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Seeing the World Through Books: Reviews by Mary Whipple

Date: Dec 9 2009

Note: Romano Bilenchi (1909 – 1989), author of over ten novels, was winner of Italy’s prestigious Viareggio Prize in 1972.  The Chill has just been translated into English for the first time.

“A subtle chill unexpectedly came over me, whenever my imagination placed before me images of the people with whom my existence was entwined:  sometimes I became uneasy even at the thought of my classmates, the boys I saw every day.  I feared the slightest change…”

The last novella written by acclaimed Italian author Romano Bilenchi before his death in 1989, The Chill, written in 1982, is a coming-of-age story so universal that it could just as easily have been written in 1902 or 2002.  Set in the mid-1920s, in the hill towns between Siena and Florence, the novella recreates so skillfully the story of an unnamed narrator dealing with the pangs of adolescence that the reader can easily associate it with the author’s own childhood—and though the setting is dramatically different from that of J.D. Sallinger’s Catcher in the Rye, or L. P. Hartley’s The Go-Between, or any of the other coming-of-age novels one might recall, the issues are similar, if not identical in many respects.
The novella illustrates a panoply of adolescent issues–the death of family members and the loss that represents, the changes which accompany death, an individual’s relationship with the past and history, the importance of memory, the growth of sexuality, and the extent to which other people’s perception of reality can color forever the reality itself for the participants in those same events.  Using fewer words than most other such novels, Bilenchi’s The Chill slightly changes the emphasis of most coming-of-age novels from the inner lives of those novels’ speakers to, in this case, the effects of the speaker’s “friends” on this speaker’s life—their malice, ignorance, and even vengeance affecting every aspect of this sensitive teenager’s life.  Whether the speaker is “good” or “bad” in the universal sense is less important here than whether friends and family perceive his behavior as “good” or “bad,” and in this respect the novella is more socially conscious than the typical coming-of-age novel.

The main character here, unnamed, is an innocent sixteen-year-old when he accompanies his math professor and his all-boys’ class on a once-a-week hike into the nearby Tuscan hills between Siena and Florence.  His grandfather has been ill recently, and has been showing signs of senility, compulsively imagining his family’s participation as ancient Longobard (Lombard) warriors in the area’s history.  While the grandfather is trying to assert some long-time association with history to guarantee his own memory, however, the speaker is just trying to get by as a teenager who loves his grandfather but must deal with the real, existing, world and the interrelationships which govern it.  On the speaker’s return from his hike, he discovers that his beloved grandfather has passed away, a traumatic experience which dramatically affects his life.

The speaker, who experiences a “chill” at the changes that have occurred in his life, soon discovers even more dramatically that friendships are fickle, and that no amount of “preparation” can substitute for life as it is actually lived.  Friendships are temporary, no matter now seriously and “sacrosanct” the speaker himself may regard them.  Harassment, even by “friends,” occurs with regularity toward those who are seen as “different,” and the mob mentality rules.  Often lonely and isolated, the speaker, who is also dealing with his growing sexuality and the frustrations that involves, is not sure how to deal with his need to be accepted and the conflicts he feels about his role in a wider world.  His family is not helpful in helping him to deal with these problems.

With its focus on family history, death, friendship, love, betrayal, and revenge, this novella deals with the most important of life’s issues, and while it does so within the context of the speaker’s own life, it is so universal and so significant in its conclusions that it is as relevant today as it was when it was written.  Ultimately, the speaker’s discovery that “it wasn’t possible to live among other people if all of a sudden they could attack one another with such ferocity” leaves open the issue of what a teenager is to do to survive these attacks, and rings with the recognition of truth.  A coming-of-age classic.

Notes: The author’s photo and a biography appear on Europa Editions’ website. Europa has just translated and published this novel in English for the first time.