Reviews

In 'The Day Before Happiness', Naples Hosts a Poetic Story of an Orphan Coming of Age Post WWII

Erri De Luca’s writing is a tender poetic narrative, treating things (Naples, the air itself) like characters, and weaving together a story comprised of waves of feeling instead of orderly plot points.


The Day Before Happiness

Publisher: Other Press
Author: Erri De Luca
Price: $16.95
Format: Hardcover
Translator: Michael F. Moore
Length: 196 pages
Publication Date: 2011-11
Amazon

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.

8

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less
3

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less
9

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image