An orphaned narrator in post WWII Naples is left to raise himself in a housing complex, learning to navigate the living, breathing city that closes in on all sides, with only the help of Don Gaetano, the doorman. Don Gaetano is more than a simple doorman or gatekeeper, helping with repairs, keeping track of the neighbors, and doling out the mail to residents, however; he also shares life skills and a lifetime of wisdom with the narrator.
The boy studies Latin and other subjects at night, finding history to be “a kitchen full of ingredients, change the measurements and a completely different dish comes out.” He is always considering his place in the history of Naples, wondering at the stories of young men enlisting for war, wondering if his arrival in the world came too late.
As a young boy watching the bigger boys play soccer in the courtyard of the complex, the narrator proves himself by climbing a dangerous drainpipe to retrieve a stray ball, and along the way locks eyes with a mysterious girl at her upper-floor window. She is a shut-in, never leaving her flat, and the narrator hopes every day to catch her eye again, to know more about her.
She disappears suddenly, removed by her family as a socially ill-adjusted oddity, but as the boy grows older he continues to keep her in his thoughts. He becomes the goalie of the soccer team, single-mindedly focused on blocking every shot, the most independent and solitary player on the field.
Over countless hands of scopa, a traditional card game, Don Gaetano teaches our lonely narrator about appreciating life, taking things slowly, and recognizing important moments as they slip past the edge of your peripheral vision. Self-reliance is key to surviving urban life, which can frequently be cruel. An orphan himself, Don Gaetano tells his stories in Neopolitan, explaining that the dialect gives a voice and a believability to stories that modern Italian cannot.
Over time Don Gaetano’s stories become the boy’s memories, entrusted to him by a master keeper of the city’s stories. Tales of WWII skirmishes, the sacrifices of families, the everyday tragedies of war; the boy stores them up to live on through lean times.
Naples itself is an important character: in summer the city goes out at night for fresh air after enduring the heat of the day, and its soft tufo rock foundation is riddled with spaces harboring secrets and ghosts. Naples sometimes seems to sink lower into the tufo, exhausted from the lingering weight of WWII trauma. The city dwellers are free to come out at night and express themselves, dressing and behaving according to their true nature without any questions. Don Gaetano remarks, “The city is beautiful at night. There’s danger but also freedom… It’s a pocket pulled inside out, night in the city.”
Years pass, the boy grows into a young man, and the mysterious girl from the window reappears at the doorman’s lodge. A troubled, broken spirit, Anna is a dangerous flame for the narrator, challenging him to confront his idealized mental picture of her. Her boyfriend is a gangster due for release from jail, soon, and Anna’s brief tryst with the narrator is a challenge to the boyfriend’s manhood and place in the local criminal pecking order.
Demanding reparations, the fight that ensues forces our narrator to leave Naples and everything he has ever known for the safety of a foreign shore. He would have done anything for Anna, and this clash between lovers releases her from a frozen state of detachment. In confronting the boyfriend, the orphan finds a father figure in Don Gaetano, who has laid plans for the worst possible outcome.
De Luca’s writing is a tender poetic narrative, treating things (the city, the air) like characters, and weaving together a story comprised of waves of feeling instead of orderly plot points. Small wonder the brief biography at the end of the novel notes that De Luca ranks among the most widely read Italian authors alive today.