I just went through a nice piece on the Conde Nast Traveler website, called 22 Ambassadors Recommend the One Book to Read Before Visiting Their Country.
It’s the sort of article that’s been designed specifically to make me weep – foreign countries and excellent literature, and 22 books to read!
And indeed, thankfully there’s a few titles I know, but still there’s a number of books in there that I have instantly put on my list.
Kurban Said’s Ali and Nino, for instance, a 1937 novel about a cross-cultural love story set in Baku, Azerbaijan, as suggested by Azerbaijani ambassador.
Or Treasures of the Thunder Dragon, a portrait of Buthan written by the queen of that Himalayan country.
And what about the Estonian alternate history of The Man Who Spoke Snakish?
But there’s a rub – the Traveler article does not include a book for Italy.
My country, chock-full of art and history and strange contradictions, and conflicts and good people and utter bastards, is not represented.
Was our ambassador not available to answer one simple question and suggest a good book?
Or is he just not the bookish type?
So I sat here and I thought – what book would I suggest?
There are some obvious rules – the book must be available in English, and it must be representative of my country. You are about to come and visit, and need a crash course, a glimpse into our national soul, or lack thereof.
What book should I suggest?
And here’s another problem – I read very little Italian fiction, and so my first instinct is to go back to the classics.
It would be nice to suggest a book by Mario Soldati, a Piedmontese writer, scriptwriter and journalist that wrote fiction between the forties and the eighties. He had a light touch, and loved mysteries and folklore and old ghost stories, and I am convinced that to know a country, a people, a culture, one has to read their mysteries, or their ghost stories, or their folk tales.
But I could find no book by Mario Soldati translated in English.
Then, sticking to mysteries for the above mentioned reasons, I thought about Fruttero & Lucentini’s Sunday Woman, that was translated in English and is still available, used and for ten bucks, through Amazon.com. It is a book about the corruption and decadence of the upper middle class, and catches Italy in the ‘70s, a nodal point in the country’s history.
But the book is too focused on my hometown of Turin.
You can check the movie instead – featuring Marcello Mastroianni, Jacqueline Bisset and Jean-Louis Trintignant. Anything featuring Jacqueline Bisset is worth checking out.
(sorry, I only found the Italian-language trailer)
But the book, what book shall I suggest you now?
In the end, there’s only two choices open to me – Italo Calvino and Dino Buzzati.
So I’ll suggest two books.
The first book is If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, by Italo Calvino. Calvino was a strange beast – a fantasy and science fiction author that did not want to be labeled as such. He wrote sophisticated fantasies and experimental books, and was close to the surrealist school in some of his experiments. His Invisible Cities is a remix of Marco Polo’s Million Things, and his Castle of Crossed Destinies is an episodic, Canterbury tales-style novel narrated through tarots.
If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler is a complicated game of mirrors, about the adventure of reading, among other things. It is a glimpse into the Italian mind, if you keep in mind our is a country that does not read and in which reading is actively discourages in school.
There is a fine edition of the novel in the Everyman’s Library line.
Dino Buzzati was another surrealist, and another writer of fantasies that is not usually described as such in “serious” literary circles. His The Tartar Steppe is a Kafka-esque meditation on duty, rules and ennui, and despite its exotic setting, it speaks a lot about many traits of the Italian character that you don’t find usually in old Dean Martin records or cliché-ridden Hollywood productions. It’s not an easy book, nor an action-adventure, but it is highly recommended as a fine example of writing.
There is an English edition available on Amazon.
And here it is, my civic duty to protect the honor of my country is done. Enjoy your reading.