Elsa Morante, Arturo’s Island

September 1, 2014 § 2 Comments

Quite apart from endearments, I lived entirely without kisses and caresses, and out of pride, I had to approve of this.  But sometimes, especially in the evening, when I was alone in a room and started to miss my mother, mother came to mean precisely caresses.  I longed for her large, her holy body, for her small silken hands, for her breath.  In winter my bed was freezing cold, but to warm me there was only Immacolatella to sleep with, cuddled close.

As I didn’t believe in God or in religion, I didn’t even believe in a future life and in the spirits of the dead.  If I listened to reason, I knew that all that remained of my mother was shut underground in the cemetery.  But reason retreated before her, and without realizing it, I actually believed in heaven, because of her.  What else was that kind of Oriental tent floating on air between the sky and the earth, where she dwelled alone, idly contemplating the sky with upturned eyes like one transfigured?  There, every time I thought of her, my mother came quite naturally to mind.  Later, the day came when I no longer looked for her; she had vanished.  Someone had folded up the rich Oriental tent and taken it away. (p. 41)

Elsa Morante’s 1957 Premio Strega-winning novel, L’isola di Arturo (released in English in 1959 as Arturo’s Island, translated by Isabel Quigly), differs in many regards from her 1974 opus, History, which I reviewed earlier today.  It is a tauter, less sprawling novel, but this relatively slightness in page numbers does not mean that it is a lighter or less substantial novel.  It is a story of a feral youth, left to fend for himself on an island in the Bay of Naples that housed criminals in its old castle complex while his father, a prison official, spent ten months of the year away.  It’s an interesting take on the nurture vs. nature argument, but it is also much more than just simply a tale of an abandoned youth raised without any women in his life.

Arturo’s Island is set sometime during the mid-20th century.  Arturo, the first-person narrator, is a young teen who lost his mother when she died giving birth to him.  His father largely abandoned him to the all-male island staff, only seeing him in brief spells.  These meetings, which fill Arturo with a mixture of hope and dread, typically ended with another abrupt departure, with little sentimentality getting in the way of his father.  Then one day, as Arturo is nearing sixteen, his father brings a girl scarcely older than him to the island, declaring that she, Nunziata, is his new wife.  This event, taking place roughly a quarter into the novel, shifts the focus away from Arturo’s developing personality (in particular the giant holes in his life caused by the absence of women) toward a more typical Oedipus father/lover/son triangle.

This shift, while understandable, does throw Arturo’s narrative out of kilter for several pages, as it takes time for the reader to reconcile the rather naïve Arturo’s worldviews with the more lust-centered youth of the middle sections.  However, Morante does largely manage to integrate this new development and its attendant action (attempted seduction, regretful rejection, proxy seduction to make a larger point) does serve to reinforce Morante’s earlier arguments regarding the deleterious effect Arturo’s neglected upbringing has had on his personality and his ability to relate to women.

But it is in the final sections where the plot turns in a surprising and yet fitting fashion.  Arturo witnesses a clandestine meeting, one that reveals to him for once and for all that things he had felt he had in common with someone close to him were in fact yet another level of subterfuge, one that was designed to keep Arturo in the dark.  This event encapsulates many of the conflicted emotions and bitter cynicism that Arturo had developed and it causes the novel to end on a rather dark yet not completely hopeless concluding note.

Although the paragraphs above might seem to give away much of the novel’s plot, there are many levels to Arturo’s Island for readers to enjoy.  Morante’s prose is wonderful here (I read it first in Italian, but Quigly’s translation captures much of the original’s spirit), as Arturo’s personality is revealed through his introspective, sometimes self-damning monologues.  In the passage quoted above, his conflicted emotions are revealed with such a clarity as to make subsequent passages all the more revealing.  The plotting is well-done, as the love triangle (complicated by the birth of Arturo’s half-brother) develops at a steady pace, never feeling extraneous or tedious.  The themes are also well-developed, especially Morante’s exploration of how nurture and nature both might come to shape a person’s world-views, especially male attitudes toward women.  It is not a perfect novel, as sometimes these themes are not as subtle as they could have been, but on the whole, Arturo’s Island was a deep yet very enjoyable read.

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