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Set in an Arbereshe town in southern Italy and told in alternating first-person voices, The Homecoming is simultaneously a coming-of-age novel, a love story, and a heartfelt cry against the atrocious standards of living that force so many southern Italians to seek a better life elsewhere. Here is an intense and moving novel about the difficulties of saying goodbye by one of Italy's greatest storytellers.
An adventurous and troubled boyhood is piquantly detailed in this 2004 novel from a respected Italian author (Between Two Seas, 2008).
It begins one Christmas Eve in the Calabrian town of Hora ("where we speak...an old-fashioned form of Albanian"), as a conversation between Tullio, home for the holidays from France (where he works), and his adolescent son Marco, the novel's primary narrator. This initiates a fragmented narrative that moves backward and forward in time, observing Marco's delighted immersion in the pleasures of an embracing family and environment, while counterpointing these against Tullio's memories of the lover (Morena) who bore his eldest daughter (Elisa), but died before they could marry. This sorrow is reborn during Tullio's subsequent married life when Elisa matures, goes away to college and dallies with a married man, who keeps reappearing in Marco's experience, sometimes as a friend and mentor, eventually emerging as the danger the suspicious Tullio always believed he would become. The novel is ever so slightly predictable and arguably underplotted. But its picture of life in a rural demi-paradise has real charm, as does Abate's complex characterization of Marco—all boy, all but irresistible, yet emphatically not idealized (e.g., while recovering from a serious illness, he spitefully alienates himself from everyone he loves). Elisa is, necessarily, less fully revealed, and Tullio's cryptic ingrained emotions are credibly linked to his mingled pride and guilt over "abandoning" his family in order to provide for them. The result is a compelling family chronicle in lucid miniature form.
Shugaar's lyrical translation adds further luster to another entry in what one hopes will be a continuing series of publications of Abate's impressive, immensely engaging fiction.
Posted October 2, 2010
The Homecoming Party by Carmine Abate
Translated from the Italian by Antony Shuggar
Caution: Do not read while hungry. Heavy emphasis on Italian food delicacies will leave you a bit weak.
The Homecoming Party tells the story of a father and son, and their close relationship despite geographic distance. It tells of the childhood of Marco, a boy who grows up mostly in the care of his mother and grandmother because lack of work required his father to travel to France. This leaves him as the man of the house essentially, although his older half-sister and baby sister ignore him. His father's infrequent visits are the focus of his life; he spends most of his year awaiting them. His days are filled with school, exploring the rural region with his dog, and playing soccer with his friends.
While they live in Italy, they are ethnically an Albanian village that still speaks the Arbereshe language. It's from this home region that his father must journey to France, accepting horrifying work conditions just to be able to send money home. He remains faithful to his family, and the distance tears at him. It's in his absence that his oldest daughter starts to behave strangely, and begins distancing herself from the family.
The story begins with the father returning to the yearly Christmas bonfire in the small village. He's happy to be home, and generous with food and gifts for the villagers. However, as father and son sit to observe the flames, they discuss the peculiar events of his sister, and flashbacks occur that explain the closer connection between father and son.
This fairly simple story packs an unexpected punch. First, it reminds you of similar people who have to travel to distant lands for work and basic sustenance, and the danger it puts the family in. It also reminds you that danger can be present anywhere, and not just found on a distant shore. Lastly, the power of language, even the difference between a dialect and a language, is revealed in some of the complexities that occur: a battle between the old world and modernization leaves little place for variance.
The plot is strong, as it backtracks through events, and the alternating voices reveal more than just what the child or the father may have understood on their own. A few times, however, I had to back up a several pages to figure out who was speaking, and also get back on track with the timeline of events. Since the father and son are the focus, very little was drawn out about the women in the family and what influenced them: I wish that had been expanded on a bit more as I think it would have helped explain some of the issues. The descriptions of the scenery, and the simple details of family life and delicious food create a lovely backdrop for the moral issues in play.