Marcovaldo or the seasons in the city – Italo Calvino

In an unnamed north Italian city there is an unskilled worker named Marcovaldo with his wife Domitilla and many children. In the early 1950s the economy is particularly bad and Marcovaldo’s job at Sbav and co barely puts food on the table. But Marcovaldo is irrepressible, indulging in flights of fancy all the while looking for the natural world. By the 1960s the economy seems to be doing well, but Marcovaldo’s family still struggles and the newfound prosperity mostly succeeds in blotting out the simple things that he enjoys.

Marcovaldo is a series of twenty stories arranged in the cycles of seasons (Spring-Summer-Fall-Winter) that play out over a decade in the city. Other than being set in the same city and following the fantasies of Marcovaldo, a simple man who tries to help people, there is no overarching plot to this book. As such, Calvino relies on the strength of the individual stories, but I found them to be somewhat inconsistent. They are brilliant and poignant at their best, such as in “Mushrooms in the City” where Marcovaldo harvests mushrooms to eat and “Moon and GNAC” where modern advertising that features blinking lights obscures the moon. But others, such as “A journey with the cows,” where his son became a cowherd temporarily, the morals were resonant with the rest of the collection, but the story itself was somewhat lackluster.

There is an underlying economic narrative and an exploration of humans and their environment. The themes Calvino draws on are serious, but he spins them out with typical lightness and sense of whimsy. The sense of wonder is heightened because Marcovaldo is not corrupted by the gravity of the world, approaching everything with childlike wonder.

I enjoyed Marcovaldo and some of the individual vignettes were remarkable, but its very levity and lack of a strong plot meant that I didn’t revel in the story as much as I have with some of Calvino’s other books.

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Next up, I started reading Albert Camus’ The Plague this afternoon.

The Day of the Owl – Leonardo Sciascia

Sposito had a baby face, but the brothers Colasberna and their associates were in holy terror of his presence, the terror of a merciless inquisition, of the black seed of the written word. ‘White soil, black seed. Beware the man who sows it. he never forgets,’ says the proverb.

All right, then, no flights of fancy. But Sicily is all a realm of fantasy and what can anyone do there without imaginations?

Salvatore Colasberna is unusual, but his end is not. He is an honest contractor in Sicily and on the opening page of The Day of the Owl he is gunned down while boarding the morning bus. The same day, a local man named Nicolosi disappears. Tips begin to pour into the police station about both crimes, most of which suggest that one or both were crimes of passion, with almost no indication that the two might be connected. The detective on the case, Captain Bellodi, is an outsider from Parma and newly appointed to Sicily and suspects that there is something more sinister at work. Bellodi is particularly suspicious of the mafia, much to the chagrin of his local subordinates and influential Sicilians in Rome, all of whom insist that the criminal organization doesn’t exist—-that it is conspiracy dreamt up by the malicious outsiders.

The Day of the Owl is, at its heart, a police procedural that follows Bellodi’s meticulous investigation into the two murders. He rejects the premise that either crime is the result of passion, and begins tracking down leads that might reveal that the two murders are connected by the mafia. He manages to track down the two killers and connect the murders and finds enough evidence to arrest a head of the mafia, but the suspects reject his accusation that this shadowy organization is strangling Sicily. The island runs on family relationships and friendships and nothing more sinister, they say.

For all that civilians stonewall and higher-ups put pressure on Bellodi, the actual investigation is straightforward and goes off without a hitch. The plot builds up to a cordial, climactic exchange between the captain and the arrested mafia boss Don Mariano Areno, who plays innocent and mocks Bellodi for seeing an all-powerful organization running Sicily. Areno respects Bellodi, and their tet a tete develops into a debate about how Sicily ought to operate. Despite himself, Bellodi finds himself in love with the insular, intransigent, and backward-looking island that resists assimilation into the modern world.

This particular climax further indicates what sort of story The Day of the Owl is. Although saddled with the trappings of a detective novel and bearing some of the same pacing, Sciascia’s book is more of a portrait of an unnamed Sicilian town and the operation of the mafia, as seen through the eyes of an outsider. Sciascia himself was a native Sicilian and vocal critic of the mafia throughout his life, and the character of Bellodi seems to take on his role as someone who loves he island and the people, but hates the corruption that pervades its society.

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I am going to read another of Sciascia’s novels in the near future, but next up I am probably going to read Dan Simmon’s The Fall of Hyperion.

Assorted Links

  1. Mitt Romney Confirms he would end US wind power subsidies -The idea being that he would “allow the wind credit to expire, end the stimulus boondoggles, and create a level playing field on which all sources of energy can compete on their merits.” Merits like OPEC, smoke, and depleting resources, I guess.
  2. Drone warfare: a new generation of deadly unmanned weapons– A story on the Guardian about some of the new bases and training facilities for the unmanned missile operators. According to the article, the operators do not appreciate being told that they are not courageous for their actions.
  3. Neither the Will nor the Cash: Why India Wins So Few Olympic Medals– A look in the Atlantic about why India wins so few Olympic medals (22 total all time). The most prevalent theory that it is about financial clout, combined with the lack of a safety net for the families and thus no emphasis on relatively frivolous athletics (as differentiated between competitive athletics and personal health). One of the most telling statistics is that between 1928 and 1968, India won all but two of the gold medals in field hockey, the other two going to Pakistan. In 1972, India was third, Pakistan took second, and East Germany won. In 1976 the Olympics switched to the more expensive synthetic turf fields and since, India has won one medal (a gold in 1980). The upper echelons of hockey stadiums in India are also synthetic, but I think that the idea is that many field hockey players grow up playing on grass and are therefore at a competitive disadvantage. The drop-off is a bit too extreme to call it coincidence. I suppose it should also be noted that in 1932 only three teams participated in Olympic hockey.1
  4. Endocannabinoids motivated exercise evolution– A study that was featured on NPR today wherein biologists suggest that the development of the reward receptors in the brain of animals that need sustained aerobic activity are linked to the eventual development of the aerobic capacity. Thus, human beings are hard-wired to be runners on an evolutionary level.
  5. Stunning Restaurant built inside a cave on the Italian coast-A very cool new restaurant that, as the person who linked me this article pointed out, is reminiscent of Tiberius’ villa at Sperlonga.
  6. The Olympics as Reality TV– An article at the New Yorker about the way in which NBC has seized upon reality TV as a model for women’s gymnastics.
  7. As always, comments encouraged. What else is out there?


1 As a fun fact, the first time field hockey was an Olympic sport, six teams competed–including four from Great Britain, one each for Ireland, Scotland, Britain, and Wales.