Winner of the Premio Campiello, short-listed for the Independent Foreign Fiction Award, and published to critical acclaim in fourteen languages, this “spellbinding” historical novel by one of Italy’s premier authors is now available in this luminous new translation (Booklist).
In early 18th century Sicily, noblewoman Marianna Ucrìa is trapped in a world of silence after a terrible childhood trauma left her deaf and mute. Married off to a lecherous uncle, she struggles to educate and elevate herself against all convention—and find her true place in a world that sees her as little more than property.
In language that conveys the keen vision and deep human insight possessed by her protagonist, Dacia Maraini captures the splendor and the corruption of Marianna’s world, as well as the strength of her unbreakable spirit, in “one of those rare, rich, deep, strange novels that create a world so fantastic and so real you want to start reading it again as soon as you come to the last page” (Newsday).
About the Author
One of Italy's foremost women writers, Dacia Maraini was a finalist for the International Man Booker prize, the winner of the international Prix Formentor and the Premio Campiello, one of Italy's highest literary honors. She is the author of more than fifty books, including novels, plays, collections of poetry, and critical essays.
Read an Excerpt
Here they are, a father and a daughter. The father fair, handsome, smiling; the daughter awkward, freckled, fearful. He stylish and casual, his stockings ruffled, his wig askew; she imprisoned inside a crimson bodice that highlights the wax-like pallor of her complexion.
The little girl watches her father in the mirror as he bends down to adjust his white stockings over his calves. His mouth moves but the sound of his words is lost as it reaches her ears, as if the visible distance between them were only a stumbling block: they seem to be close but they are a thousand miles apart.
The child watches her father's lips as they move more and more rapidly. Although she cannot hear him, she knows what he is saying: that she must hasten to bid goodbye to her lady mother, that she must come down into the courtyard with him, that he is in a hurry to get into his carriage because as usual they are late.
Meanwhile Raffaele Cuffa, who when he is in the hunting lodge walks with silent watchful footsteps like a fox, approaches Duke Signoretto and hands him a large wicker basket on which a white cross stands out prominently. The Duke opens the lid with a flick of his wrist, which his daughter recognises as one of his most habitual gestures, a peevish movement with which he casts to one side anything that bores him. His indolent, sensual hand plunges into the well-ironed cloth inside the basket, shivers at the icy touch of a silver crucifix, squeezes the small bag full of coins, and then slips quickly away. At a sign from him, Raffaele Cuffa hastens forward to close the basket. Now it is only a question of getting the horses to gallop full speed to Palermo.
Meanwhile Marianna has rushed to her parents' bedroom, where she finds her mother the Duchess lying supine between the sheets, her dress fluffed up with lace slipping off her shoulder, the fingers of her hand closed round the enamel snuffbox. The child stops for a moment, overcome by the honey-sweet scent of the snuff mingled with all the other odours that accompany her mother's awakening: attar of roses, coagulated sweat, stale urine and lozenges flavoured with orris root.
Her mother presses her daughter to her with lazy tenderness. Marianna sees her lips moving, but she can't be bothered to guess at her words. She knows she is telling her not to cross the road on her own; because of her deafness she could easily be crushed under the wheels of a carriage she has not been able to hear. And then dogs: no matter whether they are large dogs or small dogs she must give them a wide berth. She knows perfectly well how their tails grow so long that they wrap themselves round people's waists like chimeras do and then, hey presto, they pierce you with their forked points and then you are dead without ever realising what has happened to you.
For a moment the child fixes her gaze on her mother the Duchess's plump chin, on her beautiful mouth with its pure outline, on her soft pink cheeks, on her eyes with their look of innocence, yielding and far away. I shall never be like her, she says to herself. Never. Not even when I am dead.
Her mother the Duchess continues to talk about dogs like chimeras that can become as long as serpents, that press against you with their whiskers, that bewitch you with their cunning eyes. But the child gives her a hasty kiss and runs off.
Her father the Duke is already in the carriage, but instead of summoning her he is singing. She can see him puffing out his cheeks and arching his eyebrows. As soon as she puts a foot on the running-board she is seized from inside and pulled on to the seat. The carriage door is closed with a sharp bang. Peppino Cannarota whips the horses and off they go at a gallop.
The child relaxes, sinks back into the padded seat and shuts her eyes. Sometimes the two senses on which she relies are so alert that they come to blows, her eyes intent on possessing every image in its entirety, and her sense of smell obstinately insisting that it can make the whole world pass through these two minute tunnels of flesh at the lower end of her nose.
But now she has lowered her eyelids so as to rest her eyes for a while, and her nostrils have begun to draw in the air, recognising the smells and meticulously noting them in her mind: the overpowering scent of lettuce water that impregnates her father's waistcoat, below that the scent of rice powder mingled with the grease on the seats, the sourness of crushed lice, the smarting from the dust on the road that blows through the joints of the doors, as well as the faint aroma of mint that floats in from the fields of the Villa Palagonia.
But an extra hard jolt makes her open her eyes. Opposite her on the front seat her father is asleep, his tricorn hat capsized over his shoulder, his wig askew on his handsome perspiring forehead, his blond eyelashes resting gracefully on his carelessly shaven cheeks. Marianna pushes aside the small wine-coloured curtain, embroidered with golden eagles. She catches a glimpse of the dusty road and of geese streaking away with outspread wings in front of the carriage wheels. Images of the countryside round Bagheria glide into the silence within her head: the contorted cork trees with their naked reddish trunks, the olive trees with branches weighed down by their little green eggs, the brambles that are struggling to invade the road, the cultivated fields, the giant cactuses with their spiny fruit, the tufts of reed, and far away in the distance the windswept hills of Aspra.
Now the carriage passes the two pillars of the gate to the Villa Butera and sets off towards Ogliastro and Villabate. Her small hand remains gripping the cloth, heedless of the heat that seeps through the coarse woollen weave. She sits straight upright and motionless to avoid accidentally making a noise that will wake her father. But how stupid! What about the noise of the wheels as they clatter over the potholes in the road; what about Peppino Cannarota shouting encouragement to the horses; and the cracking of the whip and the barking of dogs? Even if she can only imagine all these sounds, for him they are real. And yet it is she who is disturbed and not him. What tricks intelligence can play on crippled senses!
From the gentle shimmering of the reeds, hardly affected by the wind from Africa, Marianna is aware that they have arrived at the outskirts of Ficarazzi. In the distance is the big yellow barracks known as 'the sugar mill'. A pungent acidulous smell creeps through the cracks in the closed door. It is the smell of sugar cane as it is cut, soaked, stripped and transformed into molasses.
Today the horses are flying along. Her father the Duke continues sleeping in spite of the jolts. She is pleased to have him there safe in her hands. Every so often she leans forward to straighten his hat or to brush away a too insistent fly.
The child is just seven years old. In her disabled body the silence is like dead water. In this clear still water float the carriage, the balconies hung with washing, the hens scratching about, the sea glimpsed from afar, her sleeping father. The images are almost weightless and easily change their positions, but they coalesce into a liquid that blends their colours and dissolves their shapes.
Marianna turns to look out of the window and to her surprise they are right alongside the sea. The smooth calm water splashes gently on to the big grey pebbles. On the horizon a large boat with limp sails goes from right to left.
The branch of a mulberry tree snaps against the window. Purple mulberries are squashed on the glass by the impact. Marianna turns aside, but too late, the jolt has made her bang her head against the window frame. Her lady mother is right: her ears are no use as sentinels. The dogs can catch hold of her by the waist from one minute to the next. That is why her nose has become so keen and her eyes so quick to warn her of any moving object.
Her father the Duke opens his eyes for a moment and then sinks back into sleep. Suppose she were to give him a kiss? How happily she would embrace him. How happy she would be to caress that cool cheek nicked by a careless razor. But she refrains because she knows he dislikes any mawkishness. And, anyway, why wake him up when he is happily asleep, why bring him back to another day of 'turmoil', as he puts it, writing it for her on a small sheet of paper in his beautifully rounded and shapely handwriting.
From the regular jolting of the carriage the child guesses that they have arrived in Palermo. The wheels have begun to bounce over the cobblestones and it seems to her that she can almost hear their rhythmic clanking.
Soon they will be turning towards Porta Felice, then they will go into the Cassaro Morto, and then? Her father the Duke has not told her where he is taking her but from the basket Raffaele Cuffa has given him she can guess. To the Vicaria?CHAPTER 2
It is indeed the façade of the Vicaria that greets her as she gets down from the carriage, helped by her father. The expression on his face makes her laugh: he has woken with a start, feeling the pressure of his powdered wig rammed down on to his ears, slapping on his tricorn hat and jumping from the footplate, a movement he intends to appear confident and carefree but which turns out to be clumsy. He almost has a heavy fall because of the pins and needles in his legs.
The windows of the Vicaria are all similar, bristling with spiral gratings that end in menacing spikes; the great entrance gate is studded with rusty bolts; there is a door handle in the form of a wolfs head with an open mouth. With all its brutishness it looks so like a prison that people passing in front of it turn their heads away to avoid seeing it.
The Duke is about to knock on the door when it opens wide and he enters as if it were his own house. Marianna follows behind him and the guards and servants bow as they pass. One gives her a surprised smile, another frowns at her, another even tries to stop her by grabbing hold of her arm. But she breaks free and runs after her father. The child gets tired following him as he advances with giant strides towards the gangway. She skips along in her little satin shoes but she cannot manage to keep up. For a moment she thinks she has lost him, but there he is round a corner waiting for her.
Father and daughter find themselves together in a triangular room dimly lit by a single window immediately below the ceiling. A manservant helps her father the Duke remove his redingote and his tricorn hat. He relieves him of his wig and hangs it on a knob that juts out from the wall. He helps him to put on the long habit of white cloth lying in the basket together with a rosary, a cross and the purse of coins.
Now the titular head of the Chapel of the Noble Family of the White Brothers is ready. In the meantime, without the child noticing, other members of the Noble Family have arrived, also dressed in white habits. Four ghosts with cowls flopping round their necks.
Marianna stands on her own watching the attendants bustle round the White Brothers as if they were actors getting ready to come on stage: the folds of their spotless habits must be straight so that they fall modestly over their sandalled feet; the cowls must come down over the neck and the white points must be straightened so that they face upwards.
Now the five are indistinguishable: white on white, piety on piety. Only their hands peeping through the folds of their habits and that little area of blackness blinking in the two holes in the hood reveal the person underneath. The smallest of the ghosts leans towards the child, flutters his hands and turns to her father the Duke. She can see that he is angry from the way he stamps his feet on the floor. Another brother takes a step forward as if to intervene. It looks as if they are going to seize each other by the scruff of their necks but her father the Duke orders them to be quiet with a gesture of authority.
Marianna feels the cold soft cloth of her father's habit against her bare wrist. The right hand of the father clutches the fingers of the daughter. Her nose tells her that something terrible is going to happen, but what can it be? Her father the Duke leads her towards another corridor and she walks without looking where to put her feet, seized by an excited and burning curiosity.
At the end of the passage they encounter steep slippery stone steps. The noble gentlemen grab their habits with their thumbs and fingers just like ladies picking up their full skirts and raising the hems so as not to stumble. The steps exude dampness and it is difficult to see, even though a guard goes ahead with a lighted flare. There are no windows, neither high nor low. Suddenly it is night, smelling of burnt oil, rat droppings, pork fat. The head of the prison guards gives the keys of the dungeon to Duke Ucria, who advances till he reaches a small wooden door with reinforced bosses. There, with the help of a boy with bare feet, he unlocks the padlock and slides back a big iron bar.
The door opens. The smoky flare casts light on part of the floor, where cockroaches are running in all directions. The guard raises the flare to throw a shaft of light on several half-naked bodies lying against the wall, their ankles shackled in heavy chains.
An ironsmith appears from nowhere and bends down to release the chain from one of the prisoners, a boy with bleary eyes. He gets impatient because it takes so long and kicks out with his foot almost as if he was trying to tickle the ironsmith's nose. He laughs, showing a large toothless mouth.
The child hides behind her father. Every so often he bends down and gives her a quick caress, but more to make certain that she stays there watching than to comfort her.
When the boy is finally free he stands up. Marianna recognises that he is still almost a child, more or less the same age as Cannarota's son, who died of malarial fever a few months ago at the age of thirteen. The other prisoners look on without speaking. As soon as the boy, his ankles freed, starts to walk about, they resume their unfinished game, glad to be able to make use of so much light. The game consists of louse-killing: whoever can squash between their two thumbs the greatest number in the shortest time wins. The dead lice are delicately placed on a small copper coin and the winner takes the money.
The child is absorbed in watching the three players, their mouths wide open and laughing as they shout words that she cannot hear. Fear has left her; now she thinks calmly of how her father the Duke will want to take her with him to hell; there must be a secret reason, some high-flown reason which she will only understand later on. He will take her to look at the damned wallowing in mud: some who walk burdened with heavy rocks on their shoulders, some who have been changed into trees, some who have swallowed burning coals and breathe out fiery smoke, some who crawl like snakes, some who are changed into dogs whose tails grow longer and longer until they become harpoons with which they hook passers-by and carry them to their mouths, just as her lady mother keeps telling her.
But her father the Duke is there to rescue her from these horrors. And, anyway, for living visitors like Dante hell can even be beautiful to look at. Those who are there, dead and suffering, and we who are here watching them: is this not what these white-hooded brethren, who pass the rosary from hand to hand, are offering us?CHAPTER 3
Rolling his eyes, the boy watches her, and Marianna returns his look, determined not to let herself be intimidated. But his eyelids are swollen and discharging pus; it is quite likely he cannot see properly, the little girl thinks to herself. Who can tell how he perceives her? Perhaps as gross and fleshy, like when she looks at her reflection in Aunt Manina's distorting mirror, or maybe undersized and all skin and bone? At that moment, in response to her grimace, the boy dissolves into a dark, crooked smile.
Her father the Duke, assisted by a hooded White Brother, takes the boy by the arm and leads him towards the door. The players return to the half-darkness of their days. Two dry, slender hands lift up the child and place her gently on the bottom step of the staircase.
The procession starts up: the guard with the burning torch, Duke Ucrìa leading the prisoner on his arm, the other White Brothers, the ironsmith and two attendants dressed in dark tunics behind. Again they find themselves in the triangular room, astir with the coming and going of guards and footmen, who carry torches, arrange chairs, and bring basins of tepid water, linen towels, a basket of fresh bread and a dish of candied fruit.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Silent Duchess"
Copyright © 1990 RCS Rizzoli Libri S.p.A..
Excerpted by permission of Feminist Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
A grandioso and bourgeois coverup all in the name of family at the expense of an innocent child and her valiant efforts to overcome adversity.