The House on the Fondaco Plain, a novel by Natale Caruso. Available at Amazon.com
Francesco Bonavita, PH. D., 2018
Natale Caruso’s novel, The House on the Fondaco Plain, is a masterpiece worthy of the highest narrative tradition reminiscent of the great Giovanni Verga. Set in the Sicilian countryside, this work takes us on a journey spanning several generations, across three continents. It reflects the plight and the aspirations of the Italian immigrant experience, as well as laying bare the human condition of universal sufferings, passion and ideals shared by all. But it is much more! It is a lyrical composition that touches a wide range of human emotion. It is a valuable historical testament that illustrates the struggles and the dignity of the human spirit against adversities. It is an evocative narrative that blends in flawlessly with the Italian literary tradition. But what makes Natale Caruso’s artistic creation so compelling? What is there that renders this novel a universal character?
Caruso is a teacher by profession who for a number of years taught foreign languages in a New York City high school, as well as exhibiting his educational skills at the college level. In this capacity he learned the dynamics of teaching and learning and, most importantly, communicating with young people, as well as partaking of their intellectual formation, angst and aspirations. His students must be the beneficiaries of exciting learning and guidance, as well as being touched by inspirational moments. After all, Caruso brings a wealth of life experience, which must be at the core of his educational energy.
Born in Sicily during the aftermath of World War II, as a child Caruso must have been an indefatigable listener with a capacity of absorbing endless tales, straddling several generations. This unique experience, I think, is what has enriched Caruso’s emotional background, which is at the base of his narrative. Indeed, he is a great storyteller who constructs his tales with color, depth and historical relevance. To this end, he embodies the qualities of a raconteur that aim to please, to enlighten and to elevate the reader to unexplored heights.
The art of Caruso can be monitored on a variety of levels, the most important of which are the language, the use of scenery, the creative impulse and the lyrical output that attains veritable moments of catharsis. With respect to the use of language, the author is able to draw on Verga’s successful experiment of having characters express themselves through proverbs. The people who populate the narrative are of humble origin, the majority of whom toils the land from dawn to dusk. The men are strong and the women are hard-working, whose role is multifaceted. The people are unable to articulate their human condition in a literary sense, as they are deeply immersed with eking out a living. Through the use of proverbs, though, they are capable of expressing themselves eloquently. This is a remarkable achievement because this technique enables the characters to emerge as real people who can express the sufferings and the drudgery of daily life. The allusion to Verga is not without merit. If the Jungian archetypical model to a collective consciousness is any indication, then, Caruso would be a perfect candidate for it because, in addition to embodying Jung’s projections, he happens to come from a town within a walking distance from Vizzini, whereby Verga drew exhaustively for his sources.
Similarly, the author offers a scenery of a bygone world, one that is structured around the medieval town of Licodia Eubea, situated in the province of Catania, about two thousand feet above sea level. Governed by a long-standing tradition of family bonds, the town thrives on its rural territory, as if time has been frozen in the past, reminiscent of its Greek colonial period of the Magna Grecia, when Greek colonists settled on the island of Sicily, more than twenty-five hundred years ago. The voices of the people are also echoing the chorus of the ancient Greek plays with their dramatic warnings of curses that are about to manifest in the foreseeable future. There is a strong current that is deeply embedded in antiquity, as if transmitted in the collective spirit of its people and it surfaces from one generation to the next. But this aura of olden times is juxtaposed to the present because it is closely tied to a wave of immigration that has its people connect to other continents, most notably South America, North America and Australia. These are dynamics from which Caruso’s narrative is shaped.
Caruso’s narrative is not confined to the art of relating the vicissitudes of the people rather it is adorned with a creative fabric that only an artist is capable of presenting. His creative style is succinct, powerful and expressive. Just as a painter is capable of creating a drama with a few strokes of the palette, so, too, Caruso’s artistic rendition enables him to depict the folly of Fascism that for twenty-two years upset and traumatized the lives of millions of people across Italy. Without giving away the plot, there are many episodes during which Caruso offers the reader a vivid account of how repressive and hostile daily life must have been under Fascist Italy. What is so extraordinary is that the narrator is a minimalist who can convey the anxieties and the disquietude of the oppressed with the least amount of description. He is able to do this on account of the rich colors of his characters using as fewer words as possible.
As with any works of this magnitude, a narrative cannot attain universal qualities unless it inspires lyrical moments. A storyline that is dependent on pure factual presentations has its limitations and it is destined to become a sheer chronicle of tales unless it is capable of expressing a depth of human emotions. To this end, Caruso’s work is emblematic of poetic imagery not simply because his verses are dispersed throughout the text but rather on account of his reflective prose in the face of adversity, avarice, oppression, passion and death itself. This is what makes this novel a compelling reading. It is not simply a narrative relegated to a specific time and place rather it is the voice of universal clamor that has been felt since time memorial, namely, the sufferings of child exploitation, the struggles of immigrants and the pursuit to justice against the tyranny of Fascism.
This novel was originally written in Italian, as Nelle Braccia del Tempo, and it has been translated by Dr. Marino D’Orazio who deserves credit for having been able to transmit the nuances and the color of Caruso’s language. Dr. D’Orazio’s work is as prestigious as the author himself for having preserved the tone of the language, as well as its lyrical register. This is not a mere transposition from one language to another rather it is the interpretation of all that embodies Caruso’s narrative.
Indeed, Caruso’s work is a symbolic chant being sung through a powerful chorus of Verdi’s famous musical composition of the Nabucco, whereby people are liberating themselves of the oppressors. Likewise, Caruso’s characters are freeing themselves from the shackles of the evil eye, for which subjugation has been an inevitable onus for many generations. This is a victorious chant for the unsung heroes of this world whose voices are too often lost in the valley of oblivion. Caruso’s work is a commendable contribution to the annals of Italian American literature and reading is indispensable, as it offers a unique perspective of a first generation viewer.