile her newly awakened passion with her social and religious scruples, it is not hard to imagine her soliloquies set to music as swooping arias, worthy of Puccini or Verdi. Extravagant, wordy declarations of love abound. The lovers are conflicted, desperately trying to resist the convulsions of repressed desire that consume them: He felt something rise within him, like a wild beast that slept deep in his entrails. Marianna experiences love as an agitation hidden deep in the heart, and an enslavement to that agitation. Yet it was a sweet delight to go to sleep like this, bound, with a secret of her own within her heart. Translator Graham Anderson seems not to have balked at rendering such elaborate flights of fancy into florid English prose; this is a translation that surely must do justice to the original Italian. 

As befits a work of such rich romanticism, the power of nature is ever present, reflecting and enhancing the mood and action.. Lyrical passages evoke the forest laughing in the night, the moon breaking through the clouds in moments of calm. Or again, with the falling of the night, just as winter cast its cloak of darkness on the land, so grief threw over her its black mantle. Winter is a time of bleak isolation while spring brings rebirth and with it, the bitter-sweet realisation that tragedy looms amid the promise offered by young green shoots and colourful blossoms. 

Richly imagined and uncompromising in its powerful descriptions, Marianna Sirca is an engrossing novel that vividly evokes a time and place far removed from the modern world. It left me curious to read more of Deledda’s extensive body of work. 

Reviewed by Aneesa Abbas Higgins

MARIANNA SIRCA

by Grazia Deledda

Translated from the Italian by Graham Anderson

Published by Dedalus (2023)

December 2023 #RivetingReviews titles are available to buy from bookshop.org.


Aneesa Abbas Higgins is the translator of numerous works from the French. Her translation of A Girl Called Eel by Ali Zamir (Jacaranda 2019) was awarded the Scott Moncrieff Prize 2020. Her more recent translations are Winter in Sokcho by Elisa Shua Dusapin (Daunt Books, 2020), On Terrorism: Conversations with my daughter by Tahar Ben Jelloun (Small Axes, 2020) and All Men Want to Know by Nina Bouraoui (Penguin Viking, 2020).

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