Naples — capital of misfortunes
No one knows who hides behind Elena Ferrante. Some even doubt her being a woman at all. Critic James Wood wrote that Thomas Pynchon is a fan of public apparition compared to Elena Ferrante. What people do know is that she was born in Naples and that she has become one of the main contemporary Italian writers. Her voice and her novels are so powerful that it doesn’t really matter who’s actually their author.
Lumen — similarly to what Italian publishers have done — collected in a single book — Chronicles of Heartache — three tough and powerful novels that deal with human relationships as seen from three different perspectives: Troubling Love, The Days of Abandonment, and The Lost Daughter. The best — or at least the most striking one — is probably The Days of Abandonment, the diary of a separation and the recovery after a love disappointment. Then comes the Neapolitan trilogy (the first two books — My Brilliant Friend and The Story of a New Name — have been translated into Spanish). It all begins with the disappearance of Lila, Lenù’s childhood and adolescence friend. They’re both 66 years old. Lenù recollects their childhood in a wretched borough of Naples. They were good students, always together, afraid of Don Achille — the butcher — , and the Solaras, the wealthy family of the borough. They dreamt the same things: leaving that place, leaving poverty behind, and studying. And yet, they actually took different paths: Lila — the daughter of a cobbler — got married at 16, whereas Lenù — the daughter of a doorkeeper — kept studying thanks to a professor who paid for her books despite her mother’s weak opposition. The Story of a New Name begins exactly where the previous novel ends: at Lila’s wedding. But readers know something more: Lenù got rid of Lila’s journal, pages and pages kept in a box, throwing it in the river Arno from Solferino bridge, in Pisa. Lenù had access to Lila’s most intimate thoughts. In The Story of a New Name, the two friends lose their virginity, have ill-advised relationships, they learn, grow, and make life-changing decisions. They understand what love, heartbreak and violence are: their difficult relationship becomes even more complex. They realise there’s a gap between the rich and the poor and it makes them suffer, they learn the importance of education. It’s a novel that digs deep into two girls’ friendship, which becomes an excuse to talk about a country where the difference between North and South seems irreconcilable, and about Naples, a corrupt and miserable city. It talks about a period in which everything is filled with violence — both physical and verbal –, a moment in which language — be it Italian or dialect — marks a difference. It’s about the borough of a city where poverty isn’t just material and relationships are full of hate, rancour, envy and resentment.
Besides Naples, the other great theme of the novel is fear: fear to grow, fear not to be what one had hoped, fear to be what one wants to be, fear to fall in love, fear of one’s body and feelings, fear to choose and make the wrong decision, fear to fail and fear to live. Fear is part of the growing and learning process and Ferrante manages to describe it very well. She’s able to depict it so well that it sometimes feels as if you’re looking in the mirror: the reflection resembles you so much that you don’t want to recognise yourself. Ferrante’s books have the quality not to use easy or plain answers and deal with complex and universal themes thanks to apparently dull, almost melodramatic plots. In fact, Ferrante doesn’t judge nor excessively protect her characters: she lets their actions, words and reactions tell who they are, allowing them to make mistakes.
The Story of a New Name is almost a descent to the afterworld made by the author. She’s so focused on her misfortunes and fears that she doesn’t realise her friend’s problems, who’s actually becoming her enemy: a loveless marriage and a husband who rapes her after beating her on their wedding day. Yet, it’s a positive novel, for characters evolve and their situation improves. Lenù goes to university and publishes her first novel, Lila falls in love and starts an almost happy and stable life.
There’s no need for you to read The Brilliant Friend in order to understand The Story of a New Name, but it’s hard not to grow fond of the characters and want to know what happened to them when they were younger. My Brilliant Friend portrays the unfamiliarity caused by the girls’ physical changes and how they manage to affect their relation with the world. The narrator goes deep into the intimacy of female puberty with no shame nor fear. This honest attitude drives The Story of a New Name as well. In fact, not afraid to make her character seem unpleasant, Ferrante compars Lenù to Lila in every single aspect: she’s envious and rancorous, she feels fake and unsure, for she thinks people might realise she’s not the smart one. It all happens together with unreturned and stolen love stories, beatings, escapes and abandonment.
Elena Ferrante is gripping and somehow addicting: you want to know what happens, how the story will develop. She knows how to resolve the plot, suspense, the feuilleton-like story, and at the same time she tells the story of Italy in the second half of the XX century. As I was saying, there’s no need for you to read My Brilliant Friend in order to understand The Story of a New Name, but it will be almost impossible for you to finish the second volume of this trilogy without wanting to know why Lila is gone, why Lenù is currently living in Turin, and what happened to her fantasies and dreams of youth.
Written by Aloma Rodríguez
Originally published here.