NEAPOLITAN CHRONICLES

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NEAPOLITAN CHRONICLES, BY ANNA MARIA ORTESE, TRANSLATED BY ANN GOLDSTEIN AND JENNY MCPHEE

Neapolitan Chronicles finds pain beneath the illusions maintained about post-World War II Naples. Three of the book’s five sections are fictional stories of women seeing the city anew and finding in it a frail and fading hope for the end of suffering. In “Family Interior,” Anastasia Finizio is growing older while she cares for her relatives. Her ebullience at the rumored return of a romantic prospect is crushed by her bitter relationship with her mother and siblings. The small joys of the characters are undermined by the oppressive atmosphere of the city and the jealousies of other inhabitants, such that the pristine Naples of myth, “bathed by the sea,” is in truth a disguise for “amorphous poverty, silent as a spider.”

Silence characterizes Ortese’s Neapolitans, real and fictional, whose emotional devastation and physicality are precisely rendered, from the “small woman, completely bloated, like a dying bird” to the nonfictional writer Compagnone, who sees the lives of Neapolitans “as if in the caves of Lethe: a swirl of souls, restless ghosts upon nature’s deep waters.” The mood and linguistic accomplishments of the collection are compellingly captured by Goldstein and McPhee’s translation. The metaphors are original and give a sense of profundity, especially about poverty, a stark image of which is captured in “The Involuntary City,” a journalistic account of life in converted housing in one of Naples’ poorest districts. The poor create a “carpet of flesh” and the data about them is “of an almost astral depth,” yet the writers Ortese interviews in “The Silence of Reason” have no words to rectify this horror.

Ortese’s vision of Naples may be decades old but it resounds today. The complicity of Neapolitan writers and the middle class is enabled and compounded by politicians “in a state of nebulous, secret corruption.” The pursuit of truth is hampered by the apathy of the populace, who have internalized their suffering and come to believe in its endlessness. “Everyone was indifferent here,” Ortese writes, “everyone who wished to survive. To become emotional would be like falling asleep in the snow.”

New Vessel Press.