A Winter's Night
by Valerio Massimo Manfredi
Translated from the Italian by Christine Feddersen Manfredi
“Told in the tradition of country folktales,” A Winter's Night's jacket copy reads. For some readers, I imagine that might be a deterrent, and if it is, resist your resistance. This expansive, multi-generational novel set in the first half of twentieth century Italy is as enjoyable as it is lovely. Manfredi gathers a lot of history into 400 pages, and while it's not exactly a quick read, Night never feels like a slog either — even if the characters themselves wonder when they might escape certain slog-like points in their lives.
The Bruni family work a farm in the Padan Plain, and their barn has long been a place where travelers can stay for a night or several, where the kitchen can always scrounge up a little bit extra, and the stories have always been free-flowing. There are nine Bruni children born to Clerice and Callisto — seven boys, two girls — Gaetano, Armando, Raffaele (aka “Floti”), Checco, Savino, Dante, Fredo, Maria, and Rosina. For the most part, the women are not expected to work the wheat fields as they are on other villages' farms, but come harvest time, everyone helps out in all the ways that they can. It also during this time that the Bruni's hospitality shines.
As the men ate, the gleaners went to work, each one with a sack in hand, picking up the ears left behind by the thresher or fallen from the wagons carrying the sheaves.
Clerice always took care that the permission to glean was only given to those who really needed it: the wives of men who were unemployed, or of drunkards who were only good at getting them pregnant. Clerice would always think of the women and, more than to Almighty God, she'd pray to the Madonna, because Our Lady had worried and suffered and she had lost a son and she knew what it meant. Clerice knew what a hard lot women had in life and — as honest and religious as she was — when she heard talk about this woman or that one on the bottom of some dry canal wrapped around some worker or day laborer, she'd say: good for her, at least she's enjoying something.
That worry at the idea of losing a son soon becomes more realistic as World War I gets underway and all sons but the youngest are soon called up to serve. As the war drags on, even the youngest son is drafted. News of each other is intermittent and often late enough to be possibly inaccurate. The difficult time between the two world wars sees Floti becoming frustrated with the burgeoning fascist movement in Italy, and soon he is running for local elections and running into trouble with the political opposition. This, and the notification of inheritance from one of Clerice's relatives, is where the usually ironclad family unit begins to weaken. When each child begins to marry and have (and lose) children, there are too many opinions to consider, and each loss makes it more difficult to carry on as usual.
Floti himself had slowly become convinced that he could not stand and watch as the rights of men who worked from morning till night were systematically trampled upon. The loss of his wife had pushed him even further into politics, in no small part because it took his mind off her. He decided to run for councilor in the local elections, even though Clerice begged him not to, not to get mixed up in things, because only trouble could come from it.
By World War II, we are thrust more so in the lives of Clerice's grandchildren, mostly the boys who go on to fight. The conflicting feelings of sympathizing with those fighting Hitler, all while their Italian land is being pummeled by those forces, is an interesting perspective not often seen in WWII literature. At least, outside of Italy, I reckon, which is why publishing translations of this sort is so important.
Manfredi does an excellent job of corralling all these different family members' stories, although because there are so many people to keep in mind and so many decades pass, I sometimes had difficulty remembering who belonged to who. His ability to set the scene — the tranquility of a warm fire, the brutality of war — is outstanding and immersing. The folktale nature of the story works because it is like the familial stories handed down generation after generation, as though they are being told right now in a barn much like the Bruni's. It's a great way to frame these periods of history, and if one has even a passing interest in these moments, I do recommend reading A Winter's Night.
Full Disclosure: Europa Editions sent me this book. I thank them for the gesture and I will continue to be fair with my reviews.
This review is part of Cannonball Read V, in which participants attempt to read and review 52, 26, or 13 books in a year. A charitable donation is made for those who complete 52 reviews by December 31, 2013.