THE ITALIANIST: Riveting Italian Books You Need to Know About by Katherine Gregor. IL GIOCO DI SANTA OCA (The Game of the Holy Goose) by Laura Pariani

Lombardy, Autumn 1652. Weary of being abused by the nobility and the soldiers that keep pillaging the land, a group of men join the mysterious Bonaventura Mangiaterra, a charismatic leader with his very own interpretation of the Bible as a message of freedom and equality. Feeling threatened, the secular powers and the Inquisition plot to find him and for that they need the perfect spy.

Twenty years later, the storyteller Pùlvara wanders across the same moorland, a land where pagan beliefs are sometimes stronger than Church teachings, trading tales for bed and board, recounting the feats of the legendary rebel. As the day draws nearer when the walls between the world of the living and the world of the dead are thin, and Púlvara approaches her true destination, the board game she plays in her head becomes more real, until, guided by a she-wolf, she is finally able to find an old friend and set the spirit of a tormented body free.

Il gioco di Santa Oca is a chanson de geste, an epic poem, a tale of rebellion, of freedom, and of the courage of women who defy the convention of their times.

Three questions to the author:

KG:  Every other chapter represents a square in the board game the Game of the Goose. Why did you choose this format for your novel, and why the Holy Goose?

LP: In the even chapters, the narrative follows the viewpoint of a 17th-century camminante, a wanderer, who, depending on how the day’s events affect her, lets herself be guided by the numbers in the Game of the Goose. It’s a very old and widely-known board game: every box is part of a cycle ruled by a planet or star that influences it, shows the way or issues a warning; above all, time is viewed as a wheel. It’s an? homage to the rural culture into which I was born, because I have been taught that the world is never the way it seems.

In rural culture, the Goose is a sacred animal that guides the souls of the dead.

KG:  Could you tell me about the language you use in the novel? Since it’s not “pure” Lombard dialect…

LP: Nobody really knows how people spoke in the 17th century. Ordinary people spoke a blend of local dialect and words learnt from soldiers (Spaniards, French, Germans, Croats, etc.) who would cross the Lombard Plain, terms picked up from the Latin they heard in church and the jargon of the vagrants scattered after the Thirty Years’ War.

I tried to draw on the folk culture of the times and also “invented” words by countering rural – crude, farcical and violent – dialect with the cold, elitist language of power (of the nobility and the clergy). In this I have followed in the footsteps of the great literary tradition of Northern Italy, from the 16th-century macaronic poet Folengo to Carlo Porta, and finally to the 20th century of Testori, Gadda, Fo, Loy, etc.

KG: This novel depicts a Lombardy far removed from what the modern – and especially foreign – reader might picture, as well as a region perhaps not all that widely explored in literature. Moreover, it is the land of your ancestors. What were you hoping to convey about this region through Il gioco di Santa Oca?

LP: I have told a story set in the Lombard moorland because I know it well. Ever since I was born I have been breathing it in as a world apart where there is still a magical outlook on life and where elements of Christianity merge with ancient pagan beliefs. It’s no coincidence that the events come to completion at the end of October, when the world of the living and the world of the dead intersect for a few hours.

“My” Lombard moorland exists in the same way as Macondo, in A Hundred Years of Solitude, and is equally rooted in the longing for magic in my childhood. “My” female brigand dressed as a man is a relative of the English Robin Hood, the Germanic Till Eulenspiegel, the Chinese Mulan and the Tuscan Fanta-Ghirò-persona-bella.

by Katherine Gregor


IL GIOCO DI SANTA OCA (The Game of the Holy Goose) Fiction.

by Laura Pariani (La nave di Teseo, 2019)

Read an excerpt from Il gioco di Santa Oca, translated by Katherine Gregor.


With thanks to Piergiorgio Nicolazzini of Piergiorgio Nicolazzini Literary Agency, Milan.

Currently on the bestseller list in Italy: Il Colibrì by Sandro Veronesi (Nave di Teseo, 2019)

Recently Published in English Translation: The Phone Box at the Edge of the World by Laura Imai Messina, translated by Lucy Rand (Manilla Press, 2020)


Katherine Gregor grew up in Italy and France before going to university in England.  She has been a theatrical agent, press agent, teacher and one or two other things before becoming a literary translator from Italian, French and, on occasion, Russian.  She also writes original material and is currently working on a non-fiction book.

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