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Mostly Fiction: "Abate, an exciting writer and great story-teller, creates atmospheres and family dynamics which resonate with the reader."

Date: Feb 28 2008

from Mostly Fiction

"Rebuilding the Fondaco del Fico in the middle of the country, far from Roccalba, and far from the beach, was just the sort of thing a stubborn conceited mule would do, Uncle Bruno said; it wasn't going to be a country inn, it would be a country shit-house, where travelers would stop to take a dump, out of the hot sun and the pouring rain, and then leave.  Grandpa Giorgio really didn't seem to care what the others thought; he went his own way."

Florian Heumann, the young narrator of this intense and moving study of families and their memories, reveals his innocence in the opening paragraphs, an innocence which immediately involves the reader when Florian asks questions about a man who is absent.  No one will answer him.  Florian and his family live in Hamburg, the home of his father, Klaus Heumann, and they have just arrived in Roccalba, the ancestral home of his mother, in Calabria, in southern Italy, for a vacation with her relatives.  The missing man is Florian's grandfather, Giorgio Bellusci.

Gradually, through flashbacks, the family history unfolds, following numerous generations, all memorably depicted, and their lives in Roccalba, a town in the "toe of Italy" located between the Tyrrhenian Sea to the northwest and the Ionian Sea to the east.  Just as the Calabrian peninsula separates two different seas, it also separates the life forces—and conflicts—which drive the novel:  the ancient vs. the modern, the romantic vs. the harshly realistic, the generosity of spirit and sense of community vs. the long-time vendettas, and the drive to fulfill one's dreams vs. the loss of dreams due to outside forces.

Three generations of Belluscis form the backbone of the novel.  In 1835, a Giorgio Bellusci had been host at the family's inn, the Fondaco del Fico, when Alexandre Dumas arrived.  Describing his visit in his journal, Dumas reveals that he had been accompanied by an artist named Jadin.  The journal, which Dumas left behind, and Jadin's sketch, also left behind, are now Bellusci family icons,  kept under lock and key and given to successive generations. 

The next important Bellusci, Florian's grandfather, also Giorgio, was a young man in the 1950s when he became a guide for a traveling photographer, Hans Heumann, who was taking advantage of the luminous light of Calabria for his photographs.  Heumann eventually became a world famous photographer, and his photographs of Calabria are among his most important.  Florian, the narrator, is the grandson of both Hans Heumann and Giorgio Bellusci.  An eighteen-year-old taking a year off between high school and college in Germany, Florian is staying with his maternal grandparents in Italy when the major action of the novel takes place. 

For all these generations, the Fondaco del Fico, the family inn, has been a unifying factor.  Destroyed by fire during the ownership of Florian's grandfather, the inn has remained a pile of rubble for years, a constant reminder of the past, taunting Giorgio to rebuild.  When Giorgio returns from his absence, the rebuilding becomes his obsession—not just because of the family memories, but because it also symbolizes Giorgio's vow that he and his family will never give in to outside forces.  The project is the mission of his life, a mission of Life for the whole family, even when Giorgio's efforts at rebuilding are met with innumerable disasters.

The story of the inn and its history connects all the Belluscis to their past as they deal with the changing present.  Florian, however, is part of the future, exploring new worlds and experiencing love for the first time, even as he is understanding the family's past in new ways.  Ironies underlie the many conflicts, providing surprises, shocks, and dramatic twists from beginning to end.

Abate, an exciting writer and great story-teller, creates atmospheres and family dynamics which resonate with the reader.  His characters, though not completely rounded, are still sensitively and beautifully developed, and as the generations unfold and the narrative flips back and forth in time, the reader becomes involved in a broad and intense family saga which is so concisely and intricately rendered that it is almost impossible to believe that the novel is only two hundred pages long.  Intimate and personal, the novel nevertheless reveals broad themes, contrasting the Bellusci family and their values with those around them.  Tellingly, the author never implies that the Belluscis are correct in their beliefs—he merely  emphasizes that their goals are real goals, worthy of achievement for them and important to the "family memory."

Violent and tender, cruel and sensitive, emotional and thoughtful, brutal and magical, this novel reproduces the ancient rhythms of a small Italian town in a remote area populated by people who live by tradition and family values.  Change comes slowly, if at all, and while the present is recognized because the characters live it, the past often carries more weight than the future.  Vibrant and full of life, this ironic novel echoes long after it is completed, one of my favorites for 2008. (Translated by Antony Shugaar.)

by Mary Whipple

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