An Italian Tragedy: Discovering a World War II tale that mesmerizes, then horrifies.

Author:Smith, Janna Malamud
Position:BOOKS - The Sky Is Falling - Critical essay

NEVER JUDGE ONE BY ITS COVER is the rule I violated last spring when, in a bookstore in Italy, I purchased a small paperback almost solely on the basis of same, which was dark blue with a matte finish, quiet and inviting. The volume was well produced with folded flaps, and it was partly the obvious care given to the object that drew me to it. Below the author's name, which is Lorenza Mazzetti, and the title, Il Cielo Cade (The Sky Is Falling), the space is filled by a square, formal portrait of a somber young boy dressed in white tights, white ballet slippers, a leotard top, and a pair of red shorts. He stands next to a drum and holds a single drumstick. Beside him sits a slightly older, very poised girl with shortish, well-coiffured black hair, dark eyes, red lips. A discreet red flower is pinned on her white, short-sleeved, knee-length dress. She, too, wears white tights and white ballet slippers; her feet are crossed and one hand rests in her lap. The two, whom we assume are siblings, do not engage with each other, but stare straight ahead. I have since read that the portraitist, Antonio Donghi (1897-1963), was in his day a well-known neoclassical painter in Italy, whose life overlapped the era of the book. His work, according to a short piece in Wikipedia, is characterized by "a gravity and an archaic stiffness" that is completely true of this portrait; also, the anonymous biographer opines, a sense of humor, which is less visible here. The children's costumes imply that they could be circus workers, but theirs is a look of wealth. Or perhaps I superimposed one after making out enough text on the flap to learn that Mazzetti, born in 1927 and orphaned early in childhood, went to Tuscany to live with her uncle and aunt as the Second World War was approaching. Mazzetti's uncle, Roberto Einstein, Albert Einstein's cousin, owned a villa and a farm near Florence, and, in that old Italian fashion, seems to have been a padrone of sorts, looking after his contadini, who tilled his hectares and in turn looked after him.

Aside from the cover, my purchase was secured by additional characteristics: the book was thin and compact; the type was largish with nice space between lines and roomy margins; the Italian seemed straightforward; the chapters were only a few pages each; and it cost a mere eight Euros--so buying it would not have constituted a large mistake had the appeal of the cover in fact deceived me, which it did not.

To say that I am not a gifted learner of foreign languages is to vastly understate a discouraging truth, brought home by a lifetime of frustration watching my efforts to master French stall at an imperfect reading knowledge, almost no aural comprehension, and a hapless stuttering of basic phrases. My more recent decision to learn Italian proceeds so slowly that now, more than six years into weekly classes, I believe I might survive a second-year college course. My teacher has the patience of a saint, and manages never to humiliate me no matter how often I reveal that I've forgotten the lesson in pronouns, verb forms, or even simple noun gender, hard won just weeks earlier. She also knows French; so on the many occasions I reach for an Italian noun and retrieve a French one, she simply laughs and corrects me. When she is tired, her laugh gets a little thin, but she is always gracious. Whatever impatience I inspire in my three classmates, who gather with me around our teacher's dining-room table each week, I assume they are also relieved that my errors are not theirs. We are beginning to read books together, so buying and reading one on my own while in Italy seemed plausible, even as I felt too much at sea to choose save by a cover.

THE LARGE IRONY IN MY IGNORANCE is that I was said to have become fluent in Italian during a year (1956-1957) of my childhood when my family lived in Rome. I attended an Italian Montessori kindergarten run by nuns and, the only foreigner in the classroom, I was apparently a quick study. My father used to claim that he would have me, barely five, come to his aid and translate if a stranger knocked on the door while my mother was out. (My mother was born in the United States, but her family had recently emigrated from Naples, and she was raised bilingually.) I'm fairly certain that as a young boy in Brooklyn my father had had to translate for his frightened Yiddish-speaking mother, so perhaps he misremembered who was doing what when. Or perhaps he was simply struck by a parallel that amused him. He's been dead for 25 years, so I can only speculate. I know he liked Italian and tried to learn a little, and that he entertained himself by Italianizing English words, the famous family example being his frequent dinner-time requests for a "slee-chay" (slice) of bread.

For my part, I have little memory of being able to speak or really comprehend the language during our time in Rome, but I do recall stubbornly refusing to say another word in it once we returned home. I remember having dreams in Italian occasionally until I was 10 or so, but what made them noteworthy was my inability to understand what the speakers were saying. This cry for subtitles captures...

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