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A Little Boy's Slice of Italy

By Jim BencivengaJim Bencivenga is the Monitor's book editor. / July 5, 1991



AT what point does a child know he will not be a child forever? And when he does, how does he - still through childish eyes - make sense of the changes that inevitably occur? What does he remember of a world that was once simple, loving, austere yet protective - the memories of which are parent to the adult he will become?In Nino Ricci's masterly first novel, "The Book of Saints," we look at such memories through the eyes of Vittorio Innocente, the six-year-old narrator. Ricci attempts to make sense of how rural, superstitious, clannish, pagan Italy buffets a young boy's psyche and poisons his innocence. Vitts father left for Canada when his son was two years old. Though he dutifully sends money to his young wife and son in Valle del Sole, a tiny mountain village between Naples and Rome, he rarely writes. Vitto knows little of his father, only that he does not send for him and his mother to come join him. His grandfather tells him this is what a father should do. The young boy does know something powerful has taken his father away - America: "America. How many dreams and fears and contradictions were tied up in that single word, a word which conjured up a world, like a name uttered at the dawn of creation, even while it broke another, the one of village and home and family." The absence of his father is V itts first inkling of changes that will sweep away all that is familiar to him. His mother is a proud woman. Vitto leans on her as much as she leans on him, and they both must lean on his mother's father because they live in his house. In turn, both are beset by the customs and narrow ways of Valle del Sole. The pace of change is never sudden for Vitto but always irreversible. This is painfully so when he stumbles to avoid a green snake sliding under his grandfather's stable door. A blue-eyed man who is not his father exits by the same door, on the heels of the snake. The boy's mother, still in the barn, is bitten on her ankle by the poisonous snake. Months later, her pregnancy shows. Vitto, in stages, realizes what happened. The child in his mother's womb can no longer be concealed. The soul of the village cries out in shame and resentment at her. Young Vitto learns he will never escape his memories. Although this is a conventional theme, Ricci is a master at describing place and people so as to evoke both mood and character. Vitto is forced to understand the significance and finality of his and his mother's separation from the life of the town because of her pregnancy. They walk in shame through the middle of town on the way to Christmas mass. "We would be the last to arrive. The church would be full today, congregants spilling out into the porch; but a few places would still have been left free for my grandfather in the front pew, no one having thought yet to strip that privilege from him.... and when we came finally into the square, our shoes crunching strangely loud against the snow underfoot, it was deserted and still, the barren trees on the embankment leaning towards us like silent magi, offering down their crystal drops of melting snow. " Winner of the prestigious Canadian Governor General's Award, the W. H. Smith/Books in Canada First Novel Award, and the British Betty Trask Award for "The Book of Saints," Ricci holds dual Canadian and Italian citizenship. Ricci writes with incredible compression. No gesture is too small, no conversation too inconsequential. First impressions only hint at the truth. Hidden meanings simply wait for some later, conscious, or unconscious memory to cast light on them. Custom - and envy of those who escape from custom - entwine the villagers hearts as tightly as changing seasons sweep the mountains. Moments before his departure from Valle del Sole to Canada and an uncertain life with his father, Vitto assesses their packed furniture stacked in front of his grandfather's house, a house he has been told he will inherit. He is waiting for the truck that will come and take him and his mother to a ship anchored at Naples. "But though my mind was filled with images of America, of tall buildings and wide green fields, of the dark-haired man I remembered as my father, I could not believe in the truth of them, even my father now seeming merely like someone I had imagined in a dream; and all I could see clearly of the future was a kind of limitless space that took shape in my head as the sea, and a journey into this space that took direction not from its destination but from its point of departure, Valle del Sole, which someho w could not help but remain always visible on the receding shore." Like the centuries-old cycles of the village and farms of Valle del Sole, Ricci's narrative is both humble and simple. It goes forward only to roll back on itself. Events foreshadow events, creating a mood of changing changelessness.

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