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Italian Authors in Search of an Identity, Part III

Valerie Waterhouse By Valerie Waterhouse Published on October 5, 2017
This article was updated on November 14, 2017

If a nation’s literature maps out its collective consciousness, what do books by these authors reveal about Italy? Part I examined whether there is such a thing as ‘Italianness’, whereas Part II looked at how absence lies at the heart of Italian identity. Now, Part III looks at the effect of migration and immigration on Italian identity.

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The Farewells by Umberto Boccioni MOMA Gift of Nelson A. Rockefeller

Those Who Go and Those Who Stay

When Elena Ferrante chose the title Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay for the third novel in her Neapolitan Quartet, she picked up on a theme that runs through the heart of Italian literature.  Ferrante may, in fact,  have taken the idea from a 1911 work by futurist artist Umberto Boccioni.  Hanging in Milan’s Museo del Novecento art museum, Those Who Go, Those Who Stay and The Farewells form a triptych, aptly entitled States of Mind. Goodbyes were very much in the minds of Italian people in the first years of the twentieth century as southern Italians headed north in search of work, or migrated to the United States, Canada, Brazil, Argentina, or Australia, fleeing poverty. In The Farewells, undulating white lines recall the flowing trajectories of waving handkerchiefs; in Those Who Go, horizontal brush strokes, evoking wind, sweep abstract figures almost off their feet; and in Those Who Stay, vertical bars like rods of rain pin silhouettes to the place where they are standing, heads bowed.

Short and highly poetic, Alessandro Baricco’s Novecento (1997) centres on a virtuoso pianist born aboard a ship transporting migrants to America. The pianist’s name is Novecento, because he was found in 1900, abandoned by his migrant mother on the boat. The story was originally written as a dramatic monologue, and lies ‘somewhere between a play and a story to read out loud,’ Baricco explains. Its language is imagistic, prodigious, like the otherworldly music which Novecento invents. He has no roots, no origins, no official identity. He only exists on the ocean, a sort of no man’s land. When the opportunity comes, he is scared to disembark, afraid of life’s ‘immensity’. He chooses not to choose, to stay where he is rather than step into the unknown. This, as it turns out, is his doom. Novecento’s role is to offer succour to migrants, terrified of the sea. These are people so poor that they transform their sheets into clothing before stepping into the promised land: ‘America!’ Yet, in choosing, they, too, will lose their roots and identity.

Following World War II, the Italian search for identity took on a new sense of urgency. The industrial boom resulted in the movement of vast swathes of the populace towards the northern cities, mainly from rural areas and the impoverished south. This, too, was enforced migration as southerners abandoned their homes and families.

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In Italo Calvino’s delightful Marcovaldo (1963), an early eco-novel, the protagonist is forced to an unnamed northern city in search of work. He spends his free time hunting mushrooms, hacking up billboards for firewood, or watching occasional herds of cows driven through the streets. Most of his attempts to reconnect with nature end in disaster: he is poisoned by mushrooms, stung by wasps and catches industrially polluted fish. Yet this collection of twenty linked stories manages to be both poetic and highly amusing. Visionary and astute, Calvino links confused identity to urban dwellers harking back to a recent rural past. Who can forget Marcovaldo on his ‘tricycle-truck,’ his nose lifted toward the heavens, chasing a flock of migrating woodcock as they soar above the city streets?

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Michela Murgia’s equally slim novella Accabadora (2009) also deals, in part, with the theme. Set in 1950’s Sardinia, its lyrical, twisting plot keeps the reader spellbound on practically every page. It hinges on the relationship between an accabadora – a semi-mythical midwife of death – and her fillus de anima or adopted soul-daughter, Maria, and explores the pros and cons of euthanasia in a more traditional, merciful epoch. A coming of age novella with a macabre twist, it examines staying, leaving, sexuality, love, life, death and female identity.

With its complex network of dry stone vineyards, the village of Soreni becomes a character in its own right. Its inhabitants refer to the rest of Italy as the continent; its children have trouble finding a reason to learn Italian at school. ‘It isn’t true that (Sardinia)’s in Italy, we’re separate!’ says Maria. ‘I saw it on the map!’ Yet it is only by sailing to the ‘continent’ in search of a ‘new life, where no one knows who you are, of whom or what you are the daughter,’ that Maria discovers who she truly is and what she is capable of. But like many Italians, her rural roots are never forgotten, and she is compelled to return home.

As south to north migration grew, northerners increasingly looked down on those they disparagingly called ‘terroni’ (people of the land). But from the late 1980s, immigration began to replace regionalism as the source of ‘otherness’. Italy’s history as a country of emigrants made it ill-adapted to the immigrants who began to trickle in from Africa, Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe, culminating in the boatloads of asylum seekers from sub-Saharan Africa who have arrived over the past few years. Italian identity has undergone a seismic shift as multi-cultural influences come into play. These days, media reports and people in the streets often refer to ‘noi italiani’ (‘we Italians’). Ironically, immigration has had the negative side-effect of strengthening jingoistic Italian identity.

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Algerian-Italian writer Amara Lakhous is one of several mixed identity writers exploring the ‘new’ Italy. ‘The life of Italian immigrants in the past closely resembles the life of the immigrants arriving in Italy today,’ says one of the culturally-blended characters in Clash of Civilizations over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio, a comic novel about an immigrant-Italian community in a Rome apartment block. ‘Throughout history, immigrants have always been the same. All that changes is their language, their religion, and the colour of their skin.’

Told in twelve different voices, from a Bangladeshi store owner to a Dutch film student, the action revolves around the murder of a tenant and the subsequent disappearance of Amedeo, an intellectual ‘Italian’ – who turns out to be from Algeria. First person police reports from each of the tenants bear witness as well as offering often hilarious insights into the melting pot. ‘Amedeo has a neighbour who calls her dog sweetheart! She treats him like a child or husband; in fact, once I heard her say that he sleeps next to her, in the same bed. Isn’t that the height of madness?’ says an Iranian immigrant, expressing an opinion frequently heard among migrants to Italy. ‘Because I’ve been in Rome a long time I can distinguish between racists and tolerant Italians: the racists don’t smile at you and don’t answer if you say ciao, or good morning, or good evening,’ says the Bangladeshi shopkeeper, more chillingly. But the usual Italian concerns about identity crop up here, too. ‘I don’t know who Amedeo is,’ says his Italian girlfriend after he disappears. ‘Who was he before he came to Rome?’

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Immigration is one of many themes touched upon in Andrea Camilleri’s series about the quirky Sicilian detective, Salvo Montalbano, along with political corruption and the Mafia. A good place to start for the first-time reader is Montalbano’s First Case and Other Stories, a novella involving the grandson of a Mafia boss, and twenty other stories, including the Pirandello-esque Montalbano Says No, in which the detective confronts his author.

Montalbano is so deeply Sicilian/Italian that he’s sometimes accused of being a cliché; yet millions of fans adore him for his subversive morality, his addiction to food (especially the deep-fried Sicilian riceballs known as arancini), and his willingness to bend the rules in order to do the right thing.

This is the way many Italians would like to view themselves: kind and tolerant, fond of the good things in life, flexible and humane. As the nation reveals its dark side in the face of economic crisis and mass immigration, Montalbano represents the best facets of Italian identity.


Valerie Waterhouse is a journalist and editor based in Italy, mostly writing about travel and books. She is the editor of the guidebook Time Out Milan and recently wrote the afterword for The ... Show More