Erri de Luca: God’s Mountain

De Luca, Erri (2002), God’s Mountain, Riverhead
[Translated from the Italian by Michael Moore]
ISBN 978-1573229609

montedidioFirst things first: despite the title of this post and the bibliographic info at the top, I didn’t actually read this book in English. Nor, I have to say in shame, in Italian. The copy I have is in French, mostly due to financial reasons. That said, French is a great language for reading translations for me as far as Romance languages are concerned. The title of the book in Italian is Montedidio. Similarly, the French, German and sundry translations also opted to use that title. “Montedidio” is a Neapolitan word meaning “God’s Mountain,” as well as the name of a neighborhood in Naples and the English translator (or his editor) elected to take that title. On a forum, I once asked the translator of the English version of Jean-Claude Izzo’s novel Total Khéops why he elected to translate it as Total Chaos, since “Chaos” is not a translation of “Khéops” and the latter is a rich reference to the popcultural allusions in the book, especially to the Marseille rap scene. He pointed me to the publisher’s influence. I assume the same reasoning is at play here because within the confines of this novel, “Montedidio” makes more sense. The novel is written in Italian, not in Neapolitan dialect, and this is important for the book, so much so that the narrator addresses it in the very first chapter. The narrator explains that while he understands Italian, he doesn’t speak it. He writes in Italian, because it’s a kind of quiet, safe space, unlike the noisiness of the dialect that informs and forms the world around him. Italian is the language of books, of knowledge, of the powerful people. It scares his father who only speaks dialect. The novel specifically elected to take a title that derives from the local dialect. So I’m a bit unhappy about the English title. The book meanwhile is hard to gauge for me. Not that it’s hard to read or complicated – it’s a smooth, quick read which wears all its concerns on its sleeve. But, as I will point out below, there’s a thin line between cheesy and enchanting and the novel spends a lot of its time trying to straddle that line. I have not read a lot of Italian books these past years and they have been mostly terrible. This, despite its flaws, is the best of the bunch by miles.

Erri de Luca is, in Italy, a very successful author, and a public persona who takes part in debates. In fact, he is currently being sued for his participation in one of these debates, accused of inciting violence. Meanwhile, God’s Mountain is not an openly political novel, per se, and it’s hard to assume that the same novelist who produced this book would in other situations also produce political novels. If anything, the book is a gentle moral fable, almost, even though it is shot through and through with social realism; a realism, however, that is tempered by the calming element of historical distance. A story from a poor area in 1963 Naples, it tells us the story of a year in the life of a boy who learns to recognize love, desire, violence and the magic of words all at once. It is not an unpleasant read but the amount of prizes this book and its author have won is mildly puzzling, because this book frequently skirts the border between beautiful and saccharine. It’s probably best described as intensely overdetermined magical realism, with various important topics thrown in, from pedophilia, abuse, death to the Shoah, all of which happens, in my edition, in only 230 pages. That page count even oversells the amount of material offered by the book: the whole novel is structured in small, 1-3 page chapters that sometimes offer consecutive events, sometimes have temporal gaps between them. The effect is an aphoristic one, an overly precious gesture of cuteness, a stilted suggestion of form, elegance and a mild, heightened sense of melancholy. Throughout the whole novel it’s as if we could hear the mildly sad music of a soundtrack to a romantic French movie from the 1970s. People are sad, people look lost, nobody really communicates well, or is misunderstood when they attempt to. Conflicts are ended in silent violence.  And yet one of the oddest and most fascinating choices the book made was one that’s connected to that stilted melancholy.

In the year depicted in the book, one of the things that happen is the protagonist’s sexual awakening. The whole novel is narrated from his point of view and when a neighbor’s daughter decides to have a relationship with the protagonist, and his body responds to her attempts at seduction, the author decided to apply the same sense of puzzled distance to that process as well. Thus, his first erection is described as some kind of alien protuberance. The book’s whole treatment of male sexuality is endlessly fascinating. Speaking as a man myself, I have strong doubts that this moment, 13 years of age, is the first time that boy has learned he has something down there that can change in size and that has odd feelings when handled sensitively. I don’t want to universalize my own biography, but from my life and the life of others around me, I have my doubts that the author, who is male himself, considered this description of male sexuality believable and realistic. I think the strangeness of the boy’s nascent sexuality is a literary effect that de Luca specifically aimed for, That disconnect likely has a function in the book, especially since it clashes strongly with the social realism of the book’s treatment of Montedidio. There are basically four levels of realism in the book. There’s the description of the poverty in the neighborhood. There’s the slighly displaced realism of a survivor of the Shoah, Don Rafaniello (whose real name is Rav Daniel) who speaks a bit of Yiddish now and then, and craves to travel to Jerusalem, and then there’s the downright magic (or rather: imaginary).elements that include the idea that the Shoah survivor, who is a hunchback, hides a set of wings under that big bubble on his upper back. The narrator never breaks with that fantasy, it’s treated as fact throughout.

And into all this is added the odd sexuality of the boy. This only concerns the boy. The girl, due to not entirely pleasant reasons, is already well acquainted with her own body as well as the male physique. In this review’s first paragraph I mentioned the artificial alienation that the use of Italian has for the boy whose father only speaks dialect and who himself only writes in Italian. His sexuality, one of the few elements of the book where the narrator could connect with (half of) the novel’s contemporary audience is thus shown to be in a similar limbo as the boy’s language. Aroused, but disturbed, part of one’s body, but an odd and maybe not entirely welcome transformation. To be clear, this is no story of a strange desire, or of learning what desire is, really. This is an act of miscommunication with one’s own body. There is a sense in which the boy is utterly alienated from himself and some of his most elemental physical aspects. We only have to think back to writers like Wilhelm Reich to remember how central and important child sexuality is. The topic of distorted identity is continued elsewhere, for example with Don Rafaniello. At one point, the boy asks him: doesn’t living in Naples for so many years make you a Neapolitan? Rafaniello answers in a way that makes his allegiance to his Jewishness clear. And his Jewishness means that he can either live at home, the small village destroyed in WWII, or in Jerusalem, the home for his people,. He is enormously insistent. It’s also Rafaniello who connects the book’s physicality to the discussion of dialect and the Italian language, to oppressive majority discourses and the simple vernacular of the working class. Somewhere in the second half of the book he compares dialect to a naked body and Italian to a dress draped over that body. More, he describes Italian as a dry language, dry as in literally lacking saliva, and Neapolitan, by contrast, as a language overflowing with saliva, with wet glue. He then compares it to Yiddish.

As you can see, all the book’s elements are carefully engineered to refer back to each other, it’s a web of symbols that all feed off each other and connect with each other. At times it feels as of Erri de Lucas worked with a laundry list of stresses he felt necessary and then worked them all into the book. But unlike another book I recently reviewed that was well constructed but lacked energy or warmth, de Luca is experienced enough to couch all this construction in a bed of relatability. The language throughout is simple, by dint of posing as a 13 year old’s reminscences. But this simplicity, combined with the shortness of the whole book, also created a feeling of unease for me. The sententious, faux-deep, popular style of magical realism has always rubbed me the wrong way. Now, there’s clear literary differences between God’s Mountain and the execrable work of Coelho and his ilk, but the divide isn’t as stark as one would hope for a book that won, among other awards, the Prix Fémina. The element of the book that most resists the Coelhofication here is the vivid, strong social realism that I haven’t even discussed yet. This nostalgic view at 1963 Naples is also a view at a neighborhood in dissolution, at lives that have so far somehow escaped the full grasp of modernity. Rafaniello’s feeling of living there in a kind of limbo between his unnamed East European shtetl and Israel somehow reflects on the way the whole neighborhood has been in a kind of stasis, isolated from the rest of Italy, a neighborhood of angels, cobblers and wondering boys. This year in the life of the protagonist breaks everything apart. Death, hunger and industrialization finally assert their power over the people in the area, and social conventions regarding family life dissolve together with the unifying power of dialect and the glue of local loyalties.

There used to be a genre that I would call “working class conservatism” in European literature and God’s Mountain fits straight in, to the extent even that the simplicity of prose and structure allows people to read and understand this book who would not normally be able to easily read a work of literature. I cannot in any way decide whether to praise this book or not. What it certainly is not is mediocre. It’s not a book that’s obviously generic. Even in its most odd, over the top moments, it’s its own brand of melancholy sweetness. It is walking a fine line (an expression that I’m sure I’ve overused in this review) but I think, on balance, it mostly pulls it off. Should you read this? Only if you have a tolerance (or a secret penchant) for overblown, extremely sweet, magical realism tinged writing. If you are in any way bothered by these things, stay away.

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