Report by Morena Marsilio
Morena Marsilio teaches Language and Literature in a Liceo Scientifico, and is working on her PhD in Italian Studies at the University of Padua, focusing on themes and forms in...Read more
After an absence of fifty years, Ulisse Bonfanti returns to his birthplace in the Valtellina to accomplish an “act of war”: the cold-blooded killing of fellow villager Mario Ferrari. From the starting point of this episode, the novel unfolds over a further five chapters, slender in plot terms and structured in terse paragraphs which narrate the protagonist’s life, assuming his point of view and his disjointed and irrational sense of time. Through flashbacks on the life of a man who since childhood has been a victim of psychotic disturbances, the story is reconstructed of a farming family who, having accepted the “natural” losses of their harsh mountain life (children born and quickly dead, the father dying of the malora), cannot withstand the tragedy suffered during the Partisan war. One night, a Black Brigade captained by Ferrari bursts into the Bonfanti home demanding to know the whereabouts of Ulisse, not yet twenty, who has fled into the mountains with the Partisans. The Fascists burn down the stable and the animals inside, and beat and rape Ulisse’s sister Nerina, who after the war takes her own life aged just sixteen. The survivors of this tragedy, Ulisse and his mother Giuditta, decide to leave the Valtellina. And so begins their life as labourers in the cotton mills of the Susa Valley: no less arduous, but it at least teaches them to hold their heads high, take part in the factory’s struggles and demand dignity in their work. But within Ulisse there remains a unhealed wound: his feelings of guilt for being the cause of Nerina’s fate and the knowledge that, in the turncoat days of the postwar period, the perpetrators of the crime have never been punished, gnaw at his mind like woodworm, to explode in the violence described in the first pages of the book.
The novel’s title lends itself to multiple readings, the most immediate being a reference to the murder which soaks the snow with blood in the square of the small mountain village. Then there’s the red of the protagonist’s hair, from which he takes his nom de guerre, and the fires set by the Fascists in farmhouses to drive out draft dodgers and Partisans. And lastly, red is the flag of the Communists, through whom Ulisse comprehends the bullying tactics underlying worker-boss relationships. White, on the other hand, evokes not only the snow which abounds in the Valtellina and which occasionally frees the women from their daily chores on the farm, but also the impalpable dust breathed in the Valsusa cotton mills and deposited in the workers’ lungs; ultimately, white is the current political night since the moment “in 1994 when power returned to a party of men who have never really forgotten Mussolini”.
At centre stage is Ulisse, caught up in a never-ending dialogue with his family ghosts – Giuditta and Nerina – to whom he gives voices and thoughts. In the grip of constant hallucinations and migraines, the young man, “proud to be a Christian and a Stalinist Communist”, experiences religious faith with an unhinged zeal, seeing it as tangibly embodied only in those who fight “to defend the wretched, the ill-treated”. His mother Giuditta, married at eighteen, accepts the “brutish life” which is the lot of women in the harsh, inhospitable Valtellina; an extremely bleak existence in a poor farming community, dominated by the rhythm of the seasons and the dictates of religion. Nevertheless, crushed by the loss of her daughter, she seeks redemption in the factory and finds pride in her first strike at the age of fifty. Nerina, for her part, is an idealised and ghostly figure; she is perhaps the only character in the book who does not harbour bitterness. An ethereal presence, she attends her mother’s funeral at the head of a “multitude of celestial creatures, divine ambassadors”, invoking once again the violence she suffered and the catatonic state she fell into in the subsequent months, yet without imputing blame to anyone; she remains the fixed point in Ulisse’s sense of justice.
Language and style
In the novel the expressive tension of Ulisse and the other characters is perfectly balanced between the rendering of the oral usage of speakers on the verge of illiteracy (as evidenced by the insistent use of the multipurpose che in the Italian) and a gaunt, rhythmical lyricism: the repetitions, inversions and chiastic structures of the period add effectiveness to a stark testimony which coincides with the tireless flow of the protagonist’s consciousness.
In my view
The book’s interest lies in its exemplary depiction of an emancipation betrayed and its delicate tracing of twentieth-century motifs. The Partisan war and life in the factory awaken in Ulisse – whose peasant existence would otherwise have inexorably condemned him to ignorance – a cultural and political awareness developed first in the mountains and later “at meetings every Sunday”. Civil war and the life of workers are in any case favourite themes of the late twentieth century maestros who inspire Valenti: the Fenoglio of La Malora and the Partisan stories, the Volponi of Memoriale – which tells of a farmer-turned-worker never completely converted to the factory – and Fortini’s lessons in Foglio di via reverberate in his resentment of a “whore Italy” willing to distort the truth of its recent past. Lastly, the echo of Nuto Revelli emerges in the vernacular which constitutes the backbone of the entire novel.
Why translate it
Originating in a newspaper article from the province of Mantua and a stack of documents, the book is what Valenti defines as “a textual novel”, in other words a story born of other books, with the purpose of bringing to light historical traumas never remedied and pinpointing meaningful connections between them and the irresolvable contradictions of the present. The reconstruction of the “heart of darkness” which gives rise to the initial crime is achieved through the delusions and psychosis of Ulisse, a character whose madness has modernist traits, even though the rise and fall of his life is largely similar to that of the “defeated” in the realist genre.
What they say
“An organism assembled and moulded by Valenti with great skill, always without concessions.”
Angelo Ferracuti, il manifesto