Archive for April 12, 2011

We are sun born

April 12, 2011 18 comments

Le soleil des Scorta by Laurent Gaudé. (281 pages) Translated into English as The House of Scorta (US) or The Scorta’s Sun (UK), which is the exact translation of the French title.  

La chaleur du soleil semblait fendre la terre. Pas un souffle de vent ne faisait frémir les oliviers. Tout était immobile. Le parfum des collines s’était évanoui. La pierre gémissait de chaleur. Le mois d’août pesait sur le massif du Gargano avec l’assurance d’un seigneur. Il était impossible de croire qu’en ces terres, un jour, il avait pu pleuvoir. Que l’eau ait irrigué les champs et abreuvé les oliviers. Impossible de croire qu’une vie animale ou végétale ait pu trouver – sous ce ciel sec – de quoi se nourrir. Il était deux heures de l’après-midi, et la terre était condamnée à brûler. The heat of the sun seemed to crack the earth. Not a breath of air made the olive trees rustle. All was still. The scent of the hills had vanished. Stones moaned with heat. August weighed on the Gargano mountains with the haughtiness of a lord. It was impossible to believe that on these lands, it once had rained. That water had irrigated the fields and flooded the olive trees. Impossible to believe that any animal or plant life could have found some nourishment under this dry sky. It was 2pm and the earth was condemned to burn.

 These are the opening lines of Le soleil des Scorta by Laurent Gaudé. I don’t know if I managed to translate it well enough, but in French, I can feel the heat weighing on my shoulders, crumbling any will to do anything.

In 1875, in the South of Italy, Luciano Mascalzone comes back to Montepuccio after 15 years in jail. He deliberately goes to one particular house, where a woman named Filomena lives. He’s been dreaming of making love to her for 15 years. Yet he knows that as soon as he’s done, the villagers will kill him. Rocco Scorta Mascalzone’s birth will be the tangible consequence of this fleeting embrace. Rocco is the first Scorta and violence is the fairy upon his filthy and poor craddle.

Saved from a cruel death by the priest don Giorgio, Rocco will live from robberies, terrifying the whole area with his violent raids. Rich from these extortions, he comes back to Montepuccio and settles in a house outside of the village, gets married and has three children, Giuseppe, Domenico and Carmela. When he dies, he makes a deal with Don Giorgio: all his money goes to the Church provided that all the Scortas’ funerals are grandiose.

This sort of whim leaves his children with nothing. The three siblings are poor, more than poor. They are shipped to New York and come back with enough money to start a business. It will be a tobacconist’s shop. They won’t leave Montepuccio again.

The Scorta are a bit crazy and outcasts, like their ancestor Rocco. They stick together, living of nothing, earning what they own with their sweat. Their pride and their love of family is all they have. They work, they marry, they have children, they get old, they die. Lives among millions of small lives that make most of this world. 

Laurent Gaudé describes the life of this family with poetry and respect for his characters. Chapters alternate between the narration and Carmela’s voice confiding the family history and secrets to another priest, don Salvatore, the saviour. He will have to pass on the story to Anna, her grand-daughter. It’s the history of the place, with its customs, its pasta and olive oil, its superstitions. Through this family, it’s the story of Montepuccio that the reader discovers. Time goes by, the village changes, Mussolini is on power, the war doesn’t come to them, tourists discover the region.  

I can’t find the English words to give you back the sun reverberating from this book. I was terribly moved and I find it really cinematographic. I could see the place, the people and I wish someone makes it into a film. I enjoyed the landscapes, the love of these people for their land, their slow and silent way of enjoying life despite their difficult conditions of living. It’s about family intangible inheritance, that thing that is different from one family to another and makes it difficult to adapt to your in-laws sometimes. Somehow it echoed with great-uncles loudly playing cards, Saturdays’ traditional pasta and a grand-mother praying St Antony of Padoua any time she loses something. It echoes with what it is to be a loving family.

Et Donato était la seule personne à qui Elia pouvait parler de son enfance en sachant qu’il serait compris. L’odeur de tomates séchées chez la tante Mattea. Les aubergines farcies de la tante Maria. Les bagarres aux jets de pierres avec les gamins des quatiers voisins. Donato avait vécu tout cela, comme lui. Il pouvait se souvenir avec la même précision que lui et la même nostalgie de ces années lointaines. And Donato was the only person to whom Elia could talk about his childhood knowing he would be understood. The smell of dried tomatoes at Aunt Mattea’s. The stuffed egg-plants at Aunt Maria’s. The stone fights against the boys from the next neighbourhood. Donato had lived through this, like him. He could remember these years long time gone with the same precision and the same nostalgia.

 Isn’t this what brothers and sisters are about?

%d bloggers like this: