Book Simple: Grieving in Italian
a life-in-books by Amy Brown
When I went to Bologna, in the summer of 2001, I didn’t know that Italy has a history of political terrorism. All I knew about Italy was contained in two semesters of Italian classes and a videotape that my father recorded of our family’s Italian vacation when I was in the fifth grade. I was well versed in Italian foods as presented in restaurants, able to order said foods and make polite comments about their quality with reasonable assurance of success, and perfectly competent to point out a Botticelli in a museum, as long as I could see the curator’s comments.
It turns out these skills are not as useful to being an Italian university student as I, piling onto the airplane with fifteen other twenty-year-olds, thought they would be. During my first week in class, the instructor opened up a discussion about capital punishment “negli Stati Uniti.” Baffled by the tenses of the verbs, I caught only a few words in ten, but found my classmates staring at me in anticipation. Evidently, as the lone American, I would be propounding the “for” position.
I don’t have a lot to say on the benefits of capital punishment in English, to be honest. It’s more expensive to the state to put a prisoner to death than to hold him for life, which to me, as an economist, frankly ends the argument. Lacking the proper vocabulary to express the idea of deterrence, my defense of the barbaric American custom ran somewhat along these lines. “Fa paura gli criminali. Non fanno le cose cattive perché hanno paura morire. [Make fear the criminals! They don’t do bad things because they are afraid to die.]” There were few converts to the American point of view.
Naively, I thought that the Italian state simply did not experience the same level of criminality that the U.S. does; the rates of gun violence are certainly much lower. My Italian political history class taught me that my mental image of Italy as a bucolic land of poet farmers was rather incorrect. There were many violent political protests during the 1960s and 1970s, including the kidnapping and assassination of Aldo Moro, Italy’s prime minister, by the Red Brigades, a guerrilla Marxist group.
And the Italian state is not free of violence yet. The Red Brigades struck again in 2002, while I was in Bologna. Assassins shot to death Marco Biagi, an economic advisor to the Berlusconi government. Certainly Italians have had plenty of experience with devastating violence, enough violence to provoke a killing rage in the most pacific heart. So why was it that their country abolished the death penalty first in 1889, then again in 1947, after the fall of the Mussolini government, while our own continues to execute even the mentally disabled criminal class? How do you come to terms with the rage that violence provokes?
That is the central question in The Fall of a Sparrow, by Robert Hellenga, written in 1998. The novel opens with one of the most horrific scenes of violence that Italy experienced in modern times: “On Friday, August 15, 1980 – Assumption Day, the middle of the August Holidays – a bomb exploded in the train station in Bologna, Italy, killing eighty-six people.”
Among those killed is Cookie, our narrator Sara’s older sister who had gone to study international law at the University of Bologna. Cookie was twenty-two when she was killed, and her name is inscribed on the station wall in memoriam. It’s a real plaque; I saw it when I first arrived in Bologna to that same train station, looking for my own apartment just like Cookie was.
I have to admit at this point that I’ve recommended this book to many people who haven’t loved it as much as I have, which may be because the descriptive paragraphs of the book make me relive a time in my life that was simply amazing, an adventure without parallel. When Woody testifies at the trial of the neo-fascists who planted the bomb, he rents an apartment in Via Solferino, a road on which I used to jog to the Giardini Margherita, a park on the edge of the city. There’s even a beggar with the same distinctive cry we used to hear from the café tables on the Piazza Re Enzo.
Hellenga brings incredible detail as well to the story of Cookie’s family’s grief. Cookie’s mother turns to God, dramatically, helplessly, while her father, Woody, is drawn to the city where his daughter was killed. “He’d thought, briefly, that he might speak something like the truth at Cookie’s memorial service, but it had been out of the question. But now, here in Bologna, he wished to speak it aloud, to give it shape and form in a place where he would be understood; he wanted to tell his story, and he wanted to hear others tell their stories. He wanted to bring his old life to an end, so that a new life could begin.”
What makes the book so resonant to me is that grief is full of detail, always. As Woody searches for meaning he discovers his daughter’s life within the city of her death. “Before the strage [literally slaughter, an Italian term for mass murder] Bologna had been, to him, a railroad hub, a place where the train stopped on the way to somewhere else. But now it was the place where Cookie had spent her last day.”
As he lives in Bologna, Woody learns some of my favorite Italian stories, like the one about how tortellini were created. When Venus visited Bologna, an innkeeper spied on her in her bath and “caught a glimpse of …the divine belly button.” Tortellini are made in honor of that vision, and served “in brodo,” a bath of chicken broth.
It’s the details that allow Woody and Cookie’s sisters to come to terms with their loss. As Sara notes, the family was the country of mourning, and “in this new country memory was not a burden but a gift.”
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