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lunedì 11 giugno 2012

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, by Giorgio Bassani


“She could sense it very clearly: for me, no less than for her, the past counted far more than the present, remembering something far more than possessing it. Compared to memory, every possession can only ever seem disappointing, banal, inadequate ... She understood me so well! My anxiety that the present 'immediately' turned into the past so that I could love it and dream about it at leisure was just like hers, was identical. It was 'our' vice, this: to go forwards with our heads forever turned back.”
Giorgio Bassani



As I said in a previous post, when I was in Italy just before the earthquake I felt a strong urge to read some Italian literature, because the summer starting to burst everywhere, with its special smells and colours and atmospheres, was so overwhelming that I could hardly stand its beauty, which felt sad, too, as I knew I would soon be going away.
So I picked Il Giardino dei Finzi-Contini from our Italian-authors-shelf. I got that book when I was 14, and I was supposed to read it for a school assignment. I never read it at the time, and I'm happy I didn't, because it's a complex book that I could never have appreciated back then.



The novel focuses on the relationship between Giorgio and Micòl as the shadow of Fascism and racial laws creeps over their lives. The narration starts in 1957, when Giorgio, now a grown man, visits a Jewish cemetery in Ferrara, with some friends. Among the graves he finds the mausoleum belonging to the Finzi-Continis, a wealthy and slightly eccentric family. Only two members of the family rest in there, as all the others were killed in the Nazi camps. Giorgio remembers the years he spent close to the Finzi-Continis, his love for Micòl, his painful growing up after his unrequited love for her.

The first part of the book covers the narrator's childhood experiences, explaining also how he and Finzi-Continis eventually became close. The description of the religious celebrations in the Synagogue, when the children curiously spied on each other creating an intimate, secret game, is very beautiful. The narrator, Giorgio, is a very tender character, and the author is great at shaping all the different personalities of the the characters through the use of language and dialogue.

The next two parts of the book cover the years in which the children are in or just out of University. As racial laws have dramatically restricted the social lives of all Jews, the Finzi-Continis open their garden to their children's friends, and they all gather there and play tennis. Giorgio falls in love with Micòl (or rather, he becomes more painfully conscious of his love for her) and he mistakes her innocent and childish attitudes for signals of love on her part, too. Her brother is meanwhile getting weaker and weaker though no-one apart from Giorgio seems to notice this. He's actually ill with cancer and will die before the rest of the family is taken by the Nazis.

The last part of the book is sad and gloomy, everything falling to pieces, everything lost. Alberto Finzi-Contini dies, all the others are taken away, and I will never stop being shocked at this... people in uniform coming into your house and taking you to concentration camps. It leaves me speechless: how could it happen, how could it all happen? The book doesn't actually mention that moment, because its narrated through Giorgio's perspective, and he was not there, he didn't witness their departure.

Afterwards, Giorgio is a grown man, though so young. The cooling down of his feelings for Micòl coincide with the end of his childhood and adolescence. One evening, after coming home from an evening which marks a turning point in his life, he finds his father awake, and they start to talk. This was my favourite part, the strong intimacy unfolding out of each word they tell each other and culminating in a long, warm, unexpected hug.

I loved this book. Bassani is extremely sensitive and perceptive, and it's truly hard to "talk about" this book, because so much happens between the lines. I will never forget its characters, its atmospheres.

Vittorio de Sica turned the book into a film in 1970, and I watched it just after reading the book. Of course, the film doesn't capture all the subtle hues the book expresses, and de Sica made some gross changes in the plot that I really didn't appreciate. The author himself never forgave the director for making such changes.

Now I want to read more books by Giorgio Bassani, first of all The Gold-Rimmed Glasses....

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