The Fireflies of Autumn begins with a bang. To be more precise, one of its first stories is a tall tale involving a vast explosion and enormous quantities of excrement – the kind of story that you feel you ought to have heard a thousand times, but which is actually completely new to you. or at least to me.
The book announces itself as a collection of tales told by Ugo Giovannoni, who migrated to Australia in 1957 – stories about the tiny Tuscan village of San Ginese that he left behind. These tales include folk versions of the distant past (as in the explosive one already mentioned), lore about Ugo’s forebears and relatives (much of it scurrilous), tales of the village during the Fascist era and World War Two (including the marvellous title story, in which the whole village decamps to a forest glade to avoid being caught in the crossfire between the Americans and the retreating Germans), and a little historical documentation.
I was reminded often of Fellini’s masterpiece of nostalgia, Amacord. The celebration of community, the occasional bawdiness (see my versification below), the indignation at the repressive role of the Church, all feel a little Felliniesque. But these tellings differ from Fellini’s in being told, not just from a different time, but also from a different place, in the diaspora.
Migration to America, Australia and occasionally Argentina is a dominant theme. Over the decades, those who leave often return once they have earned enough money to buy some land, or perhaps when the longing for home becomes too much to bear. As well as the wonderful, possibly romanticised evocation of village life, there is some fine writing about the effects of dislocation from migration:
And they would go to America and become lost over there, and when they returned to San Ginese they would still be lost, as if they could not find the place they had left, but kept looking for it, anywhere, somewhere, but it was always elsewhere – on top of a hill, along the walking paths between the villages, in a field, inside a stable or a pig-sty, inside a woman, a wife, a neighbour’s wife. You could see the men wandering about in the courtyards and between the houses, aimlessly at first, and then slowly they would give the appearance of settling into their lives again, but remained as sad as trees that have had half their roots hacked off. Such trees can barely feed and water themselves and are in danger of toppling over in the gentlest breezes.
In a way this collection of stories is itself a symbolic return, as a telling and reclaiming of the stories that had to be left behind. Ugo’s introduction tells us that he wrote the tales in Italian and sought out ‘a translator expert in the writing of immigrants’ to render it into English. That translator is of course the actual author, Ugo’s son Moreno, who came to Australia as a child in 1957. Some of the later stories in particular make it clear that, though Ugo may be the source of many of the tales, Moreno has drained many other tongues and done his own wandering about. The painful melancholy that is never far beneath the surface of these tales is his as much as Ugo’s.
After reading excerpts in Southerly a couple of years back (blog entries here), I was looking forward to the book’s publication. I wasn’t disappointed. It’s never boring, I smiled constantly and laughed often. Then in the final chapters, possibly affected by Altitude Adjusted Lacrimosity Syndrome as I read them on a plane, I wept copiously.
I recommend Lisa Hill’s review for a beautiful account of the book.
Because it’s November, and my blog has to include 14 14-line poems in the month, here’s a versification of a tiny story in the brilliant long chapter about the villagers in wartime:
November verse 3: The widow Pasquina
No one noticed when Bucchione
vanished as the sun went down,
gone to visit la Pasquina,
wealthy widow of that town.
She’d come out, no need for knocking,
ask you in (now is this shocking?),
offer you a bowl of wine
and several more till, feeling fine,
you told your troubles, like confession,
she’d strip you, take you to her bed,
then later make sure you were fed
and bathed beside the fire, refreshing
limbs and mind. In those hard days
she did this service for no pay.