We are sun born

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?

  1. April 13, 2011 at 2:18 am

    It all depends on the siblings.

    Is this the first book you’ve read from this author? It sounds excellent and I think you captured the sensation of blistering heat well.


    • April 13, 2011 at 8:00 am

      It’s the first book I’ve read from him. He deserved the Prix Goncourt he won. I’ll probably read another book from him.


  2. April 13, 2011 at 5:30 am

    I am not reading your review in detail as I have this here and wante to read it. my father read it first and spoke about it pretty much like you do. Almost sounds like an Italian author (despite the topic). The kind of writing you describe I normally find in Italian authors that’s why, they are among my top two or three.


    • April 13, 2011 at 8:38 am

      I think you’ll like it. I haven’t read a lot of Italian writers but I thought he wrote like an Italian writer too. It reminded me Milena Agus (Mal de pierres) and your review of Three Horses. In the afterword, the writer thanks a lot of Italian people for the time he spent with them and the story they told him.

      PS : While I was writing the review, I thought about two old songs, As Yet Untitled by Terence Trent D’Arby and Il y a by Jean-Jacques Goldman. They get along with the book. Do you know them?


  3. April 13, 2011 at 11:47 am

    isn’t it great to see that sometimes an author gets a prize and deserves it? The description of the heat sounds a lot like Ammaniti and yes, de Luca too. I don’t know the songs you mention. I still haven’t read Milena Agus yet. (Btw I answered your question on Dutch authors on Guy’s blog).


    • April 13, 2011 at 1:00 pm

      I’ve seen your answer on Guy’s blog, thanks. I subscribe to comments, not to miss answers.
      Now I’m really thinking about making a EU book tour. (+ Swiss) I might even have found a flesh-and-blood friend interested in the idea.


      • April 13, 2011 at 2:41 pm

        I already have a program for a tour like that, was even thinking of publishing it one of these days. 12 books/12 countries.


  4. April 13, 2011 at 2:36 pm

    This sounds gritty and wonderful, Bookaroundthecorner, and like Guy I think you did a great job of emphasizing the prominence of that withering sun. Will be looking for the original French version of this before long and shame on the American publishers for unnecessarily changing the author’s title–I so hate it when publishers/marketers change titles so drastically (as if they’re more intelligent or somehow know better than the creative people who actually wrote the works). Makes me mad, I tell you! À bientôt!


    • April 13, 2011 at 2:47 pm

      I think you’ll like it. It’s better to read it in French as the sentences and rythm are very French and not natural in English. I wonder how it was translated. I wanted to download a sample on my kindle but there’s no kindle version.

      I can’t tell you how much I’m annoyed when publishers change book titles. It’s a hell to find the corresponding title in French sometimes.
      Not to speak about Russian writers whose name isn’t spelled the same way in English and in French. (I’m getting used to it now) They should invent a pinyin code for cyrillic.


  5. April 13, 2011 at 3:47 pm

    I wanted to add something different about the book tour. I found it extremely frustrating when I put the books together as I had to always opt for second best or not exactly the one I wanted because of the non-availability of many books in English. Although you and I wouldn’t need to read them in English, the appeal is not so big for others. Don’t be disappointed if you can’t find all the authors or books you would like to include.


    • April 13, 2011 at 4:06 pm

      I was going to stick to books already published in French and if possible in paperbacks. There are enough of them that are good and that I haven’t read.


  6. April 13, 2011 at 5:04 pm

    Ok, that’s easier. I had to rule out so many and in the end, although the list was OK, it wasn’t what I wanted. In France and Germany translations are not a problem. It is only since I started this blog that I realize how little has been translated. The country’s I read most books of are still France and Germany and I would say far over 50% didn’t make it to translations. Too bad I translate into German and French and not the other way around or I could become an English editor of foreign language books. By the way a thought that’s on my mind a lot these days.


  7. April 13, 2011 at 7:22 pm

    Your translation perfectly conveys the weight and power of the heat. It seems like a strange and interesting book – not often do readers confidently agree with the award given to a book (particularly not several years down the line).


    • April 13, 2011 at 8:11 pm

      Thank you.
      I’m not the kind of reader who buys literary prizes. I don’t follow who gets listed and who wins.
      However, the two last books I’ve read that had won the Prix Goncourt were really good (this one, Le Soleil des Scorta and Alabama Song by Gilles Leroy). The style was gripping and the story well driven.


  8. April 14, 2011 at 5:28 pm

    It sounds very good. You do capture the feel of the heat nicely. I’ll take a look for it.

    Odd how much they changed the title in the US.


    • April 14, 2011 at 7:26 pm

      You’d probably like it as you usually like stories about peasants.
      I also wonder why they changed the title. I prefer the French cover too.


  1. July 12, 2016 at 9:57 pm
  2. March 19, 2017 at 6:54 pm

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