Erri De Luca – The Day Before Happiness



A coming-of age book analysed from a Neapolitan point of view. This is, in short, the last Erri de Luca’s literary work. Is the story of a orphan child (called “lo Smilzo”) in the Naples of the Fifties, of the building doorman who cares about him, of the child’s sentimental and sexual education, that occurs inevitably in the same building. This story shows us the discovery of sensuality that comes through the sexual favours of a widow lodger to Don Gaetano and his young assistant; the stories about the First World War and about the city’s Resistance – emblematic the story about a Jewish helped in taking refuge at the basement of the palace – intertwined with cards games in the porter’s lodge; the experience of a fishing night, the books lent by Don Raimondo – who is used to empty attics and bookcases of deceased people – and the teenager who read them on the steps of the courtyard. And the author never forgets Anna, the little girl, for the silhouette of whom the young protagonist had learned to defy his fear in climbing on the balustrades, deserving the approval of his playmates and the eternal role of goalkeeper during football matches. Anna is the same fascinating sphinx who is coming back ten years later, engaged to a member of Camorra, ready to ask “the blood” of her first suitor. A duel scene closes the novel: the duel displayed to solve the quarrel (“it’s a matter of honour and Camorra’s rules”, as asserts Don Gaetano). So all that can do the eighteen-years-old Smilzo is to embark, bound to Argentina; that is the same far away land from which his father had escaped, after having vindicated with murder his wife’s betrayal shame; the wife indeed was guilty for having preferred a young American soldier to him.

Argentina, by the way, is also the Country where the mentor Don Gaetano had learned to listen to others’ thoughts: “If you call them people you don’t pay attention to persons”.
This is a novel in which spatial coordinates come first. On top of all, is the interplay between the building – inhabited by his characters, eternal masks, the insatiable widow and the very cunning plebeian – and Naples; whereas Naples is a world’s metaphor, and its history includes the universal experience of war, depredation and meanness, but also of some impulses of generosity and resistance.
One of the most intense tales from Don Gaetano, tells about the memory of the working class insurrection, that was able to make the German soldiers – turned into invaders – abandon the city. And at the same time the faraway Argentina is the mythical place of expiation and growth.
Secondly, time management is used in a peculiar way by the Italian novelist. Erri de Luca, also famous as a translator of the Holy Scripture, after having learned the Jewish language as a self-taught, gives to the subject of the novel a strong wisdom mark: the phrasing is rhythmic and built with sayings and typical verbal constructions – in particular close to the end of the novel, when the protagonist blood baptism is approaching.
It is the love-passion bond, which characterizes the novel; an irrational feeling that resembles a destiny more than an aware management of relationships among people. Many women in that period abandoned the bridal bed to lay in the arms of USA liberators: this fact is a blood relative of the “life hunger” following the Liberation of Naples.
Anna possesses the protagonist with an ardour similar to violence, but not perpetrated (only) at a physical level. The relationship between the two characters is as eternal as a damnation. An enchantment founded on a Prince Charming who climbs on the Princess’s balcony, like in fairy tales; but in this case, differently, it ends with a blades duel, in a climax of wounding and bloodshed of the hero in the previous pages. An enchantment, with a main female character without blond hairs and grooms: a pale and apparently dull heroine, who choose a partner with waxed moustaches. In ”The day before happiness” there are imaginary references – to a daily and domestic aspect of the irrational , illustrated by Don Gaetano’s habit at interpretating other people’s thoughts – transliterated in a typical oral form: that’s the fascination of this book.

Translation by Clara Arosio (supervised by Roma O’Flaherty)