Reading Reports

Domenico Dara
Appunti di meccanica celeste

Report by Antonella Falco

Antonella Falco, an Italianist, works at the Università degli Studi di Calabria. She has written essays and other work on Cesare Pavese and Michele Mari, among others. She also writes...

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Emma Mandley’s first degree was in Italian and History of Art, and she also has a Masters degree in translation, specialising in Italian.  Emma’s career has mainly been spent in...

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The book and the characters
After Breve trattato sulle coincidenze, his surprising, prize-winning debut, Domenico Dara is back with a new novel, again set in the village of Girifalco in Calabria. And it’s another choral novel, following seven characters as their lives intertwine with those of the other villagers as well as with the circus performers, brought by chance circumstances to Girifalco, who will permanently transform the protagonists’ destinies. The first seven chapters are devoted to introducing the characters, with each chapter heading summarising their idiosyncrasies. Il pazzo (the mad one) is Lulù. He’s effectively the village simpleton, but he possesses an unusual artistic talent: he knows how to make music with leaves as his instruments, thereby creating enchanting melodies. His life is spent waiting for his mother to come and collect him from the mental asylum where he lives and take him home, after years of enforced separation. But he’s waiting in vain: he never finds out that the old lady died the day before the longed-for reunion was to take place. La secca (the dry one) is Cuncettina, who sees her sterility as an unbearable disability and never stops yearning for the utopia of motherhood. Lo stoico (the stoic) is Archimedu Crisippu, a philosophy professor whose surname encapsulates his destiny, with its echo of the Greek philosopher Chrisyppus. Although he cultivates an air of indifference towards the world, Archimedu carries a burden of grief that he’s never got over: the mysterious disappearance of his younger brother Sciachineddu. La mala (the mean one) is Mararosa, sometimes called Malarosa, whose life is filled with bitterness and envy, especially since Rorò stole her (almost) fiancé. L’epicureo (the epicure) is the tailor Don Venanzio, a passionate hedonist and lover of all the most beautiful women in Girifalco. La venturata (the lucky one) is Rorò, who has never in her whole life experienced a bad day, a misfortune or a regret. And finally, il figlio (the son) is Angeliaddu, a boy who’s never known his father and who endures the discrimination and prejudice of the village because of the albino streak in his hair. The story takes place in August, when Girifalco is in turmoil because two festivals have coincided: the Feast of the Assumption and the Festival of San Rocco, the local patron saint. The morning after the night of the falling stars, a circus arrives in town. Not any old circus, but a big important one, with spellbinding performers and mind-blowing acts: trapeze artistes, animal trainers, knife-throwers, illusionists, contortionists. A magical microcosm that fascinates the villagers and stirs their imaginations, eventually interacting with the stories of the seven protagonists in ways that only the vagaries of fate can account for. It will change their lives forever, giving them a new self-awareness and even a glimpse of happiness.

Context and language
Domenico Dara has remained loyal to the place (Girifalco) and the distinctive approach that made his debut novel unique and remarkable, as he recounts the story of a village that is both real and ‘mythical’, set in a time that is chronologically fixed and identifiable, yet suspended in a dreamlike, magical, timeless atmosphere. Like his first novel, Appunti di meccanica celeste (Notes on celestial mechanics) paints an anthropological picture of a village in Calabria that exists in the present day (episodes of the TV soap opera Beautiful, avidly followed by Mararosa, provide a clue to the date). Yet in many aspects – the lifestyle, the narrow-mindedness, the superstitions and prejudices – Girifalco seems to living in the past, perhaps even in the 1970s, the timeframe specified in his first novel. And while the first novel called to mind some of Ernesto De Martino’s ethnographical works on the Italian South, Appunti di meccanica celeste brings us a vivid and poetic depiction of a place in Calabria set in an undefined time and for this very reason full of enchantment and literary allusions. All this is supported by Dara’s prose, blending Italian with dialect and transformed by his style into an extremely evocative idiom. “A Southern Italian version of [García Márquez’s] Macondo,” as Girifalco is described on the back flap. It is in any event an ideal setting for a fable that explores the mysterious manoeuvrings of destiny and the small daily miracles that would go unnoticed in the frenetic comings and goings of a big city.

Why translate it?
Appunti di meccanica celeste deserves to be translated because Domenico Dara is a mature writer who manipulates, with skill and mastery, the narrative threads and the destinies of the numerous characters who crowd onto his pages, bringing life to stories that are never banal, with outcomes that are never formulaic or predictable. In the vast Italian literary landscape, which is so often conformist and monochrome, he has succeeded in carving out a space entirely his own where his unique style and imagination shine. The style, moreover, offers an exciting challenge to the translator: it is conveyed through a language that maintains a cultured register – though it’s never excessively rarefied – but calls upon dialect terms to establish the character and colour of the locations and the novel’s protagonists. Here is an opportunity for the reader to travel to a picturesque village in Southern Italy, captured in all its distinctive customs, behaviour and language and in the magic of a slowed and suspended time (which those who know Calabria will find convincing), looking to the future yet still firmly fixed in the past.

Other opinions
“Dara proves his narrative skills and succeeds once again in bringing us a fascinating modern fairytale.”
Andrea Bressa, Panorama

Domenico Dara was born in 1971. After spending his childhood and adolescence in Girifalco, in Calabria where the novel is set, he studied in Pisa, graduating with a thesis on the poetry of Cesare Pavese. Today he lives and works in Lombardy. Short treatise on coincidences made Dara a finalist in the Italo Calvino Prize in 2013.
1 February 2017
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