Report by Laura Cangemi
Laura Cangemi was born in Milan, where she studied at Liceo Classico Beccaria and then at the Università Statale, majoring in Modern Languages and Literature in 1986, when she moved...Read more
Richard R. Nybakken is a writer, translator, and historian. He graduated with an AB in history from Dartmouth College, and holds an MA and C.Phil. in modern European history (specializing in...Read more
It’s Christmas Eve, and the stores are all getting ready to close. In Piazza Duomo little Lavinia is trying to sell her matches to the last of the freezing shoppers, but no one pays any attention to her, and those that do respond rudely. Suddenly, right in front of her, an elegant lady with a strange cone-shaped hat gets out of a taxi. Lavinia is suspicious, but when the strange woman in the voile evening gown asks her for a match to light her cigarette, she doesn’t dare refuse the favor, knowing that fairies exist only in fables (though the same goes for little girls selling matches, according to the fairy). As if by magic, the cigarette releases strange sparks, and the fairy decides to give a gift in return to Lavinia, who is somewhat disappointed by the ring the fairy slips on her finger. Appearances are deceiving, however, and the girl soon realizes the power of the slender little piece of jewelry, which can transform any object or person she looks at into poop – yes, poop – as soon as she spins it around her finger. Before too long she learns to exploit its magic: first, transforming a cobbler’s entire collection of shoes into poop, promising to return everything back to normal if she gets a present, while taking a nice pair of fur-lined boots to cover her bare feet. Then she uses the same trick to change her wardrobe from head to toe and, when the concierge at the Deluxe Grand Hotel Excelsior refuses to give her a room, she convinces him to change his mind by turning the crystal chandelier at the entrance into a steaming pile of poop as well. As a regular resident of the hotel, Lavinia learns to ingratiate herself with everyone and becomes friends with Clodoveo, the elevator operator and son of the concierge, a smart, clever type who teaches Lavinia (who’d never gone to school a day in her life) everything he knows. Thanks to the magic of the ring, the two friends free all the animals in the city zoo, helping them return to Africa, and save a baby from a fire by transforming the flames into poop; but at a certain point, Lavinia becomes too full of herself and looks in the mirror while spinning the ring around her finger, thus running the risk of disappearing forever. But good fortune comes to her aid in the form of the faithful Clodoveo, and Lavinia learns to use her magic sparingly, only when it can truly be useful.
Independent, inventive, and full of courage, Lavinia lies squarely within the tradition of the strong young girl who knows how to take care of herself and who makes her way in the world thanks in part to a bit of magic, like Roald Dahl’s Matilda or Pippi Longstocking before her. The surrounding cast, endowed with highly original names (a distinctive trait of almost all the characters in Bianca Pitzorno’s books) serve to counterbalance this volcanic child who, despite her powers, needs the very real, tangible affection of someone her own age to learn what is truly important in life.
Language and Style
The Milanese setting of what might be called an “urban fairy tale” makes the author’s language anything but traditional. Reading the book one recognizes it as a quintessentially Italian city (despite the fact that the author describes the Milan of thirty years ago), with its neuroses and frenetic pace, but also with a range of humanity that speaks in a colorful, everyday Italian. This is a language unconcerned about censoring itself, beginning with the use of the word cacca (“poop,” or more vulgarly, “shit”), a word used for perhaps the first time in a children’s book (others have followed, but the taboo, so to speak, was broken by Lavinia).
For many young girls born from the late 1970s onward, Bianca Pitzorno is a legend: the author of around fifty titles, all centered around female characters, she managed to win her fans thanks to her very original and yet “everyday” protagonists that all readers – but especially girls – can easily identify with.
Why This Book Merits a Translation
L’incredibile storia di Lavinia was recently published in Spanish under the supervision of Pitzorno herself, who has a fine command of the language thanks to her close relationship with Cuba, but it has also had great success in countries with seemingly very little in common with Italy, such as Thailand, South Korea, China, and Japan. It’s shocking that a classic of children’s literature still has not been translated into the major European languages (an old French translation, from 1987, is probably out of date, while a Greek version was recently published). The time has definitely come to fill this gap.