Towards the end of this economically expressed yet vividly imagined coming-of-age story, the nameless narrator, an orphan, realises that of all the gifts his friend and mentor Don Gaetano has given him, perhaps the greatest is a sense of belonging.
That evening lasted longer than the others,” he says, following an epic night of storytelling. “Don Gaetano was handing over a history. It was a legacy. His stories were becoming my memories. I understood where I’d come from. I wasn’t the son of the palazzo, but of the city. I wasn’t an orphan. I was part of a people.”
Growing up in a single room in an apartment block in Naples in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, Erri De Luca’s hero inhabits a world still scarred by the momentous events of the recent past, and as he didn’t experience these events himself, it’s only natural that he should turn to his de facto guardian, Don Gaetano, the caretaker of the block, to tell him what happened. The narrative, then, is woven out of these two interlocking strands: Don Gaetano’s stories of Naples during the war years, and the narrator’s own early experiences of love and loss.
To begin with, the apartment block is the narrator’s entire world, from the courtyard where he plays football with the other boys, winning the nickname “monkey” for his ability to climb almost anywhere to retrieve the ball, to the secret, underground chamber he discovers by accident – a place of concealment for a Jew during the war, Don Gaetano tells him, but for the narrator a place to read books in peace at first, then later a hideaway to share with his first love, the troubled and troubling Anna. Gradually, however, thanks to the guidance of Don Gaetano, the narrator’s sense of himself grows – “under my feet was a foundation that gave me a few new centimetres. He’d instilled in me a sense of belonging” – until finally, although he may not quite realise it, he is ready to leave his childhood home behind and go out into the world.
De Luca is a native of Naples and in a sense this book is a love letter to the city, a place that is Spanish in spirit, according to Don Gaetano, and “only in Italy by mistake”. He has been described by Corriere della Sera as “the only true first-rate writer that the new millennium has given us”. On the evidence of this carefully judged translation by Jill Foulston, it’s high time English versions of some of his other 60-plus books were made widely available in the UK.
The Day Before Happiness, by Erri De Luca, Allen Lane, £9.99