The coming of age story has a long tradition in literature. Robinson Crusoe, with his ill-fated and stubborn resistance to homey paternal advice might be one of the first novels of this sort. There are more modern works too. Huckleberry Finn is one, and of course the classic story concerning those most awkward years of young life, The Catcher In The Rye.
Published in 1982, The Chill encapsulated Romano Bilenchi's oevre. Born near Sienna, Italy in 1909, Bilenchi's entire writing focus was concerned with the emotional upheaval of adolescence and how deeply its effects influence adulthood. The Chill is a slender novel, which weighs in at a mere 99 pages and yet it accomplishes what books three times its length seek to do.
The title and perhaps the strongest summation of the novel arrives ironically in the very first line of the book: "The chill of suspicion and incomprehension came between me and humankind when I was sixteen, at the time of my high-school exams."
The arrival and transition of childhood to adulthood is a form of disillusionment. For Bilenchi's young narrator it occurs the moment his grandfather passes away. His adoration for the old man turns to contempt for the rest of his family as they handle both the funeral and the memory of the him in ways the young man does not like. His old man was a teller of tales and thus seemed larger than life to his grandson. The others in the family thought him absurd or senile and talking amongst themselves say such things before the young man, who in turn despises them for saying such things.
"The chill" enters his heart. The young narrator of Bilenchi's novel is speaking of the first moment when his innocent imagination was traded in for skeptical bewilderment. Why would they say such things about his grandfather? Why did his grandfather die? These are typical questions that set the stage for more advanced questioning.
Taking the young man from his early teens to young manhood, Bilenchi's novel contains all the awkward and embarrassing details of those ever so transient years. With every confusion over sexuality and with every seemingly vulgar act made by a supposedly "mature adult" the young man finds it harder and harder to define what normal is.
The book is made doubly charming by its portrait of the Italian countryside. I have read few authors who have made a simple amble through the hillsides come alive like Bilenchi does in The Chill. It is the kind of description that leaves the reader checking airfares and bank account levels soon after reading.
The publisher is worth noting too. Europa Editions is one of a luckily growing handful of publishers working to broaden the availability of good European writing in English. The Chill, and Bilenchi for the most part, has been previously unavailable in English. The translation reads smoothly and the production of the book is of high quality.
By Paul Oliver
The cool autumn air of the Italian hillside and the transitory nature of adolescence make this a wonderful fall read. The Chill is the first in a trilogy, which I assume will be forthcoming from Europa Editions.