Arturo’s Island by Elsa Morante
I will not forget this book for a very long time. It will join a list of all-time favourites, and I am delighted to have persisted with it, because it nearly was not the case.
Let me explain...while for many the bedside cabinet is a useful place to keep the latest enthralling book, for me it is the unfortunate resting place of books which have failed to grasp me at the outset. These books languish – sometimes for many months. During that long sojourn, they will likely be handled from time to time as I endeavour to find the hook that keeps me reading to the end.
Such was the case with Elsa Morante’s enchanting book re-released in early October with a new translation by Ann Goldstein. The book – in its original Italian – was first published in 1957 and has been reprinted many times since for the simple reason that it is exquisitely written – that much is clear from the outset. So, I was at a loss to explain what was keeping me from diving in and reading as would be normal for a book of this calibre, especially since it is set on an island off the coast of Italy. Ah, still my beating heart.
The setting – let alone the beautiful cover - should have proven sufficient to hook me from the first line until my eyes failed. And there it was, suddenly in front of me, the problem with this book which delayed my eventual awe and delight: the small – no miniscule – print. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to read it. It was the fact that I struggled to read it because it was in such fine print that I could only read it in the best light. Let me assure you, I’m a long way from needing large print books, but this novel is set in a print so small as to be limiting for many – perhaps especially the audience for which it is likely intended.
Right, that said, when I finally entered Arturo’s world, I still encountered some difficulty because of the outdated and misogynistic attitudes which might mar the ultimate enjoyment for any feminist thinking person. I persisted with the book because the setting and the clarity of the writing. Arturo’s world was so perfectly described that I might have been there.
Indeed, when I finished it, I could have returned to the beginning immediately. Without spoiling the end, let me say that all that which preceded it is written with deliberation and clarity so that the reader can become absorbed in the world of the characters that inhabit the pages. Moreover, their lives and experiences will resonate for a long time to come.
The narrator – Arturo – is a small boy living virtually alone is a castle. His father – an indifferent, arrogant character who is both hard to know and hard to like - is worshipped by his small son who, having no mother, craves his attention. Arturo fantasises about the time he will travel with his father on his many excursions. But when he brings home a new bride, Arturo’s world is thrown into chaos.
As you read this book – and I urge you to do so if only to experience a level of writing that, to my mind at least, is beyond reproach – remind yourself that in creating characters who repel the reader, Morante is not sitting in judgement of their failings and is simply setting the scene for an unexpected climax.
Morante captures the unquestioning loyalty and fantastic imagination of a small boy brilliantly. As we follow Arturo’s journey to adolescence, the author adopts an accelerated pace to bring the reader along apace with the erratic thoughts of a narrator whose unguided world has been mostly formed through books.
As I have said previously, this book is stunning and will likely remain with you forever in the way that classics do.
Reviewer: Peta Stavelli
Allen & Unwin $22.99