Could this be the Great Italian Novel?
Possibly not since Riccardo Bacchelli (a now largely forgotten writer whose epic trilogy ‘The Mill on the Po’ (1938-40) traced the fortunes of a family from the Napoleonic Wars to the First World War) has an Italian novelist taken on quite such a large chunk of his nation’s history. Giorgio Fontana’s Prima Di Noi, published in 2020 after a decade’s research and writing, begins more or less where Bacchelli left off, in 1917. A soldier deserts the Italian army, meets a girl from a farming family and gets her pregnant. The generations that follow from this initial union are depicted through a century of social and political change, all the way to 2012. What is remarkable is that none of the historical background feels shoe-horned in; the emphasis throughout is on the characters, all of whom are given equal weight and are brought vividly to life in a direct, accessible, occasionally visceral style. The nine hundred pages fly by. At a time when family sagas are far from uncommon in Italian fiction, Prima Di Noi is something very special, an overwhelming portrait, not only of a family but of a country.
By Howard Curtis
Hoisting himself onto the tank for a moment, Private Maurizio Sartori looked at the mass of men advancing along the road. A wounded man next to him spat and pulled his helmet down over his face, while a dog barked at the tank, running with its tongue dangling. Abandoned cannons lay in the grey light. Three fellow soldiers returned to the column blind drunk, waving sacks of flour and salami stolen from the farmhouses, and with lumps of cheese on the tips of their bayonets, crying, ‘Look at this feast!’ Further on, as far as the eye could see, the plain was endless and blurred in the rain, and smoke whirled up from burnt-out storehouses.
Every kilometre they went, groups of civilians tried to join them and were thrown back to the sides of the road or along the sodden fields. The women had jute sacks over their shoulders and packages under their arms, while thin, dirty children threw balls of earth, excited to have left home. People latched on to them, elbowing each other and cursing, together with their oxen, sheep and hens.
Maurizio jumped down, and Ballarin grabbed him by the arm.
‘Are you in, then?’ he whispered. ‘As soon as we can, with the Calabrian?’
The copper cross was dangling outside his uniform, and his eyes glistened, as if stunned, two pebbles in a stream. He was drunk too. Maurizio nodded.
Soon afterwards they crossed the Tagliamento. The column had thinned down to fit the narrow path, and the tanks and horses made marching difficult. Everyone pushed, urging each other to hurry, because very soon the sappers would be blowing up the bridge. The mass was impenetrable now, and Maurizio felt suddenly short of breath; he leaned over the parapet to look for a moment at the dark, turbulent, overflowing water of the river that would protect them. He was thinking, unwittingly, of the dead. Almost immediately, the dead stop resembling us. He had seen so many of them and none looked like the living; they were as dumb and inscrutable as wild animals or stones. He felt the breath go out of him.
When at last he got to the other side, he wiped the sweat from his forehead and Ballarin kissed his copper cross. ‘Good,’ he said. ‘This time it’s really over.’
Within a few minutes, the explosions started. Maurizio turned, along with thousands of others, and saw a central section of the bridge bend, crumble and end up in the river. The men who were still on the structure bustled about and a dark cloud of dust spread into the distance. After a moment’s silence, everyone yelled for joy.
By Giorgio Fontana
Translated by Howard Curtis
From PRIMA DI NOI (‘Before Us’)
By Giorgio Fontana
Published by Sellerio (2020)
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Giorgio Fontana was born in Saronno in 1981 and lives in Milan. He is the author of eight books, which have won a number of prestigious prizes. His latest novel is Il mago di Riga (Sellerio, 2022). He also writes comic strips and teaches creative writing.
Howard Curtis has translated over a hundred books from Italian, French and Spanish. Among his many Italian translations are works by Gianrico Carofiglio, Filippo Bologna, Marco Malvaldi and Gianfranco Calligarich. He edited an anthology of neglected 20th-century authors for the Italian Cultural Institute in London.