By Francesco Bonavita, Ph.D.
Feminine white stone statue in a Palermo square. This is also where the author, Maraini, spent a significant part of her youth.
Isolina,by the Italian novelist, Dacia Maraini (1936- ), is an investigative work that attempts to redress the wrongs perpetrated against women by reviving the memory of a nineteen-year-old woman who was savagely murdered at the hands of well-to-do military officer, some eighty years after the event. Unlike Maraini’s much celebrated novel, La lunga vita di Marianna Ucria (The Long Life of Marianna Ucria; The Silent Duchess, 1990),which delineates the subjugation of women and the inevitability of their suffering in a patriarchal society, Isolina (1985) is based on real life events. Lines between reality and fiction are blurred and themes from the distant past join distinct and unifying ideas from the present. Although the reader is never presented with a conclusive condemnation of the criminals, responsible for having committed a heinous crime – too many years have elapsed since the murder took place and much evidence has been destroyed or suppressed – the reader considers that justice has been served, albeit symbolically, and that the memory of Isolina Canuti, the victim, has been vindicated.
Nonetheless, Maraini has not embarked on a voyage of exploration just to reveal the callous culprits of an assassination and to solve another murder mystery that illustrates a brutal crime committed against an innocent woman. Here, she offers an indictment against middle-class moral values with its hypocritical affirmation of righteousness. Also, she launches a serious blow at social conventions, which have ascribed women to a de factodisadvantaged existence from which there is no escape. In other words, Isolina was condemned a priori,based on the notion that she was an unattractive woman, a lower-class individual who had sexual relationships with military officers.
Indeed, Isolina was an uneducated, simple girl living in Verona at the end of the nineteenth century. Her sole transgression was that of having had a relationship with a military officer, Carlo Trivulzio. Upon learning of her pregnancy, the young lieutenant manages to convince her to have an abortion so that he could protect the name of his aristocratic family. Unfortunately, he relies on his friend who to perform the abortion with rudimentary tools, and Isolina dies. Trivulzio and his entourage, fearing unimaginable consequences, cut up the victim’s body into four pieces and dump it in the Adige River. While the assassins hope to avoid prosecution, the murder is discovered in January 1900, and lieutenant Trivulzio is implicated in the crime. At the trial, Isolina is portrayed as a loose woman whose untimely death resulted from her unconventional lifestyle. The legal proceedings focused on exposing the woman’s character rather than on the homicide. Thus, the officers are absolved of all wrongdoings.
The Adige River where the mutilated body of Isolina was found.
Through her meticulous investigative techniques, Maraini uncovers substantial material, demonstrating irrefutable evidence that this trial had, in fact, been a travesty of justice. Moreover, as an ardent advocate for women’s rights, especially, the innocents, the defenseless and the uneducated, Maraini is determined to absolve Isolina and to restore the image of an innocent, generous, and hard-working young girl who contributed to the economic well-being of her household. Her mother died some years earlier, leaving four children and a husband who needed support, so Isolina, the only person capable of working, earned money by doing housework. Finally, Maraini denounces bourgeois society that accepts as perfectly normal the fact that wealthy military officers may commit violent crimes against women with impunity.
Maraini’s work is methodical. She unearthed much evidence in an effort to come up with objective findings of the real murder story of Isolina. She examined court proceedings, conducted interviews of descendants of the families involved, and she combed newspaper articles of the time so as to learn about the public’s reactions to the sensational trial. A veritable suspense is created as if the investigation were dealing with a contemporary offender ready to be unmasked. Not surprisingly though, public opinion of that time manifested an overwhelming compassion for the lieutenant as if to suggest that Isolina got what she deserved for being a woman and a member of the working class. In effect, it was a collective condemnation of a young woman in the name of values and decency.
One of the points Maraini makes in defense of Isolina is that the memory of this victim vanished, soon after the trial came to an end, in spite of the fact that this was a high-profile case. Our author ferociously condemns the eloquent silence of a Christian society for the murder of a poor woman whose major offense was that of dreaming of a romantic relationship with a wealthy young man. Such a collective desire to ostracize Isolina and forget her existence seems to be based on her low social status, as well as on the pervasive misogyny prevalent in the Italian society of the time.
If the public exhibited a stolid posture as to whether or not justice would be served, one journalist of the time, Mario Todeschini, a modest Emile Zola, tried to bring the case to national attention, by advocating for an equitable trial and tried assiduously to debunk the good-old-boys mentality and to raise public awareness (see Giuliano Dego, “Un delitto tutto al maschile,”L’Unità, Aug. 8, 1985). Unfortunately, it was the collective mindset of a society that ultimately condemned a defenseless woman, based on the traditional assumption of false perceptions, namely, that an unattractive poor woman, who behaved imprudently, should be condemned at all cost. The people sympathized, instead, with male defendants of the military class who deserve the acquittal for no other reasons of being members of the elite class.
Many of Dacia Maraini’s seven novels – as well as her poetry, short stories, and plays – have been translated into English. Her 1975-novel Donna in Guerra (Woman at War), generally considered the manifesto of Italian feminism, is known worldwide among feminists. Isolina is consistent with her long-standing advocacy for a just society, as it highlights the social and political factors that exacerbate the plight of women. Maraini can be considered a modern Voltaire, as she supports staunchly an enlightened community. She shows no tolerance for prejudice, double standards, or hypocritical values that exclude the innocent, the disenfranchised, especially those who happened to be women from the disadvantaged segments of society.