Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 20, 2018

The Fireflies of Autumn, by Moreno Giovannoni #BookReview

When I was a girl, one of my favourite books was The Little World of Don Camillo by Giovanni Guareschi, translated by Una Vincenzo Troubridge.  I still have it, inscribed with my mother’s name and the date, 1960, which means it is one of the very few books that we brought with us to Australia.  I loved it because the stories were set in the rural peasant world of Italy after WW2, utterly unlike the urban places I had lived in; because of the humour of the perennial jousts between the Catholic priest and the communist mayor; and because, as the author says on page 15, the people in these stories are true to life and the stories are so true that more than once, after I had written a story, the thing actually happened and one read it in the news. 

The Fireflies of Autumn is suffused with the same kind of true-to-life nostalgia, but the author has no rose-coloured glasses.  San Ginese is in Tuscany, but this is not the tourist Tuscany that we know today.  San Ginese is a place so small and off the tourist trail that Trip Adviser’s 10 Best Things to Do in San Ginese are, with the exception of the church, all somewhere else – in Lucca or Capannori  or even in Montecarlo.  Giovannoni’s Tuscany is a world of grinding poverty and back-breaking labour, a world where the peasants must take shelter from the warring armies of Germany and America, a world where children suffer and die from preventable diseases, and a world where opportunity only comes if you leave the place where you and all your forebears were born.  It’s a world where the rustic sexuality is reminiscent of Zola’s The Earth and the women are either madonnas or whores.  The tale of ‘The Adulteress’ will either break your heart or fill you with rage at the double standards entrenched by a church that had no feeling for the people it was supposed to serve.

This is the blurb:

San Ginese is a village where God lingers in people’s minds and many dream of California, Argentina or Australia. Some leave only to return feeling disheartened, wishing they had never come back, some never leave and forever wish they had.
The Fireflies of Autumn takes us to the olive groves and piazzas of this little-known Tuscan village. There we meet Bucchione, who was haunted by the Angel of Sadness; Lo Zena, his neighbour, with whom he feuded for forty years; Tommaso the Killer, the Adulteress, the Dead Boy and many others.
These are tales of war and migration, feasts and misfortunes – of a people and their place over the course of the twentieth century.

Giovannoni’s style has the same kind of whimsy as Guareschi, but with a sharper edge.  The vignette about ‘Tommaso the Killer’ starts like this:

At the start everyone insisted that although Tommaso Giovannoni had the same surname as almost everyone else in San Ginese, he was not related to them.  There were no murderers in their family, they would say.  Later, everyone would proudly point to their family relationship with Tommaso the Killer.

Anyway, here’s the story.

Tommaso Giovannoni and Folaino Dal Porto were the best of friends. They went to America, worked together on a ranch in California and made a lot of money.  One way when Tommaso went into the town for some business, the boss rancher handed over their year’s earnings to Folaino to be split between the two of them.  Folaino up and left, taking it all with him to Canada.  The news slowly made its way back to San Ginese.

Seven years later and within three months of each other they returned to San Ginese.  Folaino arrived first, and always denied that he and Tommaso had had a falling out.  ‘Vaffanculo, pezzo di merda!’ he would say to whoever asked him.  The matter always seemed to get him more excited than it should have if there had been no truth to the rumours.

Everyone remembers the day Tommaso returned to San Ginese.  His two sisters were waiting for him in front of the house, wearing their good Sunday dresses, although it was a Tuesday.  (p.50)

The entire village knew that he was coming home, but they did not know why he dallied in New York en route.

Ugo’s cousin Gino said Tommaso was probably hanging around Manhattan going to whorehouses.  As we found out later, he wasn’t visiting houses of ill-repute.  He was buying a gun. (p.50)

But even not knowing about the gun, soon a crowd was lining the road in silence.  

In about twenty minutes Tommaso would be at the crossroads.  To get to Il Porto, where Folaino lived, he would have to keep walking straight, passing the turn-off, which was on the right.  Everybody was waiting to see what he would do. (p.51)

Well, you can see why these tales are so engrossing!

So many of us here in Australia are hybrid Aussies, partly from here and partly from somewhere else that’s far away … and so many of us can relate to the opening lines of Ugo’s Tale:

When you leave your homeland, you leave behind the people you know, the people your mother and father knew, your grandfathers and grandmothers, brothers and sisters, cousins, uncles and aunts and neighbours, the people who know who you are immediately because you look like your father.

[…]

Most importantly, you leave behind one thousand memories.  You embark on a ship in Genoa [or Southampton] and disembark on the other side of the world and your life is a clean slate.

[…]

Normally the people you live with share the same memories and stories. So who can you share yours with, the stories that in the village [or city] of your birth are in the skin of your people and the memories that are in the stones?

Even when you love your new homeland as I do, you might still wonder, what might it have been like to have more than faint memories of grandparents, aunties and uncles, and cousins?  It might have been nice… or it might have been claustrophobic.

The Fireflies of Autumn is more than a lovely book, it’s also a meditation on the dislocating experience of migration and an exposé of the reasons why postwar migrants from the poverty of Europe came here.

Author: Moreno Giovannoni
Title: The Fireflies of Autumn, and Other Tales of San Ginese
Publisher: Black Inc, 2018
ISBN: 9781863959940
Review copy courtesy of Black Inc.

 


Responses

  1. I have always liked Don Camillo, though I find the politics relentlessly right-wing. I wonder if the attraction of ‘peasant’ stories is that the whole world is there in a village – right and wrong, good and evil, left and right – embodied in just a few people who all know each other, who all know each other’s parents and grandparents for that matter.

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    • Yes, I think that’s right… these stories are like fables, with all man’s foibles and flaws unconstrained by the veneer of urban behaviour.

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  2. This was lovely book to read Lisa and I believe this novel summarized what Migrants feel about leaving their town or city to a new place.
    Another good book found thanks to you so thanks Lisa

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  3. Interesting as always. Don Camillo sits on my bookshelves not read. This one seems delightful. Another Italian book I read while staying there some years ago and put my rosy coloured specs aside was ‘Christ Stopped At Eboli ‘. One of those books that make a lasting impression.

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    • I don’t know that one… but this reminded me obliquely of Jose Saramago’s Raised from the Ground, about peasant life in Spain. That whipped off my rose coloured glasses too.
      But even here in Australia we have that nostalgia for community life,., we see it in TV shows from A Country Practice to The Father Brown Mysteries…

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  4. […] The Fireflies of Autumn by Moreno Giovannoni, see my review […]

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  5. […] The Fireflies of Autumn by Moreno Giovannoni, see my review […]

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