After a childhood fever, little Giuseppe, the youngest of a family of farmers in the Bologna’s countryside, seems to be absent-minded, to the point that his father Dante considers him to be retarded.
With his head in the clouds all the time, Giuseppe grows up in a sort of parallel dimension, populated by characters from old farmers’ stories which his mother Lina had told him, and therefore becomes a stubborn little boy, whose only weapon to defend himself against his father is an exasperated dumbness.
He is clearly very good at school, yet his father prevents him from continuing his studies with the view that writing and arithmetic are all that a farmer needs to avoid being cheated. When, as a teenager, he falls in love with Maria, daughter of a laborer in the area, finally he finds the courage to talk to Dante asking permission to marry her, but his father refuses. Meanwhile the farmers’ protests are crushed by landowners and the fascist squads: fascism spreads like wildfire until it reaches Giuseppe’s family: he will be forced to leave for the Eritrean front.
Divided into two parts, Massimo Vaggi’s novel takes place over a period of time ranging from the first post-war period (1923) to the colonial wars (1936).
The first part, “The House”, is the story of Giuseppe and his family: his father, deeply rooted to the farmland, sees life as sheer hard labor, the only possible redemption from misery; his mother, a sweet and eccentric figure, is a key figure in Giuseppe’s upbringing; his brother Giovanni, the eldest son, a veteran of the Great War and traumatized by the shooting of deserters; his sister Serena, whose only worry is to find a man who would marry her, and his sister Esterina, the only one to whom Giuseppe can relate, perhaps due to the fact that she is only three years older than him.
In the second part, “Africa”, the author focuses on a grass-root view of colonization through Giuseppe’s eyes and the only friend who he manages to get, the neapolitan Pasquale, who has a very pragmatic but at the same time very supportive worldview. The meeting a local inhabitant, Teclé, clearly shows him that in this country you are only allowed to interact with people of a certain skin colour or uniform according to a strict hierarchy : failing to do so will result in heavy sanctions.
A very obedient individual since childhood, Giuseppe is lost in a world, that of war, which he doesn’t understand or share, without knowing why; he ‒ who can tell dry land from fertile even in Eritrea just from tasting it, as his father had taught him ‒ will understand the fascist colonial intentions clearly. Their desire to crush humanity with their boots and drop bombs on them with their powerful aviation. However, he will not know what to do: the barrels of mustard gas released in the last chapter are the vanguard of a chemical war that even officers and soldiers don’t know how to grasp.
The themes of inadequacy and displacement in the face of reality dominate the whole novel, where a brutal chapter of Italian history is masterfully narrated by the author through the stories of its less known but real protagonists, the ones that history does not write about who nevertheless suffer, living through it unaware. And thanks to this grass-root vision it prevents any removal of a collective responsibility.
Up there in the sky mechanical monsters created by Giovanni Battista Caproni, are flying, shaping the future with their race and their relentless action, with their futuristic speed. Far from men and devoid of compassion.
The interpretation of this work is contained in the apocryphal parable told by Lina to his son Giuseppe, who gives the book its title.
A deeply human and touching novel, which lingers in the reader’s memory and reminds us that if you look at men’s reality from afar the differences are always minimal.
Translation by Silvia Accorrà (edited by Sabrina Macchi)