Monday, October 13, 2008

The Unbearable Lightness of Being + I Malavoglia

Hmmm, it's been a while since I last wrote any reviews.  Here are
reviews of two books I read a few weeks ago.

1. "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" by Milan Kundera

This is basically the story of a man Tomas, and his wife, Tereza, who
lived in Czechoslovakia and Switzerland during the 1960s and 1970s.
There's a parallel subplot involving one of Tomas' (many) lovers,
Sabina, and another of her lovers, Franz.  All this unfolds against
the backdrop of Czech history and politics during the era, including
the Prague Spring (1968), the subsequent Soviet invasion, repression,
and secret police.

The novel opens with a very philosophical style, and I was looking
forward to see where it would go.  As the story evolved, I didn't get
to like the central male character that much.  Tomas is a respected
surgeon in Communist Czechoslovakia, but he seems obsessed with sleeping
with as many women as possible.  He rationalises this behaviour rather
clinically as the need to explore the differences between women.  His
motto is: "it must be".  He's a bit like a collector, always on the look
out for something new and different.  But he also has a yearning for
love, so he stays with Tereza in the hope of attaining true love.
Tereza is aware of Tomas' infidelity, but she puts up with it because
she believes she loves him.

Tomas has a wife and son by a previous marriage, but he makes no effort
to keep in touch with them after the separation.  In fact, when his
teenage son contacts him with a proposal that could form the basis for
an ongoing relationship between them, Tomas decides against it.

The story is told using episodes told out-of-order, rather than as a
continuous sequence of events.  Some episodes are told from the points
of view of different characters, emphasising the subjectivity of
individuals.  The author provides a rather superficial survey of the
characters - they are basically tools for exploring philosophical
concepts.  In particular, the author is concerned with the concepts of
"heaviness" (or "weight") and "lightness", of being, and of sex and
love.  At various points, the author butts into the story to explain
and analyse proceedings.

Overall, while I found many of the concepts interesting, I was a little
disappointed with this novel.  My expectations, especially after reading
the opening chapters, were probably too high.  The mixture of philosophy
and narrative reminded me a little of Robert Pirsig's "Zen and the Art
of Motorcycle Maintenance":
I found Pirsig's book more engaging and inspiring.

2. "I Malavoglia" or "The House by the Medlar Tree" by Giovanni Verga

The story is set in a small Sicilian fishing village in the mid-19th
Century.  It's about the Toscano family from Aci Trezzo.  The family's
ironic nickname, "i Malavoglia", basically means "the lazy ones",
despite the fact that traditionally the family has been known for being
hard workers.  I should point out that the use of nicknames for families
(not just individuals) was quite common in Italy, and in many cases
families adopted the nicknames in place of their legal surnames.
Interestingly, the English translation uses title the "address" of the
family's house as the title of the novel.

'Ntoni Malavoglia is the patriarch of the family.  He's a widower, who
lives with his son (Bastiano), daughter-in-law (Maria), and their five
children ('Ntoni, Luca, Mena, Alessi and Lia).  They own a fishing boat
and live in the "house by the medlar tree".  The men in the family try
to make a living by catching fish along with the rest of the fishermen
of the village.  The women stay at home and do other odd jobs like
weaving and preserving anchovies.  The story of the Malavoglia provides
a stark contrast to that of their contemporaries in Sicilian literature,
the aristocratic Salina family of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa's
"The Leopard".

In an attempt to secure the futures for the children (i.e. dowries and
inheritances), the elder 'Ntoni borrows some money to buy lupins (a
type of bean) and deliver them to another village using the family's
boat.  This is where the family's run of bad luck starts.  Bastiano and
another man from the village perish during a storm, along with their

They manage to retrieve the boat, and after repairs the grandfather and
his eldest grandsons go back work to pay off their debt.  Another blow
is dealt when Luca, the second eldest and hardest working of the boys,
is drafted into the navy.  Luca is unfortunately killed in battle.  The
eldest grandson (also called 'Ntoni after his grandfather), had also
been drafted, but he received an early discharge when his father died.
The younger 'Ntoni lacked the work ethic of the rest of the family, and
this will plague the family throughout the novel.  The family is forced
to give up the house to pay off the debt, and this compromises the
futures of the grandchildren.

As you can see, the family is having more than its share of troubles.
And things don't get much better either.  But, despite all the setbacks,
you have to admire their courage to keep battling.

The style of the novel is realist: the events are laid out clearly and
in a matter-of-fact manner.  The author had intended this to the the
first in a series of novels, "Il ciclo dei vinti" (the cycle of the
defeated).  Each story was meant to represent the often futile struggles
of a different strata or classes of society, from the lowest to the
highest.  He only managed to complete the first two of five novels.

Reading the book I got a better understanding of the desperation that
drives people to leave their homes in the hope of a better future in
another city or country.  Apart from that, I would only recommend this
novel to anyone interested in the everyday lives and struggles of
Sicilians and other southern Italians before the modern era.  You won't
find any Mafiosi here, but you'll get an appreciation of the rivalries
between families, and the customs and superstitions of the people living
in a small village.

The novel was the basis for a neorealist film by Luchino Visconti, "La
Terra Trema".