by Peter Byrne
Monda, Antonio: L'america non esiste (There is no America), 2012, Mondadori, ISBN 978-88-04-61605-4, 272 pages. (An English translation is promised.)
(Swans - May 20, 2013) Novelists love orphans. Parents faded out with Tom Jones, the first real novel, and they have never come back as players in the plot. Masterpieces keep crowding the literary orphanage in the sky. A list reads like a great books syllabus, Jane Eyre and Oliver Twist right up to Lolita. Likewise in other languages. Balzac's Comédie Humaine and Zola's Rougon-Macquart are littered with the parentless. Dante Alighieri, a certified orphan himself, may have started the ball rolling.
Bring up the pseudo-orphan, Oedipus, and we tumble into psycho-theory. It explains mass literary orphanhood by the bloodthirsty Freudian Family Romance. Perhaps, but beware explanations that take us far from the novelist's work table. He's a practical craftsman who knows why in the first place he's keen on orphans. They provide him with a blank slate to write on, cleared of prenatal shadows.
So it is with Antonio Monda in his novel, L'america non esiste (There Is No America). The Italian brother and sister he puts center stage are brutally orphaned by a car crash and sent to New York to cushion their mourning. They are just twenty and we are in 1950 or so. Then begins Monda's original twist on orphanhood. He and they, Nicola and Maria, hail from Naples' country. Now anyone who has listened to conversations between the quick and the dead in Neapolitan cemeteries knows that the locals don't let go of their parents easily. Nicola never accepted his father and mother's toothless take on the world. He was only able to tolerate their blandness by a grumpy silence. Maria, who wouldn't hurt or find fault with a fly, only occasionally puzzles over how to reconcile her parents sometime gnomic maxims with her experience. She always gives them the benefit of her doubt. Both son and daughter are slates already much scribbled on.
In America, Nicola's disagreement and Maria's puzzlement continue. Their dialogue with their dead parents fills their heads as they hole up in Brooklyn or roam Manhattan. Monda means by his title that America exists only as an idea, an opportunity to escape an imposed role and choose one's own. The novel, however, will reveal other meanings. One is surely that because of what has gone on and continues to go on in our minds -- for instance, bickering with the dead -- a place is never entirely new or even quite real to us.
Nicola and Maria arrive in New York on a breeze of fantasy and it will waft them along to the last page. Steerage immigrants in peaked cap and babushka they are not. They have a provincial education and good English. An American uncle sets them up immediately as caretakers in a Brooklyn apartment building he owns. New York is at its postwar peak, probably its all time peak, so the young arrivals from war-tarnished Italy understandably indulge in many ohs and ahs. Both Nicola and Maria marvel at the ethnic and street-level variety they find around them. Not at all fearful, they are thrilled by this backdrop to their new life. They duly register the surprising dimensions, light, and velocity of the city. They are not overly bothered by their intimations of the loneliness it breeds and its chilly indifference.
Nicola and Maria are befriended by Rick, a young leftist militant. He immediately falls in love with Maria. The author hasn't described her beauty, only her openness and innocence, but for Rick she is a nonpareil. He can't, however, get Nicola to share his political commitment. The young Italian has no faith in any kind of politics, left or right. He dislikes discussion of ideas. Rick will turn out to be the son of a millionaire who hobnobs with the Eisenhowers. Nicola too will afterwards fall in with his own millionaire, one more in the Guggenheim mould. The reader begins to feel we have left the realm of realism for that of fable. Fantasy fills the crisp New World air. Are we reading a children's book? Only a steamy sex scene and the fact that the American uncle, who proves to be crooked, hangs himself in jail reassure us that we are still in adult New York.
While Maria spreads benevolence and makes a family of her Brooklyn neighbors, Nicola hits Manhattan. The two are at temperamental opposites and each now goes his own way. Nicola finds a job with Leon, a fiercely competitive Jewish immigrant, manager of the boxer Rocky Marciano. Leon is a ruthless entrepreneur, and could be a European caricature of an American sharp dealer. He convinces Nicola that the city is a jungle where only unsentimental realism insures success. It's an idea that pleases Nicola and finally wins him over to America.
Nicola, however, still has a lot to learn. He's attracted to the Italo-America Marciano, who incarnates a single-minded drive to succeed. To be a winner, not a loser, also becomes Nicola's obsession. Manhattan, however, soon teaches him that there's cream above the thin milk of the fight game with its brawlers and sleazy fixers. He meets Tess, a millionaire's daughter. It's his Lucien de Rubempré moment, as the novel's jacket reminds us. He's now, in the clichés of 1950s, both a young man in a hurry and on the make.
Not so Maria back in Brooklyn. She's all saintly love for everyone and when mysterious Nathan breaks into her apartment and introduces her to the fleshy version she relishes it in the ecstatic language of Teresa of Avila. Rick, the all American radical with moneyed parents, hasn't a chance against Nathan, a homeless wannabe actor, sick and partially demented. He drops in at his whim and allows Maria to indulge her maternal instincts, washing and feeding him like a baby. For a spell we are back in the land of fable.
Maria's affair, by brother Nicola's new standards, is going nowhere. After being introduced to Manhattan's arty homeless and their purlieus, Maria will lose Nathan forever, probably to an early death. She will return to a life of good works, exclusively outside of the bedroom. Notably, Nathan, like Rick, Nicola, and Dante Alighieri a long time before them, are all at odds with their fathers.
Nicola has replaced boxing with an interest in contemporary art. His approach through wealthy collectors and the fashionable Sidney Janis Gallery leads to his sudden insight. In America the determining of what's beautiful comes first, the enjoyment of beauty only afterward, and art's force is tied to its power to make money. The idea does not displease him. He shrewdly mines his sketchy classical education for prestige in the New World. Tess has a real knowledge of the art world and a genuine feeling for pictorial values. The two of them open a gallery with her father's backing. It's soon a commercial success thanks to Nicola's new skills and hard work as a businessman. He and Tess marry but soon shed the romantic glow of their meeting. Nicola, a mogul in formation, now deals with his admiring father-in-law as heir presumptive.
At the same time, the Neapolitan Nicola, having honed Rocky Marciano's killer instinct and become an American wheeler-dealer, feels empty. He has never been able to let out his feelings. Near breakdown point he wanders into the Metropolitan Museum and is transfixed by Botticelli's Primavera. His father used to go on to him about its grandeur. Suddenly, in his vulnerable mood, he grasps that art is about more than buying and selling. His suppressed feelings pour forth and he walks down Fifth Avenue weeping. He thinks of Maria and of his mother and father, not in the old niggling way but with tenderness. It would be churlish not to call this a happy ending.
Awe in the presence of New York was understandable in 1950. Then, as Nicola and Maria keep recalling, it was indeed the most populous city in the world. Along with the country behind it, New York could flex its anti-Communist muscle with some semblance of innocence. The deep divisions in the nation had not yet become blatant. Senator Joseph McCarthy was only beginning his hunt for so-called subversives like the novel's character Rick. Arriving a dozen years later Nicola and Maria would have had to confront the tumult of the Civil Rights Movement and the war in Vietnam. They would have been less starry-eyed. But then would they have come at all since the "boom" or Italian economic "miracle" was making Italy a terrain hospitable to the Leons of this world who for all their venality inspired Nicola?
Author Monda takes care to paint in the 1950s background -- painting being the right word since these scenes could be verbal descriptions of Edward Hopper's atmospheric canvases. Echoes of the period abound. The upmarket social events Nicola attends are frequented by celebrities like Liz Taylor, Marilyn Monroe, Elia Kazan, and Arthur Miller. Here the trick is to see the gathering through Nicola's eyes. The glamorous guests impress him, but he doesn't know who they are. The reader can know. Names are given, but not always and often there is only a clue. A black woman sings "God Save the Child" and we have to guess that it's Billy Holiday or that the playwright with the combed mustache is Tennessee Williams. Musing on how the novel will read in English translation, the reader has to conclude that either more information will have to be forthcoming or the teasing game excised altogether.
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